Last week, you had the opportunity to vote in a poll about which UNC sports figure should go in the same spot where Silent Sam once stood. If you missed the poll, click on the article to see the choices and a small blurb about each of them. All of them were worthy, and in fact all of them deserve to have a statue somewhere on campus, or to be remembered in a more permanent way.
There can only be one person memorized on what would be considered the front porch of the University, though, and by a wide margin the vote made it clear that that person should be Dean Smith.
It’s not surprising. His basketball accomplishments alone deserve to be memorialized permanently. Two national titles, 879 wins, 11 Final Fours, 13 ACC Tournament titles, and so on. Many long-time Carolina fans know these numbers off the top of their heads. From 1961 through 1997, Smith ran what was arguably the best college program in the country for that era, and did it as the game and coverage of the game changed all around him. When he started, you shared a telephone line with multiple houses. When he left, houses had separate lines to dial into the internet and fans learned on a web site that he was about to retire before he made it official.
It’s fair to say, though, that basketball alone isn’t the reason why many would want Coach Smith immortalized in this way. Smith quietly, but firmly, fought to try to turn back injustices where he saw them. When the pastor of his church asked him to make sure a local restaurant was complying with integration laws, Smith, only an assistant at the time, jumped at the chance. As he ascended to head coach, he strove to recruit an African-American to play on the team for the first time. After a few near-misses, Charles Scott decided to join Coach Smith in Chapel Hill, and just like that the basketball team was integrated.
Outside of basketball, Smith would take public positions contrary to the majority of people in his new home state. He was known to be an ardent critic of the death penalty, making a point to take his teams to Central Prison in Raleigh to meet prisoners on Death Row. He had been known to speak to the Governor when an inmate’s time had come, hoping to get a stay. He would also advocate for a nuclear freeze, just trying to keep the world to getting to a point of no return.
Above all else, however, Smith was about his players. When Scott was upset about what he perceived as a racist slight in the ACC Player of the Year voting and thought about sitting out NCAA Tournament games, Smith addressed the team to make it clear he stood behind Scott in whatever he decided. He would push his players to apply for “hardship” and get into the NBA early, even if their return made his teams stronger. Michael Jordan famously didn’t want to go to the NBA in 1984 and Smith insisted he go. When Scott Williams suffered the unspeakable tragedy of losing his parents, Smith was there for the funeral and made sure he had the time he needed. Smith also stood up for JR Reid when he felt the Duke fans were making a thinly veiled racist joke at his player, even if his response may not have been the best idea in alluding to SAT scores of other players. These are but a few of these stories, a bunch of which we probably don’t and never will know.
One story about a former player, though, shows just how important his players were to him. Back when Dean passed away, Luke DeCock related a tale that considering events of today is all the more remarkable. It’s to no one’s surprise that Smith considered himself a liberal and thus, when former player and Republican Richard Vinroot ran for Governor in 2000, many were surprised to see Smith on their TV’s essentially campaigning for him. The two disagreed politically, but a former player wanted his help and so he helped.
The biggest argument against a statue of Smith is that there’s a building on campus at the other end that bears his name. He was not known to appreciate this sort of recognition, and it was only after he was convinced that the name would both help raise the funds and serve as an appropriate recognition of his past and future players that he relented. That spirit, of his basketball accomplishments and the players, rightfully is remembered in the Dean Smith Student Activities Center.
That said, buildings eventually can be replaced. The Smith Center could one day be replaced by another building, and it may not be named after Smith considering the possibilities of naming rights, location, and so forth. A statue would make sure the UNC community always had a way of remembering someone who brought national fame to Chapel Hill, and was a big reason why people wanted to come to Chapel Hill for so many years.
More importantly, the reason people want Dean Smith to be remembered in this way is what he did outside of basketball. It was the loyalty to his players, the work to bring people together, and the simple idea that even if we disagree, there is common ground for all of us to find. Dean Smith was more than a basketball coach, and that deserves the recognition a statue would bring. Whoever would be tasked with designing the statue would no doubt incorporate all of this into the design. It wouldn’t be a small task, but Dean Smith wasn’t a small man. He deserves that spot that’s now vacated, one can only hope that some day he takes it.