As the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament culminates with the Final Four this weekend, we are sure to hear remarks about one of the game’s great leaders, Dean Smith, who recently passed away. The name “Dean Smith” means many things to many people, but that name is more than a name in my family. That name is an actual person. It was 1974. The North Carolina men’s basketball team had a young athletic trainer named John Spiker...who just happened to be my father. At the time (and still today) North Carolina had a JV men’s basketball team. They would load their bus at old Carmichael Arena--or "Carmichael Auditorium" as it was known back then--and ride over to have their pre-game meal at a cafeteria on campus before heading out for road contests. On one occasion during that 1974 season, a freshmen JV player, Paul Wilson (not his real name), missed the team bus at Carmichael. Well, he didn't exactly miss the bus. He missed getting on the bus. Paul was literally coming out of the door of Carmichael at the time appointed for the bus to leave. He was no more than 15 seconds late. No matter. The door of the bus was shut and the bus left without Paul on board.
Given the lay of the land, Paul ran through campus and literally beat the team bus to the cafeteria. But that didn’t solve the problem, at least not in Dean Smith’s program. Coach Smith said, "Paul, you can go to the cafeteria and eat, but you can't go to the game." When I heard that Dean Smith had died, I asked my dad what he remembered most about Coach Smith. He said, “His willingness to hold people accountable to good things.” Good things like being on time.
I got a chance to meet Coach Smith my freshman year at Purdue. We played them in Chapel Hill. It was a close game until about three minutes to go in the first half. Then they slapped the famous North Carolina run and jump trap on us and before we knew what hit us we were down about 15. We lost 78-50. I remember being so nervous to shake Coach Smith’s hand after the game. I recall saying something about how much I’d heard about him growing up but it came out all jumbled and awkward. The practice we had when we returned to West Lafayette the next day was memorable as well. Straight from the bus to the locker room and then onto the floor. Coach Keady was so upset with our lack of toughness against their traps that we had a section of practice where our coaches literally said, “We aren’t calling any fouls.” And they didn’t. That was because of Coach Smith and UNC.
Great in Multiple Ways
Even if you set aside 879 wins, 11 Final Fours, and 2 National Championships, Dean Smith was great. Coach Smith graduated 96% of his players at UNC. His practices were run with military-like precision. He was a champion for civil rights. And he was a deeply humble man. No wonder I was taught the Carolina fight song as a kid even as I spent the vast majority of my childhood hanging around the athletic department at West Virginia University. “I’m Tar Heel born and I’m Tar Heel bred and when I die I’ll be Tar Heel dead.” Normally sung with strength and conviction, these words took on a strange meaning to me in the days following Coach Smith’s passing.
In 1975 my father was given the opportunity to come home to West Virginia University to help start the school’s Athletic Training Education program. When he went in to tell Dean Smith he was leaving UNC, Coach Smith’s first comment was about hoping our family would find a good church in Morgantown as we’d had there in Chapel Hill.
Doing Small and Being Great
It isn’t often that we get to be in the presence of greatness. For two years in the 1970’s, my dad was. And, though two years isn’t a very long time, it affected how my parents raised us — it affected our entire family. I think that is how greatness works. It infiltrates everything around it even in a short period of time. In a world where terrible news of awful behavior travels around the globe in a moment, it is nice to be reminded that when we consistently make small but great decisions as Coach Smith did, good things can travel deep into the lives of those around us. Coach Smith had only won 293 of his 879 wins when my family left Chapel Hill. And yet, his positive influence in my family’s life was already embedded. His greatness didn’t come from his wins. He didn’t become a man worth following after his 600th, 700th or 800th win. He was that man all along.
There can be greatness in small, daily decisions in life. There is more greatness in who we become than what we accomplish. Coach Smith’s passing is reminding me of these things. As a busy husband, father of three, and businessman, I need that reminder.photo credit: "MichaelJordanDeanSmith" by Zeke Smith from Chapel Hill, NC, USA - Michael Jordan, Dean Smith. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
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