In his death, Dean Smith is being honored for being a great basketball coach and, more impressively, for being a great human being. Smith led by example and not just on the easy lessons of being a good sportsman and a good student. Smith also led by taking unpopular stances and actions on behalf of those most hated by many who surrounded him – blacks, gays and even murderers. Smith sat at a segregated lunch counter with a black student, recruited the first black player for UNC, held basketball practices in prisons, and stood before the Governor of North Carolina to request mercy for a man scheduled for execution.
Smith met John Noland years before Noland faced execution in November 1998. Smith visited him in prison, after hearing Noland was a fan of his. They became pen pals and friends. Smith made a persuasive case to Governor Jim Hunt for sparing the man’s life, despite his horrible deeds. He famously asserted, “You’re a murderer. And I’m a murderer. The death penalty makes us all murderers.”
Smith courageously spoke truth to power on the social issues of his day because he believed it was the right thing to do, and UNC fans loved him regardless of whether they agreed with him. Today, public university professors and administrators in North Carolina are discouraged and even punished for taking unpopular positions on social issues. Perhaps, we would best honor Dean Smith by giving educators the space to be prophetic leaders and by reflecting individually on whether we will be on the same side of history as Dean Smith, the right side.