White House recognizes famed UNC coach with Medal of Freedom
Aug. 09, 2013 @ 04:30 PM

Despite laws on public accommodations, some Chapel Hill restaurants still refused to integrate when Dean Smith first arrived as an assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina – including The Pines, where the Tar Heels would go for team meals.

“It’s hard for people to understand, but Chapel Hill was as segregated as any place in Mississippi,” said Robert Seymour, Smith’s pastor at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.

So Smith, Seymour and an African-American student went to the Pines in 1958 and asked to be seated together. The restaurant reluctantly agreed, and afterward was in compliance with the law.

“Dean would be instrumental in getting that opened,” Seymour said Thursday.

As UNC’s head coach from 1961-87, Smith would win a then-record 879 games, including national championships in 1982 and 1993. As a result, UNC’s current arena was named after him and he earned seemingly every honor there was in the sport.

But it was his accomplishments off the court that has led to an even more prestigious recognition. President Barack Obama announced Thursday that Smith, 82, will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest honor awarded to civilians.

The release from the White House noted Smith’s record, but also his players’ 96 percent graduation rate and his position as “a dedicated civil rights advocate throughout his career.”

While at Topeka High School, Smith lobbied the principal to desegregate the varsity basketball team. As the Tar Heels’ coach, he recruited the first black scholarship athlete to UNC, Charlie Scott, in 1966.

“Coach Smith coached 36 years and won two national champs but I think he was given the award for the type of person he was and the impact he made on society,” Scott said Thursday. “Everyone talking about the Carolina Way is talking about one person and the standard that he set forth for the university.”

Smith currently suffers from a progressive neurocognitive disorder, but his family issued a statement on his behalf.

“This is an extraordinary honor,” the statement said in part. “We were touched by those who asked for the recognition and by the President’s decision to give an award to Dean for his work both on and off the court.”

The award was established in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy and is presented to those who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

Smith will become the third coach to receive the Medal of Freedom, joining John Wooden and Pat Summitt. He was one of 16 people to be honored this year, a list that includes President Bill Clinton, Ernie Banks and Oprah Winfrey.

“The Presidential Medal of Freedom goes to men and women who have dedicated their own lives to enriching ours,” said Obama, who was endorsed by Smith during the 2008 presidential race. “This year's honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world. It will be my honor to present them with a token of our nation's gratitude."

The medals will be presented at the White House later this year.

Smith popularized the four corners offense and was the first to have his team huddle between free throws. He also had many technical innovations, such as the point zone, the run-and-jump defense and double-teaming the screen-and-roll. But members of the basketball community were quick to praise his character as much as his record.

“Coach Smith made enormous contributions not only to basketball, but he built a first-class program that positively impacted our society and community in many, many ways,” UNC coach Roy Williams said in a statement. “Everyone who loves college and ACC basketball and the University of North Carolina is indebted to him. But more than basketball, it was his social conscience that has left even greater marks on our society and will be paying dividends for generations.”

Mike Krzyzewski, who currently holds the men’s basketball record with 957 wins, called Smith “an amazing man.”

”How appropriate for Dean to be given this honor,” Krzyzewski said in a statement. “He has done so much for the game of basketball and for the human race. I am so happy that he has been recognized at the highest level in our country.”

Seymour thought back to when Smith was a 27-year-old, first-year assistant. Before he had the job security of a legendary coach, he still did what he could to integrate Chapel Hill.

“It made all the difference, and Dean was a man who didn’t mind taking a stand on other courageous issues,” said Seymour, who noted Smith’s desire to get rid of nuclear weapons and the death penalty, and his strong support of the gay and lesbian community.

“The only thing that makes me sad,” Seymour said, “is that Dean’s condition at the present moment is such that he would have no idea this is happening.”