Dean Smith, the legendary coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, has died at 83 after a long neurodegenerative illness.
“Coach Dean Smith passed away peacefully the evening of February 7 at his home in Chapel Hill, and surrounded by his wife and five children,” announced a statement by the coach’s family. “We are grateful for all the thoughts and prayers, and appreciate the continued respect for our privacy as arrangements are made available to the public.”
Smith finished his 36-year tenure in Chapel Hill in 1997 at 879-254, a record boasting three more wins than Adolph Rupp. Smith coached Brad Daugherty, Vince Carter, Rasheed Wallace, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, and, of course, Michael Jordan, at Carolina, the only head coaching stop during his collegiate career. His reputation became so legendary that he coached for more than a decade as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and in an arena named after himself.
Smith led Carolina to NCAA tournament championships in 1982 and 1993 and to an NIT championship in 1971. He coached the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Montreal in 1976 after the debacle in Munich four years earlier.
He leaves a legacy not without controversy. The scandal involving UNC athletes taking no-show classes and receiving stellar college grades for mediocre elementary school work began during his last few seasons at Chapel Hill. Though lauded as the figure who integrated the hardwood at Carolina in the 1960s, Smith, by the 1990s, presided over a program that neglected the educations of many of those African American players.
Smith, who compared the death penalty to murder and spoke out against the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy in 2008. Last year, Obama awarded Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Smith’s less politically outspoken star pupil paid tribute to him. “Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith,” Michael Jordan maintained in a statement. “He was more than a coach — he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father. Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life. My heart goes out to Linnea and their kids. We’ve lost a great man who had an incredible impact on his players, his staff and the entire UNC family.”