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Dean Smith Unplugged
Alexander Wolff
December 22, 1997
Though we didn't hear from him in the previous pages, Dean Smith does have something to say. He recently sat down with SI senior writer ALEXANDER WOLFF to share his reflections on nearly half a century in college sports. Paraphrasing Churchill and quoting Kierkegaard, Smith reminisced about a certain Chicago Bull and the long-ago NCAA final at which he cheered furiously against the Tar Heels. He mused about the current overemphasis on winning and about his careerlong struggle to keep victory in perspective. And he sounded off on what's wrong with college sports and how to fix it. Here are highlights from that conversation.
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December 22, 1997

Dean Smith Unplugged

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There was a chapter called "The Power of Helplessness." You just turn everything over and don't worry about it. You realize you're helpless, and all of a sudden you feel at peace. I was relatively young at the time, 33, and I knew I wanted to coach. But I realized I could be happy just teaching math and coaching high school if that's what was available to me.

Catherine Marshall isn't really a theologian like [Karl] Barth or [Dietrich] Bonhoeffer, but her book was very meaningful to me. Actually, her philosophy is like a 12-step program. Through a very close friend I've learned a lot about 12-step programs, and they seem to me more what Christianity is supposed to be than a lot of what we see today.

Because you're giving up control ?

Yes. I once gave the commencement speech up at Eastern College in Pennsylvania. Churchill had to give a speech once, and he didn't know what to say, so he got up and said, "Never, never, never, never, never, never quit." Seven words. So I got up and said, "Always, always, always, always, always, always quit." I think we're most happy and free when there is a creator or spirit or something in charge of our lives. I said happy and free. And that's where I struggle. Because I want to take over constantly.

I do think I've struck some balance. I'd get mad at a referee, and then I'd see myself doing it and say, You were being ridiculous. The guy's honest, he was doing the best he can. It helps that one day I accepted that there's a spirit within me—there's a spirit within every human being—and decided to turn over control to it.

Topeka was home to the Smiths, but it was also home to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case—though the court case wasn't decided until 1954, after you'd left college. Were you affected by segregation ?

At Topeka High we had a great black end, Adrian King. In my first game at quarterback I threw a pass that he somehow caught for a touchdown. He was 6'3", just a beautiful athlete, state champ in the hurdles. But Adrian couldn't play on our basketball team. So senior year, the fall of 1948, I went to the principal, Mr. Weaver, and asked why we had separate basketball teams for black and white students when we all played football and ran track together. I asked more out of selfish motives than anything—to have a better team. And he said the problem would be at the dances after the basketball games. I didn't understand it. I should have persuaded the students to protest. But I didn't think in those terms then.

You've never been reluctant to crusade for causes since you arrived at North Carolina. Besides freshman eligibility, what issues on campus most engage you ?

Drinking is a huge social problem. We've had tragedy in Chapel Hill, as almost every campus has. Not long ago [ACC commissioner] Gene Corrigan—and I like Gene—got up in front of the coaches and said, "We've got a surplus [of money], and we need to do something to fight drugs." Well, conference revenue is mostly TV revenue, and a lot of that is from beer advertising. It reminded me of the old Kierkegaard story where the minister has velvet robes and the pulpit is plated with gold, and he says, "Jesus said let us deny ourselves and give all we have." And no one laughed! Well, no one laughed at the suggestion that we fight drugs with alcohol money, when alcohol is the drug of choice on college campuses. It's hypocritical for a college conference to have student-athletes tell young people they should say no to drugs when we say yes to beer ads. They have great ads, but alcohol and alcohol-related incidents are a leading cause of death in the U.S. for people 25 and under.

It's the same with gambling. Newspapers that decry point shaving in editorials print point spreads, even though gambling is against the law. I like [Indiana coach] Bob Knight's comment: You don't see prostitutes' phone numbers in the paper. Bob has a better way with words than I do.

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