What Is a Coach?

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Sports Illustrated’s cover shot of Coach Dean Smith, when he was named Sportsman of the Year. (C) Time Inc/Sports Illustrated. A terrific shot and an equally terrific article. Please read the cover story article which is linked here and listed in the ClickPak .
Paying Attention: Coach Dean Edward Smith died on February 7th, 2015. He had been the head coach at the University of North Carolina for thirty six (36 ) years, winning 879 games. He retired in 1997 and at the time he retired, he was the winningest coach in college history.
While at the University of North Carolina, Smith’s teams won two National Championships, appeared in 11 Final Fours, won 13 ACC Tournament Championships and 17 Regular Season Championships. He was a 9 time ACC Coach of the Year. He is one of a very short list of coaches to have won an Olympic Gold Medal, an NIT Championship, and an NCAA National Championship. Smith’s accomplishments on the court are legendary, but it is what he did off the court that made him so special.  He had an old time sense of value and a modern sense of right and wrong. He was extremely competitive but also kind and sympathetic. Blessed with an inquisitive, quick mind, a great sense of humor, athletic enough to play three sports well, a perfect mix of life balance and fair play, and a total recall memory, he was uniquely equipped to change the world in which he lived, worked, and played and so he did, living up to his full potential, which was enormous.
Smith coached a Hall of Fame list of the greatest basketball players in college and professional history, including Michael Jordan, Larry Brown, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Phil Ford, Bob McAdoo, Billy Cunningham,Kenny Smith, Walter Davis, Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison, Rick Fox, Vince Carter, Scott Williams and Rasheed Wallace. And while Dean Smith’s accomplishments as a coach are stellar by any standard, as one of his players said, “he was a great coach but he was a better man”.
Today, the Memorial Service for Dean Smith will be held in Chapel Hill, NC. and at this time, it’s appropriate to reflect on the bigger contributions that Dean Smith made to coaching and to life.
We live in an era in which high dollar sports is the norm. Coaches are now paid like professional players (as well they should, considering the responsibilities and pressures they live under) and players are paid like movie stars, their post-game interviews littered all-too-often with comments about building “their brand”. In these new me-centric times, with shifting ethical parameters, both on the field and off; with an athletic emphasis more on the individual and less on the team; with sports increasingly seen as the passageway to big-time riches and, all too often, big-time excesses, the lessons of Dean Smith not only stand out as an exception to the rule, but are now more necessary than ever. (Full Disclosure: UNC is one of those institutions under investigation for academic improprieties in their athletic program–importantly there is NO indication that any of Smith’s programs or Smith himself were involved; he was always known for running a “clean program”)
In these difficult, changing, turbulent, times, what is a coach? What should a coach be? Is he the administrator of a multi-million dollar corporation which has to put out a commercially successful product once or twice a week–because that is what a big time athletic program is today (ask anyone at Alabama, Duke, UNC, Stanford, Ohio State and on and on and on). Is he an HR expert, recruiting the right pieces for his business unit (team)? Is he the front man for the University or College that employs him? Is he a CEO, a CFO, an IP leader, a “Brand”?
Or is he, or should he be, more?
Historically, before college sports became big time college sports, Dean Smith was a “coach”, or just “the Coach”.  He always felt a coach should be a source of guidance and support and advice. He embraced his position as a leader of young men and advanced his influence into the larger world in which he lived and worked.  In the era in which Dean Smith came to prominence, coaches not only built teams, they built men and expectations and formed attitudes and ethics. A coach was the person you talked to when you had problems, big or small. A coach was the one who could provide the right advice and set a player off in the right direction. He was not just the person who encouraged you to do your workouts, he was the one who encouraged you to work on your life as well as your jump shot or five-step drop.
In Dean Smith’s view, a coach lead by example. A coach gave life direction, not just game strategy. He was the man you looked up, not just because he was your coach but because he was, in the very best of cases–and Dean Smith was one of the very best examples–the man who showed you the right way: in life, on the court, in society. Coaches set the guidelines for fair play, they stood up for their players and made certain their players stood up for one another. The coaching did not end when the game or the season was over.
Coaches took on society, like Smith did at UNC when he recruited the first black scholarship athlete, Charlie Scott. Coaches saw their position in society and culture and got involved–Smith opposed the Viet Nam war, he advocated for a freeze on nuclear weapons, and was an opponent of the death penalty (he often staged UNC basketball team practices in prisons because he thought it was good for everyone to see the range of life’s possibilities ). It was to Dean Smith that James Worthy turned when he first had a messy legal situation while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. Doug Moe, a UNC player who went on to be a successful professional coach, often said that his first call when he had a tough situation was to Dean Smith. Michael Jordan consulted regularly with Smith. Smith was that kind of guy, a coach who became not just a father figure, but a surrogate father for a lot of players: the one person who would always provide precisely the right guidance at the toughest of times.
Coaches build teams and lives–at least the best of them do–not just the careers of a single player. If you played for Dean Smith, when you graduated (he had a 96% graduation rate), the basketball you learned could very well have been the smallest part of your education, because Smith taught so much more. Smith was known for creating the “Carolina way”, a system of team work and trust and belief among players that survives to this day. In the “Carolina way”, players were always expected to recognize the contributions of their team mates: they would point to the person who made a pass that enabled a basket; they gathered at the free throw line to encourage the player shooting the free throws; the freshmen carried the bags for the upperclassmen, who had carried the bags for the upperclassmen before them; he always started all of his seniors on the last home game of the season and on those occasions when he had more than 5 seniors, he would start all of them, taking a technical foul in the process. He believed in discipline, in senior leadership, in that elusive but tangible element known as “class”(“A lion never roars after a kill”, Coach Smith said). Smith wrote a book titled “The Carolina Way” which is necessary reading for anyone who wants to be a leader–especially in these very difficult times.
Today, at Noon Eastern, the Memorial Service for Dean Smith will be held at the indoor arena named after him (an honor he, typically, did not seek) and it will be televised.
The ceremony is open to the public and there will be a group of very impressive speakers–athletes, friends, coaches, educators– each of whom will provide further guidance and memories while providing the answer to a very simple question.
What is a coach?
A ClickPak of articles on Dean Smith.
The Legend Leaves
The New York Times on Dean Smith.
The Innovator: Inside the Math of Basketball with Dean Smith
The Gentleman Coach
Leading The League
The Sports Illustrated Cover Story On Dean Smith As Sportsman of The Year

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