By Jaclyn Marciniak,
Sports Business Assistant Editor
On Wednesday, November 20, President Barack Obama honored 16 citizens with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One of those lucky recipients was former University of North Carolina’s head basketball coach, Dean Smith.
Although Smith was unable to receive the award in person due to health reasons, he was represented by his wife, children, his assistant coach Bill Guthridge, and current head coach Roy Williams.
Smith has a very impressive resume when it comes to UNC basketball. As the head coach for 36 seasons, he won two national championships, appeared in the Final Four 11 times, and won a total of 879 games throughout his career. Smith also took pride in having almost each of his players graduate by providing them with academic guidance.
In addition to his time at North Carolina, Smith had coaching experience for the United States Olympic basketball team. In 1976, Smith led the United States to the gold medal after a tough loss in Munich just four years before.
Although Smith has an extraordinary basketball history, he was being honored by President Obama for other reasons. According to Sports Illustrated, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded to those who “have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
This is the highest award that can be received by a United States civilian. There have only been two other coaches to be honored with this prestigious award including legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden and the all-time leader in wins, University of Tennessee Women’s Coach Pat Summitt. One of the main reasons Smith was worthy of the award was because of his actions early on in his career.
He recruited Charlie Scott in the 1960’s, Sports Illustrated reports.
Most southern schools were hesitant to integrate their universities but Smith did not see skin color, he only saw talent and opportunity when it came to Charlie Scott.
The story of Scott’s recruitment is outlined in Barry Jacob’s book Across the Lines which depicts each of the first African Americans recruited in varying ACC and SEC sports. Prior to Scott’s recruitment to UNC, Smith was well known throughout the community to be a civil rights activist. Smith helped integrate African Americans into a local restaurant while he was just an assistant coach.
While he was head coach, he successfully recruited Scott as the first African American scholarship athlete at UNC. Scott was a three time All-American at UNC and later pursued a career in the NBA.
Smith’s perseverance and determination to bring Scott to UNC ultimately paved the way for other African American athletes to be treated equally and be considered for university scholarships.
Sports Illustrated states that awarding Smith with the Medal of Freedom was the obvious thing to do as he was such a prominent humanitarian. Not only is Smith remembered for his great coaching abilities, but also for his heroic actions to create equality when it came to collegiate athletics.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 26 print edition.
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