When former University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith passed away last February 7, it got a great deal of coverage. Smith was one of the winningest coaches coaches in NCAA history, but more than he was was beloved.
Beloved has the potential to be an overused word, but in Dean Smith's case it was well-deserved. Former players not only stayed in touch with him, decades after, but more than just stayed in touch, they continually came to him for advice on among the most personal and important matters in their lives. He was seen as much as a second father-figure to them. And by "them," I don't mean former players who went on to other, less-visible careers, but people like Michael Jordan, not known for his touchy-feely outreach to others.
This kind of personal connection with his players is rare for any coach, but especially for one in the highest reaches of a sport, where survival there is so cut-throat. The only other coach I'm aware of who was at that vaunted a level and maintained that much affection was UCLA's John Wooden.
But these are just words. Let me give just one example of how and why Dean Smith was so beloved by his players:
He bought all of his former lettermen dinner -- all of them. After his death.
Thanks to a Tweet sent out yesterday by one of the recipients, it turns out that in Dean Smith's will, he left a provision where all 180 of his former lettermen players received a check for $200, specifically to have dinner, on the coach.
That is known as an act of graciousness. And probably explains more than anything why when people says Dean Smith was beloved...they mean it.
The funniest conclusion of this story is that it might not even cost the Smith estate much of anything. As one sports commentator said on ESPN, "How many of the players who got this check do you think will actually cash it, rather than frame it instead?" (His partner answered, "Oh, probably five.")
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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