Dean Smith died February 7, 2015 at the age of 83 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He is best known, and deservedly so, for his tenure as the head coach of men’s basketball at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1961-1997. His 879 wins as coach there were a record for NCAA Men’s Division 1 until Bob Knight first surpassed him in 2007. Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke have since passed that mark as well. While his wonderful legacy in North Carolina is what most people rightly will remember him for, he of course was an iconic figure for the University of Kansas and for the state of Kansas.
Smith was born in Emporia, Kansas in 1931. His roots in later becoming a champion of social justice were planted early in life, as his father was the head coach of the 1934 Kansas High School state basketball champions - the Emporia High Spartans. That team had the first African-American player in Kansas state tournament history. When he attended Topeka High School as a student, he again showed a commitment to change the social norms of the day. A wonderful story in the Topeka Capital-Journal by Phil Anderson entitled "Plaque seals Dean Smith’s legacy at Topeka High" from May 15, 2014 details how Smith approached the principal of Topeka High at the time asking him to consider integrating the school basketball team. The team was not integrated until the year after Smith graduated, but this account of the interaction shows Smith’s distaste for segregation at a time that his opinion was not very popular. I highly recommend the article by Phil Anderson as it shows the character that Smith became famous for that existed even as a teenager.
Smith of course then attended the University of Kansas. He was a member of the varsity baseball and basketball teams, and was a member of the 1952 national championship team coached by Phog Allen that was led in scoring by Clyde Lovellette. After graduating in 1953 he was an assistant coach for the Jayhawks until 1955. In 1958 he became an assistant for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and took over for Frank McGuire after the 1961 season as head coach. He of course remained there for the rest of his life. His accomplishments on the basketball court were many with all the wins and two national championships, but as news of his death broke, these accomplishments were not what the majority of people were remembering about him.
Smith’s dedication to equality did not end in Kansas, as he brought his desegregationist attitude south of the Mason-Dixon Line as head coach in Chapel Hill. In 1964 he forced the integration of a local Chapel Hill restaurant by going to dine there with a black theology student. The next year he aided a black graduate student in buying a home in what had previously been an exclusively white neighborhood in Chapel Hill. He recruited the first black player to play at the University, Charlie Scott, as well. Instead of waiting for the community around him to change, he made the changes that needed to happen. It would have been easy for him to remain silent and do nothing (as the vast majority of men in his situation at the time did), but his personal convictions prevented him from simply standing aside and letting the injustice around him remain the status quo.
As a graduate of Topeka High School myself, I always heard about Dean Smith also being a graduate of the school. Charles Curtis, Vice President of the United States under President Herbert Hoover, and Aaron Douglas were also celebrated alumni of the school, but it always seemed to me that Dean Smith was the most revered alumnus spoke of at the school. I was never sure why exactly that was, as growing up I thought to myself "So what, wasn't he just a basketball coach?" It wasn't until I did research on my own about the man that remains to this day Topeka High’s most famous athletic figure that I realized why so many at the school spoke so highly of him. I wish somehow Topeka Public Schools made it more common knowledge to students about the history of Smith and why he was and still is so beloved.
Smith chose to make his home in North Carolina rather than ever returning to coach or reside in Kansas, but that does not diminish the love and respect that he showed his alma mater. He was instrumental in the hiring of Larry Brown in 1983, as he recommended Brown for the Kansas job due to his experience of having Brown as an assistant previously at North Carolina. Brown went on to coach Kansas to the 1988 national championship. In 1988 another assistant under Smith left North Carolina to become the head coach at Kansas - Roy Williams.
Regardless of what state university you root for or attended, if you call yourself a Kansan, you are also a Jayhawk. Dean Smith was a Jayhawk and should be embraced by all Kansans. Though the vast majority of his adult life was spent in North Carolina and he undoubtedly became a Tar Heel through and through, he was shaped by his upbringing in the beautiful state of Kansas and his college years spent in Lawrence. He opposed war and violence, racism, the death penalty, the buildup of nuclear weapons and later continued his activism by championing LGBTQ rights. He was a great basketball figure, but he used that platform to stand for so much more than basketball. He was a great Jayhawk, and he was a great Tar Heel. Most of all though, he was a great man - and really, that’s all that matters. R.I.P.