This article ran in a November issue of The Charlotte Observer. I hope you enjoy it. Dean Smith won 879 games, for many years college basketball’s winningest coach.  He won two NCAA championships.  He coached the 1976 Olympic team to a gold medal.  He has numerous ACC regular season and tournament championships, and a NIT championship.  All were accumulated as North Carolina’s head coach for 36 years.

He also possessed a deep social conscience.  He despised segregation.  He tirelessly fought for civil rights. Therefore, he recruited and signed Charlie Scott as the first African American basketball player in the ACC in 1966.

A few weeks ago, he was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, receiving the Congressional Medal of Freedom from President Obama.

But I’m convinced that Coach Smith believes his greatest accomplishment is that he graduated 96% of his players.  He believed his players should be students first and athletes second.

When my son was 13 he hurt his knee playing basketball.  I called Coach Smith and asked him if he would take a moment to call and encourage him.  The next day he did.  They had a ten-minute conversation.  When they hung up I asked him Coach Smith’s first words. He responded, “Dad, he asked me how my grades were.  Then he encouraged me about my knee.”  That’s Coach Smith!

Countless others have also received phone calls, letters or personal hospital visits when Coach Smith learned they were sick or bereaved.

I am regularly asked, “What made Coach Smith such a great coach and leader?”

That question motivated me to write a book some about him. I was able to distill his success into this simple sentence: He practiced right principles, in process, over time, and then believed the outcome would most often be successful.


What were these principles?  The three I think guided his coaching and leadership for 36 years are:

First, he placed people first.

Once a player got into some trouble.  It was right before a huge game.  Many thought he should not play.  Coach Smith believed you’re innocent until proven guilty. He started the player.  He played miserably.  UNC lost the game.

In the locker room, after the game, Richard Vinroot, Charlotte’s former mayor,  a UNC letterman and close friend of Coach Smith’s, told me about this encounter with Coach Smith.  He said, “Coach you really should have taken him out of the game.  We could have won this game.”

Coach Smith looked at Richard, paused, and said, “Richard, that player’s sense of self-worth for the rest of his life is far more valuable to me than winning an ACC basketball game.”

People are first.

Second, the team is first. 

He demanded we do small things to create team first attitudes.  If someone dove on the floor for a lose ball, giving up his body for the team to have another possession, the closest players must run to him and help him up.  If not done, the entire team had to run.  If you’re on the bench and someone comes out of the game, you must stand up and applaud.  Even if you’re a superstar getting a moment’s rest.  If not, the entire team must run the next day in practice.  When you score a basket, you must point to the person who gives you the pass.  Coach Smith knew the emphasis the media gives to those who score.  But he wanted all the fans in the stands and on television to see who sacrificed to pass the ball so another could score.

Bobby Jones, a UNC All-American, once caught a pass and missed the lay-up.  Instinctively, he pointed to the person who gave him the pass.  Coach Smith said, “I like that!”  And he then demanded players still point to the person who gave him the pass, even if he missed the lay-up!

Coaches around the globe now mimic these things Coach Smith initiated.  They too want to teach “team first.”

Finally, you must lead with personal character.

Character means you are the same publicly and privately.  Your words match your deeds.  You are the same inside and out.  As someone said, “Personal character is who you are when no one is looking.”

Coach Smith is not a perfect saint.  But he is a man who values personal character.  His players instinctively knew it.  Therefore, we played very hard for him.

I think his character was forged in the fires of failure.  He was hung in effigy by the UNC student body for not winning enough games in his early years, not once but twice!

On the second occasion, one of the players jumped off the bus and tore down the dummy of Coach Smith.  Coach Smith went on the bus and said to his players, “Gentleman, your reputation is what others think of you.  Your character is what you think of yourself.”

It was at that moment, in his personal faith development, he realized how little in life he really controlled.  All he could do was do is best.  Then trust God for the rest.  He controlled the process.  He didn’t much control the outcome.

Over the next 30 plus years, Coach Smith did his best.  He regularly practiced these three principles, in process, and believed the outcomes would most likely be successful.

They most often were.  That’s why this week he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom.

It’s why many people still consider him a great leader, person and coach.

If you like to read the insights from the daily Bible reading in Mark, please click here.