When faced with an ethical dilemma, a common school of thought is to think of a person of strong character that you know or know of, and ask yourself what that person would do in your situation.
One person you might want to think of in such a situation is the late Dean Smith.
Everyone knows Dean Smith was one of the best coaches ever. What you may not know was that he was also a man of great character and integrity whose actions provide a lesson for anyone seeking to become a better, more ethically focused person.
We’ll touch on some on-court accomplishments and lessons in a minute, but off the court, Smith helped promote desegregation by recruiting UNC’s first African-American scholarship basketball player and pushing for equal treatment of African-Americans by local businesses in the segregated South of the late 1950s. But Smith didn’t want to be remembered for that because he didn’t want to receive any recognition for what he perceived as simply doing the right thing.
The day after Smith’s death, John Feinstein, an author and columnist for The Washington Post who had covered Smith for years, spoke to National Public Radio and shared a notable story.
“To me, his legacy is summed up in something that happened that I was involved in peripherally, years and years ago when I first learned about his involvement in desegregating the restaurants in Chapel Hill. And I asked him about it ’cause it was his minister who told me the story. And he said, ‘I wish Reverend Seymour hadn’t told you that.’ And I said, ‘Dean, why? Why would you want that? You should be proud of being involved in something like that.’ And he looked at me, and he said, ‘John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.’ And that’s who Dean Smith was. He never wanted to take bows.”
While Smith may not have cared to have his actions publicized, perhaps he realized that more people hearing of his example and simple philosophy of just doing the right thing can give others strength to “do the right thing” in their own daily lives and professions.
The basketball résumé included 879 wins in 36 years at North Carolina, two national championships and 11 Final Four appearances, the popularization of the Four Corners stall offense (which led to the institution of a shot clock in college basketball), and perhaps most impressively, running a “clean” program that included a remarkable 96.6% graduation rate for his players. While some athletes may have benefitted from academic improprieties at UNC in Smith’s final years as a coach, he was never found to be involved and had no NCAA violations in his 36 years as head coach.
When Smith was named head coach at UNC in 1961, after serving 3 years as an assistant coach, the program was embroiled in a major recruiting scandal that resulted in an NCAA-mandated probation, plus there were rumors of a point-shaving scandal involving UNC players. When he took over as head coach, he was told by university administration that wins and losses didn’t matter as much as running a clean program and representing the university well.
He did that and also managed to achieve great success on the win-loss front: his 77.6% winning percentage is the 9th highest of any men’s college basketball coach.
Also notable were some now widely used customs he instituted at UNC, such as starting the tradition of “Senior Day,” where he would insert every one of his seniors into the starting lineup during their last home game of the season (if there were more than five seniors, he still started them all—leading to a technical foul to start the game—because he wanted every one of his seniors to be able to say they started the final home game of their careers at UNC). He was also credited with starting the custom of players scoring a basket pointing to the player who passed them the ball in honor of the passer’s selflessness. His basketball practices always included a “Thought of the Day”, perhaps a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., and then he’d start a discussion among the players.
Throughout his life he frequently deflected praise, but Dean Smith served as a shining example for people in any profession that you can do the right thing and still be wildly successful.