North Carolina coaching legend Dean Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday. Smith's wife, Linnea Smith, accepted the medal on his behalf and was accompanied to the White House by current Tar Heel coach Roy Williams and Smith's longtime assistant/former coach Bill Guthridge.
During his speech honoring the recipients, President Barack Obama noted Smith's accomplishments "went beyond Xs and Os."
"Dean Smith is one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history. But his successes go far beyond Xs and Os. Even as he won 78 percent of his games he graduated 96 percent of his players. He is the first coach to use multiple defenses in a game. He was the pioneer who popularized the idea of pointing to a passer. After a basket, players should point to the teammate who passed them the ball.
"And with his first national title on the line, he did have the good sense to give the ball to a 19-year-old kid named Michael Jordan. Although they used to joke that the only person who held Michael under 20 was Dean Smith.
"While Coach Smith couldn't join us today due to an illness he is facing with extraordinary courage, we also honor his courage in helping to change our country. He recruited the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helped integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That's the kind of character he represented on and off the court."
The ceremony was bittersweet for those who loved Dean Smith and watched for 36 years at UNC. On one hand, he received a well-deserved honor, especially given his advocacy in the areas of civil rights during a time the country struggled with the issue of segregation. On the other hand, Smith could not attend due to the decline in his health which has removed him from the public eye. In that respect the ceremony was both a celebration who Smith was and painful reminder of what we have prematurely lost.
Smith's innovations on the court stand as a testament to his greatness as a basketball coach. Roy Williams has made every effort to maintain the legacy of the "Carolina family" pointing to the passer and yes, even hoarding his timeouts until the end of the game. But the most impressive aspect of Smith's life is his willingness to take a stand on hot button issue something no coach in today's world would probably ever do. Smith was a basketball coach who also saw himself as a member of the faculty. Winning was important but the team itself and execution were more so. It was about the system, about developing young men and seeing them mature into complete persons, not just basketball players. Smith cared for his players like they were family as attested to the number of times the phrase "he was like a father" has been uttered by people who have been a part of his program.
While Dean Smith will continue to drop down the all-times win list, he would forever remain near the top as one of the greatest coaches to ever grace a college basketball court. Not just because he won, but because he did so with class and standing firm on his convictions both on and off the court.
UPDATE: Video of the ceremony via GoHeels.com