What I Learned from Dean Smith

The longtime coaching icon Dean Smith died earlier this year. Newspapers here in North Carolina haven’t stopped running coverage of his life, his death, and his legacy in the weeks since his passing. His was a life of such substance that he left an incredibly large wake.

I was on an airplane when I heard the news. As I scrolled through the newspaper headlines that serve as a sort of first draft on what all this means, I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t the quality of the writing or the suddenness of his passing; it was what the man meant to me. Quietly I looked out the window next to seat 23F and fought back tears.

I never met Dean Smith. I never attended one of his summer camps and I wasn’t a member of the Rams Club or anything like that. I didn’t graduate from the University of North Carolina where he coached for over three decades – in fact, I graduated from the archrival Duke. The closest I ever got to Dean Smith was as a fan in the stands and through the television.

Though I never met him, Coach Smith profoundly changed my life. I grew up watching him coach and teach from the sidelines. After church on Sunday I tuned in to his weekly television show and marveled at his humble confidence as he reviewed the week’s games and looked ahead to upcoming contests. I saw him, studied him, and admired him. When I think of the heroes in my life, his name is so very close to the top of the list. I admired him so much that I named my son after him; my son who was born on my birthday 10 years ago doesn’t carry my name forward as my junior, but carries Dean’s name forward as a tribute and a hope.

So why should I care so much? I care because the man lived and left such a positive legacy that even interested fans like me could not help but notice and be changed.

I care because there are too few people like him – people who earn the spotlight only to shun it, people who are so committed to the success of others that they find success, people who know when to step in and when to get out of the way, people who draw out the very best from everyone around them.

When Coach Smith passed, the news headlines listed his accomplishments in terms of wins and championships and such. All of that is important and good, but here are his other accomplishments that I noticed:

· People matter, so care about them. A deep part of Coach Smith’s legacy is how deeply he cared for every player, every reporter, every assistant, every person. He cared for people who were like him and people who were very different. For Coach Smith, people were not there to help him win; he was there to help them win.

· Loyalty matters most when it’s the hardest to give. Coach Smith was loyal to his school (he never coached anywhere else) and to every player, even when they did boneheaded things (think of Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech). Some even accused him of being loyal to a fault, to which he replied that those two words should never be in the same sentence.

· Excellence is possible, and it does not come easy. Coach Smith used basketball to help teach players and observers that untapped potential is always there and that hard work, discipline, and caring for those around you combine to draw forth what you have to offer.

· Sometimes you have to take a risk. Coach Smith knew when to earn a technical foul. He knew when to push back on reporters. And he knew when to take a stand and do the right thing. In the 1960’s Coach Smith publicly integrated college athletics in North Carolina and years before that, when he was an assistant coach, he and his pastor quietly integrated a lunch counter in Chapel Hill. He took a stand for the right thing when everybody was looking and when nobody was looking.

· Humility and excellence should go together. Coach Smith famously taught his players to point to the player who gave an assist after scoring a basket. It’s a small thing that represents a much larger lesson that he taught in plenty of other ways. His last act as the coach of the powerhouse team he invested 37 years coaching was to retire just before the season started so his longtime friend and assistant coach Bill Guthridge could take them helm.

Each of us has a life to live and I know that too often I live mine with too little intention. Too often I care more about me than those around me. Too often I look for a shortcut instead of enduring for the long run. Too often I do that which is convenient instead of what is right. Coach Smith inspires me to live well.

No person is perfect. Even for Carolina basketball fans who jokingly talk about Dean Smith being the fourth member of the Trinity, we know he was not perfect. But he was good, and that really matters. And when put on the stage and in the spotlight, he remained good. In a day and time when it’s so obvious how bad so many people are, it’s helpful to remember that through God’s grace there are good people who strive to do what’s right, to set an example for others, and to live a life that matters. It’s also good to remember that being good and doing good matters.

I’m writing about Dean Smith not so you will admire him and become a fan (or follower or whatever we’re calling it these days). I’m sharing my story of his legacy to get you thinking in two directions. First, who is one hero who’s shaped your life? Whose death will cause you to weep? Give yourself permission to admire that person and let their life pull you toward being the person God really wants you to be. Second, if someone were to admire you, what would it be for? In other words, what positive legacy are you leaving? Let me encourage you to admit your strengths and to prayerfully dial them up a few notches so others can be blessed by your life.

Finally, let me encourage you to add to this conversation. Share with me and other readers, Who are your heroes? What qualities do you admire in them? What legacy have they passed on to you?