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Dean Smith, Hall of Fame Tar Heels Basketball Coach, Dies at 83

Sunday, 08 Feb 2015 10:37 AM

Dean Smith, the Hall of Fame basketball coach who built the North Carolina Tar Heels into one of the preeminent college programs before retiring with a record number of victories, died Saturday night. He was 83.

The coach’s wife and five children were with him when he died at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the university said in a statement Sunday on behalf of Smith’s family.

Smith, renowned for the sharpness of his mind, began to show the signs of forgetfulness in 2005, according to the Washington Post. His family first spoke publicly about his memory disorder in 2010, and by the time he turned 83 in February 2014, he was only occasionally aware of his surroundings, the newspaper said.

Smith coached the men’s basketball team at the Chapel Hill- based University of North Carolina for 36 years, winning national titles in 1982 and 1993, and 11 times reaching the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. Among the game strategies he helped popularize was the four-corners offense, which enabled his teams to run out the clock when holding leads. The offense helped prompt the NCAA to adopt a shot clock in 1985.

At the time of his 1997 retirement, Smith’s 879 victories were the most in college basketball. A four-time national coach of the year, he also led the U.S. team to an Olympic gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Games, was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1997 and was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983.

‘Most Decent’

Among the players Smith taught were future Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Billy Cunningham. His coaching disciples included Roy Williams, North Carolina’s current coach, who himself has led the Tar Heels to two national championships; and Larry Brown, the only coach to win NCAA and National Basketball Association titles.

“I’ve always felt that he’s the best there is on the court, but he’s even better off the court in what he gives to those people who come in contact with him,” said Williams, quoted in the 2002 paperback edition of Smith’s book “A Coach’s Life.”

Asked in 2014 by the Washington Post what stood out about his former mentor, Brown, who played and coached under Smith, said: “He’s the single most decent man I ever met.”

Dean Edwards Smith was born Feb. 28, 1931, in Emporia, Kansas, to teachers Vesta Edwards and Alfred Smith. His father also coached high-school sports and was a church deacon.

“Teaching was all I ever thought about as a profession because it struck me that in addition to being very good people, my parents were also deeply happy ones,” Smith wrote in “A Coach’s Life.”

Playing Days

Smith attended the University of Kansas on an academic scholarship in mathematics, played freshman football and varsity basketball and baseball. As a guard on the basketball team, playing under Forrest “Phog” Allen, who himself was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1959, the Jayhawks won the 1952 NCAA championship.

Smith joined the Air Force ROTC while at Kansas, and after graduation in 1953 began a two-year commitment with the rank of second lieutenant.

Prior to getting his Air Force papers he became an assistant coach at Kansas, a role he later held for the Air Force from 1955-58.

Smith then became an assistant at North Carolina under Frank McGuire, earning $7,500 per year.

“I moved to Chapel Hill in late August -- and never left again,” Smith wrote. ‘I had found what they call ‘The Southern Part of Heaven,’ and quickly understood why.’’

Defying Segregation

Smith was a UNC assistant from 1958-61, during which he also affected change off the court. Upset upon learning that Chapel Hill was still segregated, he conspired with a Baptist reverend to make a stand, the Washington Post reported. At a local restaurant where management knew him, Smith entered with a black member of the church, sat down and they were served. The moment was the beginning of desegregation in the town, the newspaper said. Smith also recruited Charles Scott, who in 1966 became the school’s first black scholarship athlete.

“You should never be proud of doing what’s right,” Smith said to the Post. “You should just do what’s right.”

Smith took over for McGuire in 1961 following a recruiting scandal. His teams went on to win 17 Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season championships and 13 ACC Tournament titles. UNC’s arena, which opened in January 1986, is named the Dean E. Smith Center and commonly referred to as the Dean Dome.

Chris Webber

His first national title came in 1982 as the Tar Heels beat Georgetown University 63-62 on a game-winning shot by Jordan. He won his second championship against the University of Michigan in 1993, as the Wolverines’ Chris Webber called a late-game timeout when the team had none left -- a technical foul -- propelling the Tar Heels’ 77-71 victory.

Smith wrote to Webber after the game, congratulating him on playing well and telling him the loss wasn’t his fault.

“We won the game over the course of forty minutes,” Smith wrote in ‘A Coach’s Life.’ “Michigan didn’t lose it in two seconds.”

Smith married Ann Cleavinger, a University of Kansas student he met on graduation night. They wed in 1954, and had three children: daughters Sharon and Sandra, and son Scott. After a 1973 divorce, Smith remarried in 1976 to Linnea Weblemoe. The couple had two daughters, Kristen and Kelly.


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Dean Smith, the Hall of Fame basketball coach who built the North Carolina Tar Heels into one of the preeminent college programs before retiring with a record number of victories, died Saturday night. He was 83.The coach's wife and five children were with him when he died...
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