Coach. Father. Genius. Champion. Democrat.
The last title was not the hall-of-famer’s defining trait, but it was notable as the former coach helped integrate UNC, endorsed the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean, Bill Bradley and Barack Obama and spoke his mind on many political issues throughout his career.
“He was active and vocal and had an opinion about very important issues,” said Matthew Andrews, who teaches American and sports history at UNC.
Andrews said Smith’s outspoken political views differentiate him from his coaching peers, many of whom shied away from politics.
In 2006, Smith appeared in an ad for the grassroots political group known as the Devout Democrats.
“I’m a lifelong Baptist and vote for Democrats,” Smith said in the newspaper ad. “One reason? Democrats are serious about alleviating poverty.”
While Smith endorsed winning candidates in his life, one of his most notable political stories involves a candidate who lost.
In 1990, former Charlotte Mayor and Democrat Harvey Gantt was running against Republican incumbent Jesse Helms to be one of North Carolina’s U.S. senators.
While many wanted Smith, himself, to run against Helms, Smith instead reached out to Michael Jordan to see if he would endorse Gantt publicly.
“And Jordan — and this has become a very famous story now — said he wouldn’t do it because Republicans buy sneakers too,” Andrews said.
Helms won the election, receiving 53 percent of the vote.
Andrews said Jordan’s comment set him up as the poster boy for the apolitical athlete, but Smith harbored no resentment for his former star athlete after he rebutted his request.
“I’ve never heard of any animosity between Dean and Jordan,” Andrews said.
In a statement released Sunday and in interviews in years prior, Jordan acknowledged the importance of his college coach, who is famously known to be the only one capable of keeping the former Chicago Bull under 20 points.
“Coach was always there for me whenever I needed him, and I loved him for it. In teaching me the game of basketball, he taught me about life,” Jordan said in the statement.
While Smith would have preferred Jordan endorse Gantt, Andrews said Jordan’s response represented a quality Smith instilled in all of his players — the need to stand by your beliefs.
“One of these things Dean Smith always was trying to do was to take the boys he had and turn them into men,” Andrews said.