Dean Smith, whose legendary stewardship of the North Carolina basketball program made him one of the greatest and most influential coaches in history, died Saturday night after a long battle with dementia. He was 83.
A coaching titan who turned the Tar Heels’ program into one of the most revered in college sports, Smith was also a champion of civil rights who integrated the Atlantic Coast Conference and changed attitudes about race in North Carolina and throughout the South.
A brilliant tactician who introduced basketball to the Four Corners offense and remained an innovative force throughout his career, Smith retired as the winningest coach in Division I history and is still fourth on the all-time wins list.
Read on for more about Smith’s life and career.
1. Smith Died Saturday Night, Surrounded by His Family
Smith’s family announced in a statement Sunday morning that Smith had died Saturday night at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, surrounded by his wife, Linnea, and his five children.
“Coach Dean Smith passed away peacefully the evening of February 7 at his home in Chapel Hill, and surrounded by his wife and five children,” the family said in a statement posted on UNC’s website. “We are grateful for all the thoughts and prayers, and appreciate the continued respect for our privacy as arrangements are made available to the public. Thank you.”
2. Smith Won 879 Games & 2 National Championships
Smith took over at North Carolina in 1961 and amassed one of the most impressive coaching resumes in sports. He retired after the 1996-97 season with a jaw-dropping 879 wins — the most in history at the time — and two national championships, which the Tar Heels won in 1982 and 1993.
Smith led the Tar Heels to to the Final Four 11 times, the most recent of which was the 1996-97 team he coached in his final season. Only Mike Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Smith’s counterpart on the other end of college basketball’s greatest rivalry, went to as many Final Fours.
Smith led the Tar Heels to an astounding 27 straight 20-win seasons, coaching a slew of All-Americans and future Hall of Famers that included Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Bob McAdoo and Billy Cunningham.
He was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 1983 and coached for 14 more years, earning his place on a short list of the greatest ever to patrol a sideline.
3. Smith Broke Adolph Rupp’s Career Wins Record in 1997
Smith tied Adolph Rupp’s career wins record in the first round of the 1997 NCAA tournament against Fairfield — a game the top-seeded Tar Heels trailed at the half before rallying past the 16th-seeded Stags. He won No. 877 in the second round against Colorado, then won No.s 878 and 879 in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, respectively.
Only Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and Jim Boeheim have more wins among Division I coaches.
4. Smith Was Married Twice & Had 5 Children
Smith was married twice — to Ann Cleavinger from 1954 to 1974 and to the former Linnea Weblemoe since 1976.
When her husband was unable to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed by President Barack Obama, Linnea Smith accepted on behalf of her husband. The honor was presented at the White House in Washington, D.C., November 20, 2013.
Linnea Smith had two daughters with Dean Smith, Kristen and Kelly. The two were married in 1976. Smith and his first wife had three children: Sharon, Sandy and Scott.
5. Smith Had Been Suffering From Dementia
Smith had been suffering since at least 2007 from dementia — a struggling chronicled in a 2014 ESPN profile by Tommy Tomlinson.
Here’s how Tomlinson described the toll the disease had taken on Smith:
Here is the special cruelty of it: The connector has become disconnected. The man who held the family together has broken off and drifted away. He is a ghost in clothes, dimmed by a disease that has no cure. Even the people closest to him sometimes slip into the past tense: Coach Smith was. They can’t help it. They honor him with what amounts to an open-ended eulogy. At the same time, they keep looking for a crack in the curtains. They do what people do when faced with the longest goodbye. They do the best they can.