The personal papers of Dean Smith have been donated to UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library, where fans will be able to peruse handwritten notes and gain new insights into the famous basketball coach.
The university announced the gift Thursday. The collection includes 12,000 items that belonged to the late UNC coach, who died in 2015 at the age of 83.
Visitors to the library will be able to see scrapbooks made by Smith’s parents, marking milestones in his early career. There’s a telegram from “Michael,” presumably Michael Jordan, congratulating Smith on 877 wins, when he surpassed the record of University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp. And there’s a scrap of notebook paper, circa 2000, for then-Kansas coach Roy Williams, with scribbled tips and a diagram on how to beat Duke: “Don’t handle screens very well....Press offense.”
Despite the intense competition, there was apparently no animosity between Smith and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who would eventually pass Smith as winningest men’s basketball coach. Seven years later, Coach K would write Smith a note of congratulations for being inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame. “I am so happy that your accomplishments in the international game have been so well recognized,” Krzyzewski wrote.
Smith responded with well wishes for Coach K’s U.S. Olympic team – a coaching honor the two men had in common.
When Smith retired in 1997, he was the winningest men’s basketball coach in NCAA Division I history, with 879 victories and two national titles. Building a dynasty at UNC over 36 years, Smith was regarded as a genius of the game.
The documents at Wilson Library shed light on a man who was fairly private and uncomfortable with the fame that came along with his storied career.
In 1998 he sent a letter to a UNC library curator after an event to celebrate the opening of an exhibit on TV newsman Charles Kuralt’s papers. No doubt responding to a request from the curator, Smith wrote: “I am willing to talk to you someday about personal papers, but I doubt if you would want mine. I would probably have trouble finding them anyway.”
Items track Smith’s journey, from his childhood through his retirement. A 1946 school report on his hometown of Emporia, Kansas, earned an A. Another gem is a 1952 souvenir program from the University of Kansas, where Smith helped win a national championship as a player.
The collection even includes a snippet of the 1982 national championship net.
But the items also show another side of the man, who was deeply committed to human rights and opposed to the death penalty. In a 1990 letter, he wrote to admirers who had urged him to run against Republican Jesse Helms for the U.S. Senate seat. He decided not to, he wrote, “based on 1) what you folks said about really wanting to be Senator and not just wanting to beat Jesse Helms; 2: the fact that the timing is not good, as I definitely wanted to finish this season without any fanfare.”
The notes, letters and memorabilia give a nuanced picture of a modest Midwesterner who would embrace the South, push for civil rights and reach the pinnacle of success in his profession.
“It’s a study of values, if you’re reading closely,” said Bryan Giemza, director of the Southern Historical Collection. “I hope it emerges from this that we come to understand Dean Smith more as a man of letters. He was writing people a lot and they were writing him back. He was paying attention. It was ultimately that kind of care for others that he’s remembered for.”
The items will be part of UNC’s Southern Historical Collection, a trove of 5,000 collections of primary documents, diaries, photographs, letters and oral histories from the South.
The Dean Smith collection can be viewed at Wilson Library by appointment.