Dean Edwards Smith
February 28, 1931 – February 7, 2015
Chapel Hill, N.C. – Dean Edwards Smith died peacefully at his home in Chapel Hill on February 7, surrounded by his wife and five children.
Dean accomplished many things in his public life as head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina from 1961 to 1997. His record of 13 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament Titles and two NCAA National Championships contributed to four National Coach of the Year Awards, and membership in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the inaugural class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
But Dean had just as much impact through what he did in his personal life. A man of deep and abiding faith, Dean often said getting into heaven was not about a checklist. Rather, he believed it was about acceptance and grace. He was a fixture each Sunday at Binkley Baptist Church for much of his time in Chapel Hill. He believed that everyone should be treated with equal respect and expected his children and his players to treat others the same. Dean said jokingly that the Holy Spirit is in everyone—even referees.
Dean worked tirelessly for civil rights. He recruited Charles Scott, the first African-American scholarship player at UNC, effectively integrating the rest of the ACC. He also pushed local Chapel Hill businesses to serve all patrons regardless of race. The son of a coach and a teacher, Dean promoted public education, from kindergarten to college, with a special emphasis on literacy. He pushed his players as hard academically as he did athletically, graduating 96 percent of the young men he coached. In the 1990s, he advocated against the death penalty and for a verifiable nuclear freeze. Dean got a flu shot every year because he knew that if he did, others probably would, too—he even filmed a public service announcement in support of the effort. He also made a point to promote and purchase the Christmas cards created by and for the North Carolina Children’s Hospital at UNC, and used them in his correspondence. In 2013, his work in service to his beliefs and these causes, in addition to his success on the court, earned him the Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian honor. Although he was uncomfortable receiving public recognition and personal accolades, as a devoted Democrat he would have loved being in the same room with former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama to receive this particular award.
The loyalty Dean instilled in his family, friends and players was matched only by the loyalty he had toward them. He maintained throughout his life close friendships that he formed at Topeka High and the University of Kansas. He had a local golf foursome that played regularly almost from the day he set foot in Chapel Hill—but he put the clubs away the day practice started and they didn’t come out until the end of the basketball season.
Dean was generous with his time, making anyone he spoke to feel as though they were the most important person in the room, whether it was a five-year-old child, an equipment manager or a head of state. His infectious smile and sense of humor charmed nearly everyone.
He was as conscious of the value of time as he was committed to the necessity of contribution, whether he was conserving time-outs in games or eking extra seconds out of his drive to work or anywhere else. For a man overflowing with generosity of spirit and a unique appreciation for every moment life gave him, there was simply no time to waste. If you were late, he believed, you valued your time above that of others, so everyone learned to be early. Dean was so intent on using time wisely that he would listen to sermons by O. Dean Martin and Tony Campolo on the way to the basketball office, and would time various routes down to the second to find the most expedient path to his most frequent destinations. He would not only try to find the fastest way, but would also try to get there the fastest—a trait some of his children inherited.
Dean was a fierce competitor on and off the court. He loved golf, and once played to within one stroke of his age, shooting 73 at age 72—which his son witnessed and paid for dearly. He held onto the scorecard as a keepsake and shared it often with his close golfing friends. He also loved to play board games such as Monopoly and Pictionary with his children, and competed against them as earnestly as he did against rival coaches and his regular golf foursome.
Though he kept his family out of the media spotlight as much as possible, the Smiths were active participants in local college-town life. Dean enjoyed hitting golf balls—which the kids delighted in chasing down—and taking the family to favorite eateries for birthday meals. He loved eating out and was held in high esteem by wait staffs around town as a pleasant and appreciative patron. Dean wasn’t much of a cook, but he would grill steaks at home for large groups. He remembered everyone’s order and each cut was always cooked to perfection. Family vacations to North Carolina’s beaches—often with a Golden Retriever or two in tow—were among the highlights of his year because the breaks provided private time with his family.
With Dean, the man you saw on the basketball sidelines was the same man you met in the fellowship hall or on the golf course: attentive, devout, funny and sincerely interested in the person in front of him. He was a teacher, father, leader, friend. Each of these things spoke to part of who he was, but the sum was always greater.
He is credited with changing the game of basketball, establishing the way to run a good program and serving as an example of an individual who endeavored to live his values. He influenced those close to him and those who never met him with his integrity, humility and grace.
Dean met the challenges of dementia with dignity and determination. He continued to find meaning and connection with others throughout his illness—sources of strength and comfort despite a relentless loss of function.
Dean is survived by his wife of 38 years, Linnea Smith, and their children Kristen Smith and Kelly (Adam) Kimple; Sharon (Tim) Kepley, Sandy (Steve) Combs and Scott (Kelli) Smith, and their mother, Ann Smith; seven grandchildren: Drew (Tami) Kepley, Megen (Michael) Vesser, Morgan Smith, Brian Smith, Luke Combs, Sam Combs and Leland Kimple; great-granddaughter, Ellery Vesser; and sister, Joan Ewing.
Dean was laid to rest in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery on February 12 within earshot of the Bell Tower and in the shadow of Carmichael Arena and Woollen Gym, venues where his teams earned so many great victories. A public service to celebrate his life will be held on February 22 at 2:00 p.m. under the dome that bears his name on the UNC campus. Memorial gifts may be made to the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, based in Chapel Hill, which helps those in need by providing housing, food and other life essentials; or to The Dean E. Smith Opening Doors Fund at UNC to support talented undergraduate students who need significant financial assistance to attend Carolina, and to graduate students in education and social work—two disciplines close to Dean’s heart. You may also give to the charity of your choice to honor Dean and the values he exemplified.
The Smith family is under the care of Hall-Wynne Funeral Service, Durham. Online condolences: www.hallwynne.com (Select Obituaries)