Editor’s Note: This is a special remembrance of legendary University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith, who passed away February 7 at the age of 83. Waddell, currently the senior associate athletic director at the University of Illinois and the former athletic director at Towson University, wrote about his personal relationship with Smith, formed over Waddell’s lifetime.
By Mike Waddell
College Sports Journal
CHAMPAIGN, IL. — I believe I first met Dean Smith at a Ram’s Club event when I was five. He autographed a little Tar Heel sticker and wrote… To a Future Tar Heel, Mike … Dean Smith.
The next year I was all decked out in a UNC hoops uniform, No. 12, after my favorite player, a point guard from Rocky Mount named Phil Ford. For the rest of my childhood up until April 1994, my greatest sports love was Carolina Basketball.
I went to Carolina Basketball School for seven years and loved every minute of it.
Our love affair with the program was family wide. This would not have happened without Coach Smith’s creation of a model program. My Mom loved his 96% graduation rate and my Dad’s affinity was from when he helped integrate Chapel Hill.
In a day and age of coaches who use foul language I never once heard the man utter a curse word. He had a sarcasm that would cut you to the core of your soul, but it was always in a way that made you think, he did not come right at you, so even in that sense he was teaching and challenging you.
When I graduated from Guilford College, my first job was with the Tar Heel Sports Network.
On my first day Mick Mixon took me around to meet Coach Brown in Football and Coach Smith in Basketball. When we got to the Smith Center we saw coach from about 100 feet away.
Mick yelled out for Coach to wait up that he wanted to introduce someone to him. It had been six years since I had seen Coach Smith, but when we stood face to face and Mick started to introduce me to him, Coach Smith interrupted Mick and started asking me if I had ever learned to keep my left elbow in on my free throws.
He remembered my name, where I was from, and that I could not shoot. This is the greatest basketball coach that has ever walked the earth who meet’s 1,000’s of new people a year and he remembers that.
Over the next three years I have many memories of working with Coach Smith on his radio and television shows. A coaches TV show is 30 minutes, with eight minutes of commercials, leaving 22 minutes for program time.
I remember him coming in for the first show of the 1991-92 season and him telling Mike Small and myself that this was a 22 minute show and we had 25 minutes of his time. That set a tone.
One of the great lessons I learned from Coach Smith is that five minutes early is actually five minutes late. To this day my watch is set ahead 10 minutes. I’m sometimes late, but the intent to be on time is there because of Coach Smith.
I have a memo in my office that came from Coach Smith that is addressed to Mack Brown, John Swofford, the owner of the Tar Heel Sports Network Jim Heavner and me. Pretty cool. Four legends and some kid from Newton, N.C.
One of my most treasured possessions is a framed Sports Illustrated photo of Coach Smith that he autographed to me. It’s been in every office I have had since leaving Carolina, even the University of Virginia and Appalachian State.
I have talked with Coach Smith on the phone several times through the years, most recently in 2008. He was always so classy. Never so much as when we were together at the College Basketball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Kansas City, MO. in Fall, 2006.
I had just started as the senior associate athletic director at Cincinnati and was on the trip with Oscar Robertson as he, Coach Smith, John Wooden, Bill Russell, and James Naismith (posthumously) were being inducted into the first class of the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
We were in a small room with no more than 30 VIPS. I walked in with the Big O, our AD, our president, and our board of trustees chairman.
Easily I was the lowest ranking person in the room.
Coach Smith spotted me from the other side of the space and walked over to our group. Oscar Robertson reached out to greet Coach Smith, but instead of exchanging pleasantries with one of the greatest players of all time, Coach Smith took my hand, and asked me how I was doing.
I had not been in his presence for nine years but he still remembered me, asked me about my Mom and Dad, how I was doing at UC, and if I had learned how to shoot a free throw by keeping my left elbow in.
That was Dean Smith. All about other people, humble, strategic, determined, loyal and gentle.
Today I feel a sense of loss that is substantial because the man that was my childhood hero, a colleague and a role model is gone.
I cherish the times that I had with him, as I do the other outstanding coaches and student-athletes that I have worked with over my career.
Dare I say if it were not for men like Dean Smith, Don Patrick, Bobby Rowe, Ron Bromley, Herb Appenzeller, Mike Ketchum and Jack Jensen that I would never have gone down this path of working in athletics administration.
Coach Smith and Coach Jensen are now gone, and they are missed. I am blessed to have interacted with Dean Smith. He was my hero. He never disappointed.