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DeCock: White House medal honors Dean Smith’s best accomplishments

By Luke DeCock - staff columnist
ldecock@newsobserver.com
Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/20/11/45/627-9FKgS.Em.156.jpeg|242
    Scott Sharpe - Staff file photo by Scott Sharpe
    Coach Dean Smith talks with reporters during a press conference announcing his retirement in 1997.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/20/19/36/bhpR7.Em.156.jpeg|232
    Win McNamee - GETTY
    President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Linnea Smith, wife of former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, in the East Room at the White House on Nov. 20, 2013, in Washington. Dean Smith was awarded the medal but could not attend the event due to illness. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/20/11/59/v0cvY.Em.156.jpeg|247
    - Robert Willett - rwillett@newsobserver.com
    Dean Smith in the early 1980s with Michael Jordan, Matt Doherty and Sam Perkins at Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill. Smith received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, today during a ceremony in Washington.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/20/14/33/492-542EZ.Em.156.jpeg|210
    Win McNamee - Getty Images
    President Barack Obama awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Linnea Smith, wife of former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, in the East Room at the White House on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. Dean Smith was awarded the medal but could not attend the event due to illness. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/11/20/11/46/868-qnBgo.Em.156.jpeg|262
    CHRISTOPHER A. RECORD -
    Former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith in 1998.

More Information

  • Full Slideshow
  • Dean Smith through the years
  • Interactive: View a timeline looking back at Dean Smith's life
  • Read more Luke DeCock columns
  • See our collection of classic sports photos
  • Dean Smith timeline

    Feb. 28, 1931: Dean Edwards Smith born in Emporia, Kan., to Alfred and Vesta Smith.

    1949: Graduates from Topeka High, where he played football, basketball and baseball. Earns an academic grant to the University of Kansas.

    1949-50: Plays football and basketball as a college freshman but later drops football. He also letters in baseball during his college career.

    1952: Reserve guard on the Jayhawks’ national championship team.

    1952-53: Graduates with a degree in math.

    1953-54: Assists basketball coaches Phog Allen and Dick Harp at Kansas and plays semipro baseball while working for a paper company. Enters the Air Force in February 1954.

    1955: Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Germany.

    1956: First of three years as assistant basketball coach at the Air Force Academy, where he also coaches golf and serves one season as head baseball coach.

    1957: UNC wins its first national championship. Coach Frank McGuire meets Smith for the first time at the Final Four.

    1958: Hired by McGuire as an assistant basketball coach at UNC.

    Aug. 2, 1961: Smith, 30, named head coach after McGuire – with UNC just placed on NCAA probation for recruiting violations – resigns to coach the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors.

    Dec. 2: Smith’s head coaching debut, an 80-46 win over Virginia at Woollen Gym in Chapel Hill. His first team finishes 8-9, his only losing season.

    March 6, 1964: A loss to Duke in the ACC tournament completes a 12-12 season, Smith’s last non-winning record.

    Jan. 6, 1965: After a 107-85 loss at Wake Forest, UNC’s fourth straight defeat, Smith is hanged in effigy on a tree beside Woollen Gym. Billy Cunningham, Smith’s first All-America, rushes through the crowd to tear it down.

    March 4: UNC loses in the ACC tournament to Wake Forest after winning seven straight and finishes 15-9, the first of 33 consecutive winning seasons for Smith.

    1966: Smith signs Charlie Scott, the first black scholarship athlete at UNC.

    March 4, 1967: UNC beats Duke 82-73 in Greensboro for the first of Smith’s 13 ACC tournament titles. In Smith’s first Final Four, Dayton beats UNC in the semifinals.

    Jan. 3, 1968: 100th victory, 74-62 over Wake Forest in Chapel Hill.

    March 23, 1968: Smith tries the Four Corners in the Final Four against Lew Alcindor and UCLA. The Tar Heels fall behind and are routed, 78-55.

    March 1969: Heels beat Duke 85-74 for their third straight ACC tournament title. UNC also reaches a third straight Final Four but loses 92-65 to Purdue and Rick Mount in the semifinals.

    March 1971: The Heels finish 26-6, the first of 27 consecutive seasons with at least 20 wins.

    1976: Smith coaches the U.S. Olympic team, which includes Phil Ford, to a gold medal in Montreal.

    March 28, 1977: UNC reaches the NCAA championship game but loses to Marquette 67-59.

    March 30, 1981: UNC, on the same day an assassination attempt was made on President Ronald Reagan, loses to Indiana 63-50 in the NCAA final in Philadelphia.

    March 29, 1982: Smith wins his first NCAA championship when Michael Jordan’s jump shot gives UNC a 63-62 win over Georgetown in New Orleans.

    1983: Smith enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

    Dec. 3: UNC beats Stanford 88-75 for Smith’s 500th victory.

    March 30, 1991: UNC loses 79-73 to Smith’s alma mater, Kansas, in the NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. Smith is ejected from the game for arguing with officials.

    April 5, 1993: Smith wins second NCAA championship, 77-71 over Michigan in New Orleans.

    March 9, 1997: UNC defeats N.C. State 64-54, giving Smith his 13th and final ACC tournament title.

    March 15: Smith becomes the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history with his 877th victory, a 73-56 win over Colorado.

    March 29: UNC loses to Arizona 66-58 in Smith’s 11th and last Final Four, leaving Smith’s career record at 879-254.

    Oct. 9: Smith announces retirement.

    April 14, 2003: Attends news conference after the hiring of Roy Williams as UNC coach.

    2006: Named to inaugural class of National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, along with James Naismith, John Wooden, Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell.

    2007: Inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame.

    Sept. 11, 2009: Joins Williams in Springfield, Mass., to honor Michael Jordan’s induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

    Feb. 12, 2010: Appears at celebration of UNC’s 100th year of basketball

    June 29, 2011: Receives Dr. James A. Naismith Good Sportsmanship Award at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh

    Nov. 20, 2013: Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, but is unable to travel to the White House because of health concerns.


WASHINGTON They took their seats on the stage, an elite gathering of the most notable and accomplished people in the country called to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

These were the best Americans that America has to offer. Presidents. Entertainers. Politicians. Scientists. Astronauts. Journalists. Activists. And among the 16 whose arrivals were announced with due ceremony: “Mrs. Linnea Smith, accepting on behalf of her husband, Dean Smith.”

Of all the honors Smith has won, and they are many, the one he received in absentia Wednesday represented what really matters to him. Not basketball, but life. Not a game, but the lessons that game can teach. The North Carolina coach was a champion on the court and a leader in the community, a man for whom the fight in defense of equality was more important than any defense on the court.

“Dean Smith is one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history, but his successes go far beyond Xs and Os,” President Barack Obama said, and indeed they do.

It is an extremely cruel twist of fate that denied Smith the chance to enjoy this moment in person, as he so surely would have. The degenerative brain disorder that has robbed Smith of the extraordinary mind that made him such an extraordinary person also kept him from attending Wednesday’s ceremony.

Linnea Smith accepted the medal, cradled in a polished wooden box, from Obama as members of Smith’s family and former assistant coaches Bill Guthridge and Roy Williams looked on in the White House’s gilded East Room. The latter two men also succeeded Smith as North Carolina’s coach, their presence a testament to the loyalty Smith has always demonstrated to his players and coaches, and has always received from them in return.

Ethel Kennedy, the sister-in-law of the man who had the idea for these medals 50 years ago, was in the audience as well, and Obama pointed out that this class of recipients epitomized what former President John F. Kennedy “understood to be the essence of the American spirit.”

‘Extraordinary lives’

Smith was included Wednesday in a pantheon of medal-winning Americans that included former President Bill Clinton, entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey, baseball star Ernie Banks, singer Loretta Lynn, activist Gloria Steinem, journalist Ben Bradlee and eight others from the ranks of politics, journalism, science and entertainment. John Wooden is the only other college men’s basketball coach to receive the honor.

“These are the men and women who in their extraordinary lives remind us all of the beauty of the human spirit, the values that define us as Americans, the potential that lives in all of us,” Obama said.

Obama repeated the old joke about Smith being the only person who could hold Michael Jordan under 20 points but turned serious when talking first about Smith’s illness and then his contributions to civil rights.

“We also honor his courage in helping to change our country,” Obama said. “He recruited the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helped integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That’s the kind of character he represented on and off the court.”

Never sought attention

Smith, 82, never sought this kind of attention. He has lived his life with the grace, vision, accomplishment and courage that unavoidably brought it upon him. That he could not enjoy this pinnacle is tragic, but his absence only underlines the tremendous void he has left since departing the public stage.

After giving Linnea Smith the medal, Obama hugged her, then escorted her back to her seat on the stage, her husband having taken his place among the finest citizens America chooses to acknowledge.

Presidents. Activists. Scientists. Artists. And a basketball coach who managed to win a few games here and there when he wasn’t busy changing the country.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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