UNC's Dean Smith awarded Medal of Freedom
Posted November 19, 2013
Updated November 20, 2013
Former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill head basketball coach Dean Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday during a ceremony at the White House.
President Barack Obama noted Smith's important contributions to the game of basketball in Wednesday's ceremony, but he also pointed to Smith's efforts to integrate college basketball and a restaurant in Chapel Hill.
"Even as he won 78 percent of his games, he graduated 96 percent of his players," Obama said. "He is the first coach to use multiple defenses in a game. He was the pioneer who popularized the idea of pointing to a passer. After a basket, players should point to the teammate who passed them the ball."
Smith was not in attendance Wednesday due to his health. His wife, Dr. Linnea Smith, long-time coaching assistant Bill Guthridge and current UNC head coach Roy Williams accepted the award on his behalf.
"While Coach Smith couldn't join us today due to an illness he is facing with extraordinary courage, we also honor his courage in helping to change our country," Obama said. "He recruited the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helped integrate a restaurant and neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That's the kind of character he represented on and off the court."
"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.
The Medal of Freedom 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."
Smith won 13 ACC championships and two national championships with the Tar Heels and guided Team USA to an Olympic Gold Medal in 1976.
Smith taught beyond the court
Over the years, the Hall of Famer has been heralded just as much for his work off of the basketball court as on.
Smith was a key figure in advocating for civil rights and recruited the first African-American scholarship athlete, Charlie Scott, in UNC’s history.
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 honorary doctorates and been presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.
In 2010, Smith’s family revealed that he is suffering from a neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory.
Obama awarded 16 people with the honor on Wednesday, including Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks.
Other notables included former President Bill Clinton, country music singer Loretta Lynn, astronaut Sally Ride and TV personality Oprah Winfrey.