Dean Smith’s Moment in Black History

By Marvin Adams

Marvin Adams is a parishioner of St. Anthony’s Parish in Washington D.C. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Franciscan Action Network.

Marvin Adams

On this past Sunday, the University of North Carolina memorialized an icon and a true American hero. These words are often bandied about with regularity, oftentimes undeservedly so. But for Dean Edward Smith, no truer words could aptly apply. When Smith retired in 1997, his accomplishments were legendary. 879 wins, 13 Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, 11 Final Fours and two NCAA Championships were the highlights of a stellar coaching career. But to just talk about Smith as a basketball coach would be a grave injustice and a total disservice to a man who was a pioneer, an innovator, a student and teacher of the game. But he was also politically and socially correct, even before those terms became en vogue.


As a youngster, growing up in South Carolina during the 1960s, and before the advent of ESPN, there was Jefferson Pilot Broadcasting, which broadcasted the basketball games of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) schools into our homes weekly. It was while watching one of these games during the 1966-67 season that I recall my first recollection of Smith. There he was patrolling the sidelines for the University of North Carolina (UNC) when they were playing the South Carolina Gamecocks, who was coached, at that time by the legendary Frank McGuire. McGuire had previously coached at UNC when his team defeated the Kansas Jayhawks, which were led by Wilt Chamberlain, 54-53, in a triple overtime thriller on March 23, 1957, for the NCAA Championship. McGuire’s team finished that season undefeated, with a record of 32 -0, and was led by All-American Lennie Rosenbluth.


It is important that this time be put into perspective, because, unlike today, at that time most of the major universities were totally segregated, thus they had no black players. The notable exceptions were schools outside of the Solid South. Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play basketball at a major university (UCLA), when he was a multi-sport star from 1939-41. A few years later William Garrett (1941) enrolled at Indiana University. However, arguably the biggest splash came approximately a decade later when Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were student-athletes at Kansas and San Francisco, respectively. Coach Smith made history in 1967 when he recruited Charles (Charlie) Scott to play for the Tar Heels. Scott became the first African-American to play collegiately at a major college in the South. Even though I lived in South Carolina, I became a Tar Heel fan, in no small measure due to the fact that Smith, like Branch Rickey, of the Brooklyn Dodgers, many years before, when he selected Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, defied conventional wisdom and the status quo when he selected Scott. I related to Scott, because we were both Catholics, and a few months prior, I broke the color barrier for my city’s Dixie Youth Baseball League.


While all of this was playing out there were other things transpiring on the collegiate landscape which are worthy of note. In the state of North Carolina, there were two other coaches of renown, who gained legendary status long before Coach Smith began to win consistently. Specifically, Coaches John McLendon and Clarence “Big House” Gaines at North Carolina College (NCCU) and Wiston-Salem State University were contemporaries of Coach Smith, and he always gave them credit for some of his successes. McLendon is credited with introducing the up-tempo brand of basketball to the college game. He was also the first coach to ever win three consecutive championships, from 1957-59. He accomplished this feat while coaching at Tennessee State University. Both Smith and McLendon were from Kansas and attended the University of Kansas. It was at Kansas where McLendon learned the game from its inventor, Dr. James Naismith. McLendon was unable to play at Kansas due to the fact that they were not allowing blacks on the varsity teams while he was enrolled. However, while at Kansas, Smith played for another legendary coach, Phog Allen.


Gaines was named Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Coach of the Year over the course of four decades (1957, ’61, ’63, ’70, ’75 and 1980.) He led Winston-Salem State to the first ever Division II Championship won by a Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in 1967. That team was led by the incomparable Earl “the Pearl” Monroe. When he retired, Gaines was the winningest coach in all of collegiate basketball, having retired with a record of 828-447. And like both Smith and McLendon, he is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.


While McLendon gave the college landscape what amounted to a run-and-gun, up-tempo brand of basketball, Smith will always be remembered for his famed Four Corners. This type of offense basically spread the floor with four players going to four corners of the court, while the point guard essentially froze the game with dribbling and penetration. Smith had a succession of guards who ran this offense to perfection including, but not be limited to, Phil Ford, Jimmy Black and Kenny “the Jet” Smith. This offense was so precise, and I might add demoralizing to the opponents, that because of it, the NCAA instituted the shot clock.


While he was beginning to build his enviable program at UNC, Smith also took stances which put him at odds with some. He opposed both the Viet Nam war, as well as the nuclear arms race. These views coincided with another American of renown, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Because February is recognized as Black History Month, it is apropos that the man who was instrumental in helping this country, without fanfare, I might add, come to grips with the dehumanizing aspects of Jim Crow and “Separate, but Equal” be honored. And he did it his way, with dignity, class and style benefiting the true icon and hero he was. There were many legendary coaches, some of whom aforementioned, but there will only be one Dean. Coach Smith, rest in peace, you’ve earned it!

Photo courtesy of ESPN

Published in: on February 27, 2015 at 9:50 am  Leave a Comment  

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