At 8 p.m. Sunday, a few hundred students gathered by the plaque that bears his name in the shadow of the building that does as well.They wrote his name in chalk on the sidewalk and in marker on the poster boards they held close to their hearts or placed amid the flowers and candles at the foot of the plaque.
Clad in black and blue, the students assembled for him. They loved him, they idolized him, but at that moment, more than anything, they missed him.
Smith, UNC basketball coaching icon and friend to these hundreds of students and countless more, passed away Saturday night at 83.
If he were there, Smith would have hated the impromptu vigil held in his honor Sunday night. Smith scorned the spotlight more than the status quo, always beelining for the tunnels after monumental wins and having to be convinced, if not dragged out, to cut down the last strand of net after yet another ACC crown or one of his two national titles.
But if he could get past all the attention he was receiving right then, he would have seen the vigil for what it really was — an embodiment of one of his dearest virtues: community.
“There’s a specific Carolina Way and it’s almost tangible in some senses,” said Erin King, a senior at the vigil Sunday. “I really think he embodied that. He’s representative of everything you could want in a community.”
Fifteen minutes past eight and students were still trickling in when one stood on the stone semicircle surrounding the plaque and offered up a proposition.
“I’m not sure who organized this,” she said. “But I think we should sing the alma mater right now.”
There weren’t any responses. There didn’t need to be. The hundreds of students and handful of alumni wrapped their arms around each other and broke the silence.
Hark the sound of Tar Heel voices, ringing clear and true...
“He was more than his 879 wins, he was more than his 13 ACC titles, he was more than his 11 final fours,” said alumnus Ben Peery. “He would have asked us to finish our homework right now because we have class tomorrow. More than anything, he taught us what it meant to be Tar Heels. He taught us The Carolina Way.”
Singing Carolina’s praises, shouting NCU...
“My wife and I met here in the heyday of Dean’s career,” said Keith Aldridge, who got his master’s in 1977. “We were intertwined with not only the basketball, but some of the social issues. I’m not surprised to see so many people here. Actually I’m surprised it wasn’t bigger. I think it’s just a stark reminder of what he meant to everybody for people to be coming out and laying flowers and just standing silently.”
Aldridge and his wife, Karen, waded through the sea of mourners to place flowers at Smith’s plaque.
Hail to the brightest star of all, clear its radiance shine...
“I’ve wanted to come to this school since I was 5 years old,” said junior Myles Robinson. “I wanted to be just like Michael Jordan. Whether you knew Dean or not, you felt like you knew him, especially as Tar Heels in the Carolina community. There’s no other place I would have been tonight.”
Carolina, priceless gem, receive all praises thine...
“Carolina to me has meant community,” Peery said. “Being a Carolina fan was never about winning the national championship or being the best or beating Duke or any of that. Being part of that was about being a better person, and it was about the idea of Coach Smith being such a powerful ambassador.”
After the alma mater, students, again spurred by some unspoken connection, raised their arms toward the plaque, index finger extended.
Point the passer — a tradition Smith started for each of his players to recognize who gave them an assist.
The vast majority of students gathered Sunday night had never met Smith. They were born a little too late to watch his magic on the court. They never played for him.
But each one had received something from the man. A community. Sunday, they recognized who gave that to them.
Dean Smith would have loved that.