Coach Dean Smith and Christian vocation

The Standard February 18, 2023

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

The lights of some Christians shine so brightly, they could not hide them if they tried. Former UNC men’s basketball coach Dean Smith, whose death was eight years ago as of last week, was one such light. Smith never announced his good deeds with trumpets or sought the limelight.

His players and fellow coaches described him as so much more than a coach. He was a teacher, mentor, role model and second father. Smith taught them about and showed them the best way to live life. What motivated him was his Christian faith.

In the Sixties Dean Smith’s pastor encouraged him to break the color barrier that existed in college recruiting in the south. Smith caught wind of a superb athlete whom Lefty Driesell was recruiting for Davidson College and who was about to visit Duke. Several things set apart Charles “Charlie” Scott’s visit to UNC. One in particular was the fact that Coach Smith invited him to church. Scott took him up on the offer and said that no other coach had invited him to worship. In 1966 Scott became the first African American scholarship athlete at UNC. Much later he named one son after Coach Smith, the man who had influenced his life the most.

Duke’s former men’s basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski described Dean Smith by saying, “His greatest gift was his unique ability to teach what it takes to become a good man. That was easy for him to do because he was a great man himself. All of his players benefited greatly from his basketball teachings, but even more from his ability to help mold men of integrity, honor and purpose. Those teachings, specifically, will live forever in those he touched.”

In his book A Coach’s Life, Smith asserted about the heart of his faith that “God loves all humans the same.” He wrote, “It is enough for me to know we are all loved, forgiven, and accepted as we are… I believe the Christian faith is motivated by gratitude, which we can repay with ethical actions to others.” In the book Smith quoted Jesus from Matthew 25:40. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” “Maybe it was that scripture that inspired us to take the UNC basketball teams to visit prisoners, including death row inmates, at the state prison in Raleigh.”  

In his career as coach, Smith discovered that “every good vocation can become a Christian vocation.” After Smith’s pastor had revealed to a sportswriter a good work Smith had done, Smith became embarrassed. He said to his pastor quietly, “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.”

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