Monday, February 09, 2015

Remembering Dean

It was my senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill. I found myself sitting in the back of a first-semester Latin class, something I’m going to guess had been recommended to me by one of my English professors (my major). It was an elective for me, as I’d already had French to cover the foreign language requirement. It was the first day, and there were a lot of freshmen in there.

The grad student teaching the course went over the syllabus, part of which involved reiterating a point about the final exam with which I was familiar given that I’d heard it many times before. If I remember correctly, there was a provision that applied to all courses that stated if you had three finals within a two-day period, you could get one of the finals rescheduled. However (the teacher explained), you had to take care of rescheduling your exam at some point before the end of the semester by contacting the Dean.

At that one of the freshmen raised her hand.

“Dean Smith?” she asked uncertainly.

The class laughed. I just grinned, spending the next few moments thinking about how little I had known when I’d first arrived at Carolina. Did I know what an academic dean was my first week in school? I can’t say for sure. But I knew who Dean Smith was, all right.

My earliest memories of basketball go way back almost to the mid-70s, and Dean Smith is right there at the heart of most of them. I remember Virginia upsetting UNC in the ACC tournament finals in 1976, then UNC losing to Marquette in the national finals the next year when Walter Davis -- “Sweet D” -- had to play with a broken index finger. From there the memories become more vivid, highlighted by the ’82 championship team with Worthy, Perkins, and Jordan. By ’93 I’d be on the campus to celebrate that year’s championship, and of course followed Smith’s continued career thereafter very closely until his retirement in ’97.

I played basketball growing up. The sport was a very important part of my life, something I did practically every single day, usually for at least a couple of hours. Some of my best memories involve playing for teams coached by my father and my friends’ fathers. When I think of those teams, I feel extremely fortunate to have had such adults in my life providing me with opportunities to play and enjoy being a kid, but also guiding me to become a good person via lessons in sportsmanship and teamwork.

Later on when teaching full-time at a small college I was offered a chance to serve as the school’s Faculty Athletic Representative, kind of a catch-all position serving primarily as a liaison between the athletic department and the academic side. I eagerly accepted the offer, because I loved sports and because I believed strongly in their value. That is to say, I thought -- and still do think -- that sports serve an important purpose when it comes to education, even higher education.

It was a small school and perhaps it was easier to think that way about sports since there wasn’t the big money and other temptations that at large Division I schools help create ambiguities about sports’ influence. I served as FAR for many years, only giving it up after the school suddenly veered in a direction that I believed not only compromised the school’s athletic department, but the school’s academic purpose, too. It was the beginning of the end for me in that position, in fact, as I’d eventually leave altogether.

I’ve always thought of sports and other games (including poker) as being very important -- valuable in the lessons they can teach, in the pleasures they can provide, and in the ways they bring individuals together in meaningful ways that transcend those competitions. These are things I first learned from my coaches. They are also things I learned (and my coaches did, too) from Dean Smith’s example.

It was impossible to watch Smith’s teams play and listen to how he spoke of their games and not absorb the many lessons he was constantly imparting to the men who played them. They are too many to list, although the lesson of the importance of humility stands out for me most strongly as I think of his life and legacy. That also seems to be the lesson many others are focusing on as they celebrate his life in the wake of his passing, the eagerness with which they are championing him directly proportionate to his own desire not to have done so.

No, Dean Smith couldn’t have helped us reschedule our final exams. But he helped a lot of us in a lot of other ways, something for which this student remains grateful.

(For a little more reminiscing about UNC hoops and Smith, listen to the podcast Dr. Pauly and I made about the 1993 UNC-Michigan NCAA final.)

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