February 28 is Dean Smith's 80th birthday. In the world of sport, where it seems harder and harder to find role models, let alone heroes, Smith has been an exemplar.
As a young man, Smith won an academic scholarship to the University of Kansas. There he played collegiate basketball, football and baseball. But it is what he did after and outside of his participation in athletics that truly distinguishes him.
Following in his father's footsteps, Dean Smith became a basketball coach. And following in his father's footsteps, he championed the rights of African-American athletes both on and off the field. Smith's father Alfred coached the first African-American high school basketball player in Kansas history. Later, as a coach himself, Dean Smith recruited the first black player to the University of North Carolina's storied program. But unlike today's self-aggrandizing coaches who frequently use their athletic mercenaries only to win games then discard them, Smith pushed his players to a 97 percent graduation rate and worked with those who didn't go into professional sports to secure other jobs, as well as to complete their degrees.
Smith also worked in the community to desegregate local businesses, taking African-Americans with him into establishments which found it hard to close their doors to the popular, successful coach, no matter who he had with him.
Dean Smith won two national championships, many conference and regional championships in the course of his 879 career victories. But he was known as much for running a clean program and pushing for progressive change in his players lives and his community. He opposed the Vietnam War and the fear-mongering of right wing North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. He did radio commercials for a freeze on nuclear weapons and campaigned against the death penalty and for gay rights. He prominently endorsed Barack Obama's presidential bid long before it was popular.
While the coach of traditional rival Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, held an ill-advised fundraiser for the party of the Right Wing's senatorial candidate Elizabeth Dole on Duke University property and chanted "Blue Devils for Dole," Dean Smith has stood as an icon for progressive change both on and off the basketball court. In an era where sports has been plagued by scandal and disappointing performances in life as well as games, Smith has always been a true sports hero.