In April 1993, President Bill Clinton was putting the wraps on a feel-good Rose Garden ceremony honoring two championship basketball teams.
Suddenly the coach of the men's team strode purposefully across the ground to interrupt the president and reclaim the microphone. Clinton stood aside and gave the coach his microphone.
"Can you believe the nerve of me?" said Dean Smith in his inimitable nasal twang. In a flash of self-consciousness, the North Carolina coach realized he had just interrupted the most powerful human being on the planet.
Smith had good reason, of course—in the excitement of the moment Smith had forgotten to bestow upon the president a Tar Heel replica basketball jersey bearing Clinton's name. It was a telling tribute to Smith's moral authority that no one on hand in the Rose Garden that afternoon was offended—instead the audience laughed at Smith's comment. The coach then called forward senior captain George Lynch to deliver the uniform to the president.
That brief moment captured something of the essence of Dean Smith. He saw what the right thing to do was in the moment, and he went ahead and did it.
Over 20 years later, at least two of the people there that spring day—Bill Clinton and Bill Guthridge—will be back at the White House to for another ceremony. Another avid basketball fan is in the White House, and a shared love of basketball is surely one reason why Dean Smith has long been on President Barack Obama's radar as a potential recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
But anyone who thinks this award is about basketball entirely misses the point. Dean Smith was a coaching icon, yes. The reason he is being honored today, however, is because he was a morally courageous leader who saw basketball as his medium for promoting larger purposes.
The most fundamental task of a college coach was using basketball to incubate and develop young people. Like other iconic twentieth century coaches, Smith grasped that competition and competitiveness could be the ally of character development and good habit building. And Smith liked winning, too. But he consciously rejected the idea that winning, or always finishing first, was the be-all or end-all of college athletics.
The fundamental building block of Smith's contribution to American society as a public figure is his role as a teacher, the way he shaped and molded and continued to support all his players. No one has better personified the classical notion that the coach and teacher is there for the sake of the players, not the other way round.
The second building block of Smith's contribution was the impact he made on the University of North Carolina. Already it seems almost impossible to believe, but for decades Smith and his teams exemplified the notion of excellence and intelligence in endeavor, setting an example for an entire university community—and was recognized and respected for doing so, not just by sportswriters and fans but by university faculty.
The third building block was Smith's lifelong willingness to speak out about social justice issues—from his earliest days in Chapel Hill as a low-paid assistant coach to Frank McGuire, helping break the color line in Chapel Hill, to his post-retirement advocacy against the death penalty in which he directly confronted governors with the moral case against capital punishment. In neither case were Smith's actions universally popular, and in neither case was Smith bothered by that fact. His perceived responsibility to follow his conscience trumped any concern about perceptions—a trait he exemplified long before he had any real financial or employment security.
Finally, there is the fact of Smith's personal decency, his willingness to use his name and position to help other people, be it writing a note to a Tar Heel fan in a hospital or his unshakable loyalty to his staff and players.
There were times when Dean Smith made all this look easy. The reality is that it was not so. In a telling interview with author Thad Mumau for a biography of Smith published in 1980, Smith revealed the moments of self-doubt and finally resolution he experienced during the 1964-65 season, the year of the infamous effigy incident.
"I was beginning to do a lot of free reading late at night, and around January that season, I was reading Catherine Marshall's Beyond Ourselves. There was one chapter in the book about the power of helplessness which was really meaningful for me at that point in my life. As I read the book, I said to myself ‘I shouldn't be coaching.' And to myself, or in prayer, I said ‘I'm healthy; I could do a lot of things, so why worry?' I think I was more relaxed all of a sudden and had peace of mind. Even though we started winning, I certainly don't believe in prayer having anything to do with winning or losing. However, as a result of reading that book and [as a result of] that prayer, I was able to put things into perspective. That always meant a lot to me. I'm not going to get uptight about one game anymore."
That passage reveals much about how Smith came to find and maintain a moral calm, an inner self-directedness, in an extremely stressful profession. But it also reveals something more—who hears these days of basketball coaches reading theological writers on late January nights when the team is struggling? (Here's a sample quote from Catherine Marshall's book: "When the dream planted into our heart is one God planted there, a strange happiness flows into us. At that moment all the spiritual resources of the universe are released to help us.")
The time that has passed since Smith's retirement has only made it clearer what a remarkable, all too rare coach and leader he was.
It would be easy to say when one looks at the landscape of college sports, the various scandals and problems, and even the institutional problems that have beset the University of North Carolina, that Smith is an icon of a bygone age, one in which people could actually look to basketball coaches to be moral exemplars of anything.
There is some truth in the observation, but it understates Smith's accomplishment. College sports weren't a particularly hospitable venue for society-wide moral leadership back in the 1960s, ‘70s, or ‘80s either. And it lets current college coaches—or more importantly, those in other walks of life—too easily off the hook. It would take a strong moral center and a hefty load of courage, but there's no reason there couldn't and shouldn't be more "Dean Smiths" in the future too, in all walks of life—even college basketball coaching.
And that, of course, speaks to the purpose of having Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies—to honor outstanding individuals and lifelong accomplishments, but also to inspire other citizens to pursue greatness and goodness as well.
So cherish this day. Send your prayers especially to Dr. Linnea Smith, who has handled her husband's declining health with inestimable dignity and who will be there with Guthridge and Roy Williams to accept the honor on Coach Smith's behalf.
And then remember that what Coach Smith would want most on this occasion would not be for his admirers to celebrate him, but to work at becoming better persons ourselves.