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Wilson Library collection gives insight into Dean Smith's life as a coach, friend and mentor

A photo of Dean Smith in the Dean Smith Center rests next to hand written notes Smith wrote in preparation for his speech in 2001 after being named Kansan of the Year.

A photo of Dean Smith in the Dean Smith Center rests next to hand written notes Smith wrote in preparation for his speech in 2001 after being named Kansan of the Year.

The legacy of Dean Smith has expanded from one dome to another. In Wilson Library, a new gift includes a collection of thousands of letters, speeches and personal items marking Smith’s personal life – one of deep faith, humility and commitment to honest competition. 

Smith’s personal records include correspondences with Michael Jordan, scrapbooks made in commemoration by his parents and handwritten notes for speeches and game strategies. 

Jason Tomberlin, the head of research and instructional services at Wilson Special Collections, ensured the collection was accessible to everyone. 

“It shows what I’ve always heard in my life, about how much the Carolina family meant,” Tomberlin said. “And about how much he would do for his players and how much he cared about them, not just as athletes while they were here but also as they went on in life.”

Smith served as an example to the college athletic community for desegregation, as he recruited the first African-American UNC basketball player on a scholarship. 

Smith was widely loved in the basketball coaching community, as well. After a scathing article was written about Indiana University coach Bob Knight, Smith sent Knight a letter of support. When Knight shared the letter with his wife, he said she began to cry and told Knight, "Dean Smith is a real friend." 

"No one had ever done or said anything on my behalf that I appreciated as much as that letter," Knight wrote back to Smith. "Your letter meant more to me than I have the ability to express with voice or pen." 

A number of pieces highlighted Smith’s humility, said Biff Hollingsworth, collecting and outreach archivist for the Southern Historical Collection. When library staff first approached Smith for his personal papers in 1998, he hesitantly agreed, but questioned the value of his documents. 

“I am willing to talk to you someday about personal papers, but I doubt if you would want mine,” Smith wrote in correspondence to the curator of manuscripts at Wilson Library in 1998. “I would probably have trouble finding them anyway.” 

In 2015, the library learned Smith had donated this collection of his personal records. 

“He was always very humble,” Hollingsworth said. “Sort of deflecting, saying, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I have value.’”

Even after his retirement, Smith felt a strong kinship to both his alma mater, University of Kansas, and UNC. In a letter to Roy Williams of the Kansas Jayhawks before he took over as UNC coach, Smith advised Williams on how to beat Duke. 

“No second shots,” Smith said. And “don’t foul the dribbler.”

The archive houses dozens of letters written to Smith and the basketball team throughout the years, with an especially robust collection from 1997. Smith mailed back numerous letters, including personalized notes in each one. 

The collection will reveal the depth and role of Smith's faith. He was a longtime member of the Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. He served as a normal member of the congregation and the community and used this faith to shape his coaching philosophy. 

“I think that’s a really amazing dimension that people will maybe get to learn about," Hollingsworth said. 

In a letter to Smith, Gordon Smith of the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board of American Baptist Churches lauded his commitment to Christianity. 

"Your former pastor and friend, Robert Seymour, described you as a ‘sophisticated lay theologian,’" Gordon Smith wrote. “You are an example of how to succeed in a competitive environment while holding firm to personal values and faith.” 

Over the course of his career, Smith emerged as a global figure in basketball, Hollingsworth said. Smith served as the head coach of the 1976 Olympic Team and went on to collaborate with coaches from Greece, Turkey and Italy, both with recruiting players and trying to place his players who had graduated. Smith also held workshops for coaches around the world. 

This global impact, Tomberlin said, reached far beyond basketball. 

“I hope they see how much of an impact Dean Smith had not just on basketball, but on the students that were here, and on North Carolina, and on the American South and the United States, as well,” Tomberlin said. “He was so much more than just a basketball coach.”

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