“There have been a lot of pillars in our profession over time,” current KU hoops coach Bill Self said in a news release. “Of course, we can think of one every day here in Dr. Allen, at Oklahoma State there is Mr. Iba, there’s been Pete Newell, Bob Knight, Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) — all have been huge pillars in our profession. But one of the most classy and innovative coaches that our sport has ever known was coach Dean Smith. Coach Smith was a Kansan, growing up in Topeka, and part of the 1952 national championship team at Kansas. He carries great weight around here now and all the way back to his days here as a lot of his teammates are still here in town and think the world of him."
A native of Emporia, Smith, who was 83 at the time of his death, competed at KU from 1949-53 and was a part of the Jayhawks’ NCAA national championship team in 1952 and national runner-up in 1953.
On the night Kansas won its first NCAA men’s basketball championship, Dean Smith stepped onto the floor for just 29 seconds. It was, in many ways, a forgettable span of time.
On that night in Seattle in 1952, on the floor of the Hec Edmundson Pavilion, the Jayhawks prepared to celebrate as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Coach Phog Allen was set to claim his first NCAA title. All-American Clyde Lovellette would be selected Most Outstanding Player.
It was, as you might expect, pretty easy to overlook the junior reserve from Topeka, enjoying a few seconds of mop-up duty in the final minutes. And for years, they did.
In the official box score, there was no record of Dean Edwards Smith stepping onto the floor in an 80-63 victory over St. John’s. Which, if you knew Smith during his days at Kansas, wasn’t all that surprising.
“If you were around the program then, he was pretty nondescript player,” Max Falkenstien, the legendary Kansas broadcaster, said on Sunday afternoon.
Smith, the legendary North Carolina coach and titan of the profession, died on Saturday at the age of 83. But before Smith became synonymous with North Carolina basketball, the four-corners offense and the early days of Michael Jordan, he was better known as “Smiles,” the gregarious leader of Kansas’ scout team in the early 1950s.
But Smith’s legacy is infinitely more substantial than his coaching ledger, which was part, but only part, of the reason he was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.
As sprawling as Smith’s contributions were, maybe no one ever sizzled it all down with more eloquence than his KU roommate and former Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten.
In a 2012 interview with Bunten in his then-office as part of a day spent tracing Smith’s roots, the topic turned toward Smith’s civil rights stands.
“To his great credit, he saw the absolute unfairness of that and took a stand when a lot of us didn’t,” Bunten said. “At some point in time, you’re going to see something that isn’t right, and do you stand up and say it or do you not?”
And that’s just it, really.
Doing what’s right as a matter of conscience, not convenience, takes true courage and leadership.
It’s about staking out the higher ground even when few around you might be, even when it’s at risk of a career — as Smith also did by advocating against the Vietnam War before he was a fixture.
The answers aren’t just blowin’ in the wind … or blowing with the prevailing wind after taking the temperature and analyzing focus groups.
They come from reaching deep inside and taking a stand, or even a stance, before it’s trendy, or even acceptable.
Smith knew this and lived it even though he knew how unconventional and unpopular it might be to use his pulpit to speak to causes.
A lot of people don’t like politics with their diversions, of course, but to Smith it would have been unconscionable to shrink from that and stifle the influence he might have.
Of all the causes Smith became involved with, including against nuclear weapons and the death penalty, the quest for racial equality was virtually a lifelong thread.
“Pay Heed. The game you love began here. Respect those who came before you. Make their legacy your own. Because destiny favors the dedicated. And rings don’t replace work. In this game you don’t get what you want. You get what you earn. We are Kansas. Together we rise. Rock Chalk Jayhawk!