Though he served in the Air Force, Smith was proud to see two of his daughters march in Washington against this war. "This is not a just war," he contends. "I certainly hope we don't go. This would be horrible."
In a state that sends thousands of Marines to the Middle East, that's a big target to paint on your shirt. But Smith has never scared easily. Speaking out against the death penalty, he once pointed at the governor of North Carolina and declared, "You're a murderer. And I'm a murderer. The death penalty makes us all murderers."
This is a coach who took his players to prisons and had them meet death-row inmates in their cells. He even phoned men on the eve of their executions, reminding them that they weren't forgotten, wishing them peace. One told him, "I'll be cheering for the Tar Heels." Were his players taking all this in? Hard to say. But when Jordan's father was murdered, his family didn't push prosecutors to seek the death penalty. The two killers are serving life sentences.
"It hit me the other day what we should do," says Smith, who still lives in Chapel Hill. "People should get a letter in the mail, like a jury duty notice, that says, 'You've been selected to carry out the execution of so and so. You'll kill him at noon.' That might wake some people up."
It's not something you'd expect out of the mouth of an old basketball coach, but Smith doesn't really care what you expect. He is more politically active than he's ever been. He wants to ban gambling on college sports. He wants newspapers to stop printing point spreads. And he wants college athletes to be paid by the NCAA. "From 1952 until 1973 the NCAA gave athletes $15 a month," he says. "Today, that would be about $250. Why not bring that back, especially when you see the enormous size of the TV contract?"
What gives Smith's words power is his humility. Ashamed of his smoking habit, he refused to be photographed holding a cigarette and finally quit smoking 15 years ago. Careful not to overshadow his successors, he doesn't attend televised North Carolina games at the dome that bears his name, because he doesn't want the cameras focusing on him and the commentators musing, "Gee, I wonder what Coach Smith would do in this situation?" Despite Carolina's miserable showing under Matt Doherty—8-20 last year and 16-14 entering this week's ACC Tournament—Smith has not let out so much as a sigh of discontent. Nowadays, Smith seems to care more about saving lives than beating Duke.
When Dean Smith retired at 66, I never thought I'd meet a man I respected more.
Then I met Dean Smith at 72.