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If any college coach was an educator, it was Dean Smith

Smith was socially conscious in a way other modern coaches are not.

I have spent a lot of time over the last year-plus covering lawsuits and unionizations attempts in college sports, and as a result, I've heard a lot about this idea of college coaches as "educators." The NCAA and its schools claim that's what makes college sports different -- coaches are about more than just wins and losses. They sculpt the lives of their athletes. They turn them from boys into men. They educate.

Of course, that's bullshit. Many coaches care about their players, sure, but that doesn't make them educators. They want their players to be tough and disciplined, but that's not akin to any academic lesson.

I've thought a lot about this recently, as I've delved more into covering the intricacies of the transformation of the collegiate athletic system, and I haven't been able to put my finger on an instance in modern day coaching where a coach really was an "educator."

But in reading this 1995 New York Times article about Dean Smith, Rick Pitino and John Thompson, it sort of clicked.

I'd begun to have questions, not only about Pitino but, once again, about this whole notion of coach as educator.

Kentucky's game with North Carolina was played in an arena only several blocks from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where in 1963 four young black girls were killed in a bombing.


That night, I made copies of the eulogy the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at the girls' funeral and gave them to Dean Smith, the North Carolina coach, and Pitino.

Smith made copies and passed them out to his team. A week later I was surprised when Rasheed Wallace, the North Carolina center, came over during a shoot-around and said he appreciated the information.

Pitino said this afternoon, through a spokesman, that he never shared the information with his team.

This isn't to say that Pitino is a bad person or that he meant to disrespect the memory of those girls. Just that like most coaches, he did not feel the obligation to teach his players about the advancement of society outside of basketball. And that's fine; that's not in his job description. But it doesn't mean he can call himself an educator.

Dean Smith was an educator if there ever was one. His duty was, first and foremost, to win basketball games, but his actions show he was just as concerned with what was happening in the world around him when, as ESPN's Richard Lapchick put it, most coaches were "conservative or not political at all."

Smith worked to integrate his high school basketball team in the 1940s. He recruited the first black player to UNC in 1966. He helped end segregation in Chapel Hill by bringing an African-American man into an all-white restaurant. From the Washington Post's John Feinstein:

There’s one story that -- to me -- defines him. I’ve told it in the past, but it bears re-telling. In 1981, Smith very grudgingly agreed to cooperate with me on a profile for this newspaper. He kept insisting I should write about his players, but I said I had written about them. I wanted to write about him. He finally agreed.

One of the people I interviewed for the story was Rev. Robert Seymour, who had been Smith’s pastor at the Binkley Baptist Church since 1958, when he first arrived in Chapel Hill. Seymour told me a story about how upset Smith was to learn that Chapel Hill’s restaurants were still segregated. He and Seymour came up with an idea: Smith would walk into a restaurant with a black member of the church.

"You have to remember," Reverend Seymour said. "Back then, he wasn’t Dean Smith. He was an assistant coach. Nothing more."

Smith agreed and went to a restaurant where management knew him. He and his companion sat down and were served. That was the beginning of desegregation in Chapel Hill.

When I circled back to Smith and asked him to tell me more about that night, he shot me an angry look. "Who told you about that?" he asked.

"Reverend Seymour," I said.

"I wish he hadn’t done that."

"Why? You should be proud of doing something like that."

He leaned forward in his chair and in a very quiet voice said something I’ve never forgotten: "You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right."

For his work in civil rights, Smith won the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, but he worked to change more than racism. He opposed the death penalty and worked to show his players about abuses in the justice system.

Smith was, by all accounts, an educator in addition to being a basketball coach. I won't claim to know anything about how great of a man he was, as I was young when he retired and have never even met those who knew him well. But his actions speak for themselves as the last of their kind. He went on a limb and he risked his career and reputation to do what he thought was right.

Plenty of coaches these days will meet with sick kids or send players to schools to talk about education. That's all well and good, but that isn't being socially conscious. There may be no modern day equivalent to doing what Smith did, but the best example could be if a coach set out with a mission to recruit and help gay athletes, or some other way of using power to step outside the sports bubble and do something truly out on a limb for what is right.

Dean Smith did that, and he taught his players about the world. In a day when more and more coaches claim to be educators, it's important to look back on the standard and know where we really can apply that label.