Dean Smith to me

Dean Smith.

Dean Smith.

Of all the things I’ve heard about legendary UNC coach Dean Smith since his passing Saturday night, the one that stuck with me was journalist Peter Gammons – like myself a former sports editor of the Daily Tar Heel – who wrote, “Dean Smith cared about every person he knew.”

Even though one would think I was a bother as a whipper-snapper budding journalist, Coach Smith took time to answer my questions when he wouldn’t talk to anyone else. He allowed me into practice when he would allow no other journalists. He let me travel with the team to various games, including the national championship game.

He said he was committed to the student body at UNC, and that included me.

I was walking with my friend Clay the day before the national championship and Coach Smith walked by tapping me on the shoulder – smiling as he hurriedly moved past us – and asked “Cliff, how are your accommodations?” I said, “Great coach, thanks for asking.”

I turned to talk to my friend Clay. He wasn’t there – he was stationary back where Coach first spoke to me, mouth ajar like a cartoon character. He couldn’t believe Coach Smith was right there, speaking to me and using my name. It has become a joke over the years but in some respects Coach Smith was like a god.

I wrote the first paragraph to my national championship article early in the season as I was convinced the Tar Heels would win. It was simply, “On the seventh try, Dean created national champions.”

Some considered that a dig regarding the other six times Coach Smith had been to the Final Four and failed to come away with the prize but that’s not the way it was meant. I was alluding to how he was held in such esteem that he was considered like a god.

Yet he was humble and unassuming and always deflected praise. Despite the fact that I grew up in Rocky Mount wanting to be on Coach Smith’s Blue Team (I never dreamed of being a starter like hometown hero Phil Ford), I had always been taught in journalism school to be unbiased in non-editorial stories. As a result, I had never really thanked Coach Smith for how he had helped my career.

I called his radio program about five years after graduation to do so. After first not hearing my name – he thought the caller was Chris Barnes – he enthusiastically promoted me on the radio and deflected my comments of praise. He said something to the affect: “Cliff was an excellent writer at the Daily Tar Heel. Cliff, you should be thanking your teachers from high school and college, and your parents, not me.”

That is Dean Smith to me.