Dean Smith will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this year. Smith retired in 1997 after 36 years as head coach of Carolina basketball teams that he built into one of the most storied programs in college sports.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is bestowed by the president and is the highest civilian award in the U.S. It recognizes those individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Originally established in 1945 by President Harry S. Truman to honor people in the military, it was revived in 1963 as a civilian award by President John F. Kennedy.
The White House confirmed Thursday afternoon that Smith had been chosen for the award. President Barack Obama was scheduled to announce the awards later in the day. The Washington Post reported earlier that its former executive editor, Ben Bradlee; and long-retired baseball player Ernie Banks also would receive the medal.
On the court, Smith’s teams broke Adolph Rupp’s all-time wins record in 1997 and finished with 879 victories, currently third-best among college basketball coaches. Smith amassed 20-win seasons for 27 straight years and in 30 of his final 31, a feat no other coach has ever matched. His teams collected two national titles; 13 ACC Tournament championships; 17 ACC regular season titles; 11 Final Four appearances and 23 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament, with 27 appearances in all. He was named National Coach of the Year four times, ACC Coach of the Year nine times and taught five National Players of the Year and 26 All-Americans.
In 1976, he coached the U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal in Montreal, and in 1983, he was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He is one of only three men in history to win NCAA, NIT and Olympic titles as a coach and one of only two men to win an NCAA championship as both a player and a coach.
During his coaching days, Smith was an uncompromising believer in the freedom, and in the right of people to think, feel and act without prejudice. And he wanted his players to be involved “in the issues of the day and to feel they could talk freely about them to me,” he once wrote. “I was eager to know their opinions, so I often mentioned current events in individual meetings. … I rarely gave my own opinion; I would just try [to get him to talk] so [he] would feel he had the same freedom of expression as other students.”
He allowed players to lend their voices to causes they believed in, such as when Bill Chamberlain ’72 asked to miss practice to attend a rally for UNC cafeteria workers fighting for higher wages in 1968.
“We’re human beings first, coaches and players second, and in the ’60s we had to strike an extremely delicate balance between the two,” Smith wrote. “Sometimes there was a dichotomy at work. But I was aiming to show our players that there was nothing wrong with that because complexity is part of life. There is something to be said for having your own convictions and views and your own way of living, regardless of your vocation.”
While Smith was still an assistant coach at Carolina, his pastor at Binkley Baptist Church, Robert Seymour, asked Smith to dine with him and a black student at The Pines restaurant at a time when Chapel Hill had not yet integrated its eateries. Seymour felt The Pines would have no choice but to seat them with Smith in the party; the basketball team and McGuire were regular patrons. Smith agreed, and the trio was seated without incident.
Smith often has bristled at suggestions that he was a pioneer in civil rights; when a reporter told him that he should be proud of his role in integrating Chapel Hill institutions, he dismissed the assertion as supercilious.
“You should never be proud of doing the right thing,” he said. “You should just do it.”
Smith always has taken seriously the “human family” that his father taught him to value, speaking out against issues that moved him. He has come out against nuclear arms, and he opposed a state lottery that he believed would prey on those in poverty. He took players to visit prisoners, a symbiotic action meant to lift both groups up in gratitude. Steered by a deep faith, he has disagreed adamantly with capital punishment, sometimes phoning death row inmates in the hours before their executions to let them know he would remember them.