On a night honoring three coaching legends, Smith unsuccessfully tried to stay out of the spotlight as he accepted a Naismith Good Sportsmanship Award along with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and the late N.C. State women's basketball coach Kay Yow.
Smith was introduced to the stage by former UNC player Charlie Scott and was later presented the award by current North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
Scott was the first African-American scholarship athlete at North Carolina and spoke of Smith’s impact on his life outside of basketball. He stressed that Smith wasn't just a coach and meant "everything" to him.
“Coach Smith never talked to us about (titles),” Scott said. “Coach Smith talked to us about life and having an impact in life and doing something good in life. He never talked to me about being the first black athlete. He talked to me about being a human being.”
Scott said he represented all the former players in saying that they were the luckiest people in the world for having played for Smith.
“Coach Smith wasn’t our coach. He was our mentor. He was the standard,” Scott said. “Every day when I get up, I ask myself ‘How would Coach Smith feel about what I’m doing today? Am I a good human being? Am I a good father? Am I a good neighbor? Am I compassionate?'”
After Smith’s entrance, Williams recalled the lessons he’d learned while working with Smith. He said the coach often told him to look forward and not dwell in the past but he had a hard time doing that when it came to his former coach. He valued their time together too much to not reflect on it.
“I’m not going to be up here talking about Coach Smith’s wins or Coach Smith’s numbers," Williams said. "He was so much more than that.”
Smith’s impact on the game can be seen on every level, Williams said, and even in current UNC teams.
“I’m not an innovator. I’m a copier,” Williams said. “I copy almost everything the man ever did and I feel like that’s the smartest thing I could ever do.”
Smith only stayed on stage for about 10 minutes and didn’t speak during the ceremony but it was an emotional segment for his former assistant. Williams' voice wavered at several points before ultimately relaying a message from the entire Carolina basketball family.
“I can say representing North Carolina basketball and its family, ‘Coach Smith, I love you,’” Williams said.
With former players like Scott, Phil Ford, Eric Montross, Al Wood and others in attendance, the support for Smith was obvious and not overlooked by his fellow award winners. During his acceptance speech, Krzyzewski mentioned the special relationship Smith had with his players.
“The intense loyalty (his players) feel toward him is something I’ve admired,” Krzyzewski said.