North Carolina

Dean Smith to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

Posted August 8, 2013
Updated August 9, 2013

— Legendary University of North Carolina head basketball coach Dean Smith will be presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom award later this year, the White House confirmed Thursday.

"This is an extraordinary honor," Smith’s family said in a statement. "We were touched by those who asked for the recognition and by the President’s decision to give an award to Dean for his work both on and off the court." 

Smith retired in 1997 as the all-time winningest coach in men’s college basketball history with 879 victories – all of them with UNC. He currently sits fourth on that list having been passed by Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Bobby Knight.

"I’m so proud of Coach Smith, happy for his family and friends and appreciative to President Obama for this just recognition," said current UNC head coach Roy Williams.

Football coach Larry Fedora said the honor is great news for UNC. Dean Smith UNC proud of Dean Smith's Medal of Freedom

"I can't imagine how he feels," he said. "What a tremendous thing for our university."

Smith won 13 ACC championships and two national championships with the Tar Heels and guided Team USA to an Olympic Gold Medal in 1976, but perhaps his more meritorious achievements came away from game action.

Smith was a key figure in advocating for civil rights and recruited the first African-American scholarship athlete, Charlie Scott, in UNC’s history. An outspoken Democrat, he also opposed the Vietnam War and the death penalty and endorsed President Barack Obama during his first presidential run in 2008.

UNC gave Smith the inaugural Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement for his contributions in "teaching beyond the classroom." He has been named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, awarded two other honorary doctorates and presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY's.

The award is the highest civilian honor in the nation and, according to the White House, is given to individuals "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."

"As one of the greatest coaches of the 20th century, Dean Smith revolutionized the game of basketball and brought enormous pride to North Carolina during his 36 years leading the Tar Heels," said U.S. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC). "But while he brought us glorious moments on the court, Dean Smith will forever be known for the sense of equality and justice that he instilled in his players and fought so hard to advance in basketball, in collegiate athletics and in the country as a whole.

“Dean Smith is known to all North Carolinians for his tremendous success as the coach of the Carolina men’s basketball team, but the Presidential Medal of Freedom recognizes that he has been far more than a coach to his players, his community, and his country," said Representative David Price (D-NC) in a statement. "Throughout his life, Coach Smith has shown courage and determination on some of the most pressing issues of our time, from working to end segregation in college athletics early in his career, to advocating for inclusion in church and community, to supporting equal rights for gay Americans."

It is not yet known if Smith will be in attendance for the ceremony. The 82-year old has been battling a progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory.

Obama will award 16 people with the honor this year including Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks. Other notables include former President Bill Clinton, country music singer Loretta Lynn, female astronaut Sally Ride and TV personality Oprah Winfrey.

"We know he would be humbled to be in the company of President Clinton, United States senators, scientists, entertainers, the great Hall of Famer Ernie Banks and the other distinguished Americans who are receiving the award," Smith's family said. "We also know he would take this as an opportunity to recognize all the young men who played for him and the assistant coaches who worked with him, as well as the University. Again, this medal is a tremendous honor.”

Only 21 other individuals from the sports genre have been awarded the honor. They are: Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Earl Blaik, Paul Bryant, Roberto Clemente, Joe DiMaggio, Billie Jean King, Robert J.H. Kiphuth, Stan Musial, Jack Nicklaus, Buck O'Neil, Jesse Owens, Arnold Palmer, Richard Petty, Frank Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Pat Summitt, Ted Williams and John Wooden.

148 Comments

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  • heelsrule Aug 8, 2013

    Well deserved!

  • duane11 Aug 8, 2013

    congratulations to the Coach, job well done!

  • Warren G. is back again Aug 8, 2013

    Congratulations, Coach!

  • 903 PJ suspended til NCAA clears Aug 8, 2013

    A great honor for a great man...

  • VT1994Hokie Aug 8, 2013

    Happy to read this one. Dean Smith has always been my favorite coach in basketball. Well deserved honor. Wishing coach the very best in health and long life.

  • Aug 8, 2013

    Congratulations Coach Smith! Sometimes Washington gets right!

  • itsnotmeiswear Aug 8, 2013

    Congrats and well deserved.

  • why not Aug 8, 2013

    Very well deserved. Never have been a UNC fan but always respected Coach Smith and the way he conducted his program. He was a class act. I just can't help but wonder if his health is really failing now and this was being done before it was too late.

  • dwntwnboy2 Aug 8, 2013

    Love or hate UNC all you want, but Dean Smith is a class act all the way. He is what people should strive to be- mentors to others and an asset to their community. NC and UNC are better places because of him. Until the day he retired, from birth, I had never known another coach at UNC- it was a sad day to see him walk off the court the last time, but at least I can say I saw him coach, met the man in person and can only hope to be as nice a person and an influence on others as he is and has been.

  • kmorcomeback2 Aug 8, 2013

    Cool Story!!

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