Every Tar Heel has their favorite Smith tale, whether it’s bumping into him at Sutton’s or rushing Franklin Street after he brought the national championship trophy to Chapel Hill in 1982 and 1993.
Smith is worthy of praise for his win total, development of superstar players and his coaching prowess. Yet his uniqueness comes not from his accolades but from the lives he touched and the impact he left.
‘He was there’
“Let’s sit down. I’ve got plenty of stories to tell.”
Sylvia Hatchell has no shortage of Smith tales — from his worn-out office chair to his penchant for parking his car on the sidewalk.
But they all come back to one thing: his spirit.
“He was always very kind to me,” said Hatchell, UNC’s women’s basketball coach since 1986. “Any time — any time I ever needed him, he was there.”
Women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance recalled a time when his daughter, a MacArthur Fellow, was performing in Carrboro.
Smith, declining in health, wouldn’t miss it.
“Dean, of course, was suffering, yet he figured out a way to come to the performance,” Dorrance said. “It just made me and my family feel incredible that he and his family would go out of the way for us.”
It wasn’t until after Smith’s death, though, that Dorrance realized just how much he meant to his former mentor.
Dorrance has won 21 NCAA championships, been the Coach of the Year seven times and is a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
But of all the honors he has received over his tenure, few mean more to Dorrance than being asked to attend Smith’s funeral.
“This remarkable man ... thought I was a part of that basketball family,” he said. “I really treasure that.”
‘A Dean Smith culture’
“I could just go on and on about all the things I’ve stolen from Coach Smith.”
Dorrance said among the many things he’s adopted from the former basketball coach, one includes memorizing quotes and starting off each day with a message and objective for his team.
“He used the ‘quote of the day’ as a message for not just basketball, but life,” he said.
Hatchell remembers Smith giving her advice on how to recruit. The statistics, the numbers — they didn’t mean much to Smith.
“He always told me, ‘Sylvia, I recruit with one thing,’” she said, pointing to her eyeballs. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
Perhaps nobody stole more from Smith than current men’s basketball coach Roy Williams. Williams said his coaching style is 1 percent him and 99 percent of the people who have influenced him. Smith is chief among them.
“Everything I do every day is patterned after Coach Smith,” Williams said.
But more than tactics and objectives, Smith set a precedent of respect and fairness.
“The culture of athletics at UNC that lives on to this day is a Dean Smith culture,” Dorrance said. “It’s a culture of all the teams as families, and his respect for every aspect of developing character in his athletes.”
In a day and age where coaches are the highest-paid state employees and 24-hour news cycles turn coaches into gods, Smith was impervious to outside influences.
“Unlike so many famous coaches who put themselves in positions above chancellors and presidents, he was always especially humble,” Dorrance said.
Fencing coach Ron Miller said he drew from Smith’s respect for his players and involvement with his team.
To him, Smith was the gold standard.
“If you had an example of a person that was the ideal coach, the person involved with the game, with his players ...” Miller said. “He’s the kind of person that every coach should want to be.”
‘A part of us’
“On campus, there was just this presence — this spirit — with him here. He created it. He demanded it.”
Hatchell said in Smith’s 36 years at North Carolina, there was always something special about the University with him around. An exuberance. A passion.
Miller still remembers his final Smith story.
He saw the coach at a departmental meeting, shortly before Smith died. Miller walked over to say hello and shake his hand, knowing he wouldn’t remember him.
Smith didn’t ask how the fencing team was doing or bring up memories of sharing Carmichael Arena together. Instead, he just nodded and smiled.
Miller said he knew the bond was still strong.
“He is still a part of us,” Miller said, holding back tears. “And hopefully, until he died, we were a part of him.”