Notre Dame is rolling — right into the history books.
For the first time in 37 years, the Fighting Irish are headed to the Elite Eight after knocking off NCAA Tournament darling Wichita State 91-70.
Led by sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson’s 20 points and senior forward Pat Connaughton’s 16 points and 10 rebounds, three-seed Notre Dame downed the Shockers at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday night.
“We really do a great job sharing the ball, finding a great shot every possession,” said Jackson postgame. “The guys step up and make huge shots. It’s a really fun way to play when we play the game that way so we want to continue doing that and continue getting better.”
In a total-team effort, Notre Dame (32-5) proved to be too much for gritty seventh-seeded Wichita State (30-5). The sharpshooting Irish drilled an astounding 75 percent of their shots in the second half (18-of-24).
After winning 11 of their last 12 games, the Shockers found themselves down by as many as 13 in the first half; however, the Shockers responded with a 15-5 run of their own, cutting the Irish lead to 33-30 going into the intermission.
Wichita State junior guard Fred VanVleet’s game-high 25 points and senior forward Darius Carter’s 20 were not enough to allow the Shockers to escape with a victory.
The nation’s most efficient offense in Notre Dame is now 26-2 when leading at halftime and 19-0 when scoring 80 points in a game.
“That was reminiscent of a lot of games we’ve been in, second halfs, it kind of reminded me of the North Carolina game in the ACC championship, we take the lead, call timeout, not a lot of drama, not a lot of strategy, and we come out of that with a great will, continue to defend and then we got into one of our offensive rhythms that nobody else in the country can do,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey.
A mentality shift at halftime proved to be the difference for the Fighting Irish, who scored 40 points in the second half.
Senior guard Jerian Grant added nine points and 11 assists of his own while advancing to the regional final. The Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy finalist has played every minute of Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament run this season.
“Just figuring how they were playing me, it took longer than I would have liked but once I figured out how they were guarding the ball screens and denying me up top, we really got into a rhythm to play our game,” said Grant about his team’s second half success.
In critical moments late in the second half, Connaughton hit a 3-pointer from the corner and sophomore guard Steve Vasturia made a 3-point jumper of his own moments later to seal the victory, stretching Notre Dame’s lead from 11 to 17, 73-56, with 5:18 remining.
The Irish made nine 3-pointers, with Jackson drilling 4-of-5 from downtown.
“Extremely important,” said Connaughton of what that stretch meant to the outcome of the game. “We always talk about not being satisfied, whether it’s with a win or whether it’s just a possession in general.
“For us to not be satisfied with an 11 point lead because there was so much time left, they’re a fabulous team and they make runs and they can score in bunches just like us. We want to make sure that we continue to play our game, and when you have an open shot, you know with these two guys to my left and right, they’re the best at finding you and getting you open shots so you just have to step up and knock them down.”
Connaughton, a pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system has now played 138 games for the Fighting Irish, setting a school record.
Notre Dame defeated Northeastern and Butler by a combined seven points during the opening weekend of the tournament, where expectations have been high for Coach Brey’s team, even coming off a 15-17 season last year.
The 2014-15 ACC champion Fight Irish will play perennial favorite and unbeaten Kentucky on Saturday night in the regional final.
To beat the powerhouse – a consensus choice as one of the best college teams ever – and move onto their first Final Four appearance since 1978, Brey says he will continue to do what he has done throughout the season.
“One of the biggest qualities is do not overcoach your team when they’re rolling. Don’t call out too many — let them figure it out. This nucleus really knows how to play on the offensive end.”
Sam Dekker scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as top-seeded Wisconsin defeated fourth-seeded UNC 79-72 Thursday night to head back to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight for the second consecutive year, playing the winner of No. 2 seed Arizona versus sixth-seeded Xavier on Saturday.
Senior Player of the Year candidate Frank Kamisnky added 19 points and eight boards for Wisconsin, making all eight free throws he attempted. The Badgers attempted 23 free throws as a team, making 20 of them and their final eight down the stretch.
With the score 60-56 in favor of the Tar Heels and just seven minutes remaining in the game, Wisconsin went on a 9-0 run to take a lead it would not relinquish the rest of the way.
UNC, however, did not go down quietly as junior Marcus Paige hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to 71-70 with 54 seconds left. Paige finished with 12 points, and was one of three Tar Heels to finish the game with double-digits. Forwards Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson each ended the contest with 15.
Head coach Roy Williams said he was “tired of congratulating people” but admired the toughness his team exhibited on this night.
“Well, you have to congratulate Wisconsin. I think the toughness that they showed today was really something,” Williams said regarding his team’s effort. “It’s strange, the difference between winning and losing is so small.
“We had J.P. on the breakaway, not a breakaway, but open court, and we didn’t convert on that one. Then they came back and scored nine in a row.”
Despite drilling 61 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, Williams’ squad could not sustain the pressure from the Badgers, who only shot 33 percent from downtown. Both teams attempted 56 shots total, and each shot 46 percent from the field.
When asked what guard Josh Gasser was doing to limit his offensive opportunities, Paige agreed with his coach and acknowledged Gasser’s competitive edge on the defensive side of the ball.
“Well, like coach said, he was just competing,” Paige said. “Every possession he understood how important it was for him to take that challenge today to guard me. He chased me around every screen. Every time I caught the ball he was right there.”
Going into the second half with a two-point lead, Wisconsin was able to turn it on offensively, led by efforts from Dekker and Kaminsky.
“Our defensive pressure is something we talked about coming into this game. We wanted to pressure them and not allow them to be comfortable, and we did that for the most part,” Paige said.
“The problem was we couldn’t finish our defense on key possessions. You know, they got a tip-out or offensive rebound and that’s how they made us pay today. They would kick it out and make a three, or run another 35 seconds off the clock.”
Jackson, who was tasked with guarding Kaminsky, was able to limit his chances in the opening 20 minutes, but they could not keep Dekker off the scoresheet. Instead, the junior embraced being given many chances, ending with a career-best in points.
“No, not at all. Obviously he’s a great player. We had some lapses in there, but good players are going to get theirs,” Jackson said regarding the play of Dekker.
Despite the trouble that Williams’ team went through off the court, the coach recognized the bond his players had, which helped him make this season an enjoyable one.
“You know, the bond that you have. Coach Alvarez knows this too, the bond that you have with your players is the strongest, stronger than anything there is, I thin,” he said.
“Even when they’re knuckle heads, you still have that bond. And when you coach kids, you give them everything you can give them. Today it wasn’t enough. But I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody. And Bo’s got a great group, and Bo’s team won the game, but I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody’s.”
PITTSBURGH – Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste showed off his off-season development with 25 points in a 69-65 win over Northeastern in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Where was the source for that development? In gyms – for multiple sports – throughout the Huskies’ home of Boston.
Auguste, a 6-10 center for the Fighting Irish, has the Greater Boston Area in his blood.
The half Greek junior was born in Cambridge before moving around different parts of Boston and finally settled in Marlborough when he was 7-years-old.
He grew up seeing Harvard, BU, BC and Northeastern play and those are the gyms he works out in in between seasons.
“It was kind of diverse,” Auguste said. “It was pretty much just all of us Boston guys just coming out working hard together.”
Kansas’s Wayne Selden Jr., BC’s Olivier Hanlan, Harvard’s Kyle Casey, BU’s Blaise Mbargorma, joined Auguste in the workouts.
The pick-up games also gave Auguste a preview of Northeastern center Scott Eatherton, who he went toe-to-toe with on Thursday.
“I was pretty confident going in,” Auguste said. “I knew a lot about his game, as well as he knew a lot about mine so we just wanted to go head to head.”
But matching up with future opponents wouldn’t be enough for Auguste to improve from his 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Auguste also needed to improve his physical features and knew boxing could lead to peak conditioning.
“There’s a lot of mental focus in it,” Auguste said. “It helps obviously with my conditioning as well but I think it just uses the best of my ability, where I can just work on all of my physical features.”
So one day this past summer, Auguste, Casey and Selden Jr. walked into Peter Welch’s Gym in South Boston and started training.
“Guys were looking at us like at us like ‘Jeez, you guys are big,” Auguste said. “Other than that everyone was just cool with it.”
And now, even though he broke some Bostonian hearts by sending the Huskies running, Auguste still has the Welch trainers, Marlborough high school coach Illya Nicholas and his East Coast friends and family in his mind as he gets ready to take on Butler tomorrow.
Some of them are thinking of him too.
“It was a very big deal that they reached out,” Auguste said. “I was very blessed to hear from a lot of people back home.”
Long before the six-figure signing bonus, before hearing his name announced on draft day, before the Sports Center highlights, and before setting the basketball world on fire with one of the greatest weeks in recent AAU history, Pat Connaughton was a kid with what seemed like an impossible dream.
It was a dream that he started working towards as a young child on the weed-strewn ball fields and stuffy, dimply lit gyms of his hometown, a blue-collar city that sits six miles northwest of Boston. And it was a dream fostered by his hometown, long before he was a household name – a city that will forever be a part of him.
And in case there were any doubts about where Connaughton comes from, and where his heart will always lie no matter where baseball and basketball take him, Connaughton let the swarm of waiting reporters know as he emerged from the visiting locker room. It was stitched across his chest as he held court in the bowels of Conte Forum: Arlington, Massachusetts.
“It’s my home, it’s hard to put into words what it means other than it made me who I am,” said Connaughton after leading his Notre Dame Fighting Irish over host Boston College, 87-70, Saturday evening.
Connaughton has metaphorically worn Arlington on his sleeve every step of his journey from his hometown to South Bend, Indiana, and on to the professional baseball ranks for the past four years, and his hometown returned the gesture in kind Saturday, with many of the 500-plus supporters who turned out to cheer him on Saturday wearing the town’s name across their shirts, jackets, and hoodies.
It has been a busy year for Connaughton. After finishing the 2013-14 basketball season, a year where he averaged 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds as a 6’5” tweener forward, he moved into his final season of college baseball and flat out dominated, before being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the fourth round of the MLB draft, and spent the middle of his summer suiting up for the Aberdeen IronBirds, the Orioles short-season affiliate, just up I-95 in from Camden Yards.
(Author’s note: I, in fact, saw Connaughton pitch on two occasions during my time with the Brooklyn Cyclones).
Like many other pitchers on the IronBirds staff, Connaughton was fresh off his college season and was on a strict, short pitch count, throwing little more than an inning or two during outings.
However, that did not stop him from shining, as he finished his first season of pro ball with a 2.45 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings of work.
The highlight of Connaughton’s first season as a pro came on July 5, against the Brooklyn Cyclones on “Seinfeld Night” at MCU Park before 8,241 fans – some of whom began lining up for tickets at 10 a.m – when he used his lightening bolt for a right arm to pitch two perfect innings, striking out three.
It was a performance that impressed several of the hardened scouts in attendence, but one that came as no surprise to his college basketball coach, Mike Brey.
“He’s a flat out stud,” says Brey.
After his final appearance on the professional mound on July 29, Connaughton went right back to Notre Dame in preparation for basketball season and the team’s trip overseas. In his 28 years coaching, Brey has seen just about everything in the game, but even Brey was impressed by how effortless Connaughton made the transition seem.
“He would come from baseball this past summer to our workouts before we went on our foreign tour, and after one day it looked like he was playing basketball all summer,” says Brey. “I mean he is an amazingly gifted athlete. You put that psyche, that determination, and he’s just a winner.”
But Connaughton isn’t one to brag about going from the diamond to the hardwood and back: It’s a transition he’s been making since he was a grade schooler, spending summer days on Arlington’s little league fields and nights suiting up in the town’s small Fidelity House gymnasium.
“I’ve had a lot of practice with it, 22 years of practice. Basically ever since I can remember I’ve been playing both,” he says. “It’s always kind of been that way where I was playing basketball all the time, and then I’ve got to train for baseball like nothing’s changed. That’s something that I’ve been fortunate enough to, as a kid, play sports 24/7, no matter what it is.”
Now nearing the final lap of his college basketball career, Connaughton and the Irish are currently ranked 10th in the country, sitting at 24-12 overall and 12-3 in ACC play. After defeating a Boston College team that has struggled this season, Connaughton took a step back and was able to enjoy the victory and meaning behind it.
“It was awesome,” says Connaughton. “Obviously there’s a lot stuff when you come home, especially for us three guys from [Massachusetts],” he says, referencing teammates Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson. “But at the end of the day it’s all about getting the win, all about taking care of business when it’s in front of you.”
There was plenty of “stuff” outside of the game itself going on during Saturday’s contest. Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge — who reportedly “loves” Connaughton, a dual baseball-basketball threat just like Ainge during his playing days — was in attendance, joining the throngs of fans who were intently watching Connaughton’s every move.
“Everything he is around is good,”Brey says. “There’s good vibes coming off of him. There was 500 people in the place tonight to see him, isn’t he the mayor here? The vice mayor or something?”
Connaughton’s athletic ability has been apparent since he set the recruiting scene on fire back in the summer of 2010 when he dominated the AAU national tournament in Orlando, Florida, as a rising high school senior. Before then, Connaughton was a highly sought after pitching prospect, regularly touching the mid-90s on the guns, but almost completely unrecruited in basketball, with Division II Bentley University standing as his only basketball offer. Connaughton’s career path changed when he announced his presence to the basketball world in Orlando, the exclamation point coming in the form of a 33-point 20-rebound effort against some of the best players in the nation.
From that day forward, everyone knew of Connaughton’s special athletic abilities, but according to Brey, the senior’s leadership has been even more impressive than his ability to rip rebounds away from far larger opponents, nail contested 3-pointers, and hammer home rim-rocking dunks.
“He has been the ultimate leader and captain for us,” says Brey. “Pat’s the major voice and having Pat back to kind of set the tone, he has helped all of those young guys — [Demetrius] Jackson, even Auguste as a new starter, Colson, [V.J.] Beachem, [Steve] Vasturia — he’s helped all of those guys get more confident.”
Connaughton credits his experiences playing both sports, and learning to mesh with so many different personalities in each locker room, with his growth as a leader.
“You have to grow up quick when you play two sports in college,” says Connaughton. “You have to do the academics like Notre Dame requires, you got to learn how to time manage, how to deal with personalities in the baseball locker room when there’s 35 kids and in the basketball locker room when there’s 12 or 13. I think that’s really helped me. It helped me grow in the leadership role and just grow overall learning how to time manage and take it day by day.”
According to coaches and teammates, Connaughton leads by level-headed example.
“We’ve had a lot of great senior leaders, none better than Pat Connaughton,” says Brey. “He’s a special one.”
Connaughton’s immediate sights are squarely set on the final ACC and NCAA Tournaments of his career. But it’s when the final horn sounds, and he pulls off his college jersey for the final time, that things become blurry.
The Orioles own his rights for the next six seasons, and most scouts agree that his rocket for a right arm remains his calling card. Meanwhile, NBA scouts see him as having skills that translate to the next level — 3-point shooting, toughness and athleticism — but as a role player and potential second round draft pick, a much longer road to the kind of paydays he could enjoy in baseball.
But presented with two divergent roads, Connaughton seems set on carving his own, independent path, and trying to become the first mainstream American multi-sport athlete since the days of Bo Jackson and Deon Sanders.
“After this we’re going to see how basketball goes,” says Connaughton. “I’m going to see how far I can take that and we’ll decide at the end of the year.
“It’s up to me to focus on Notre Dame basketball, and after that it’s up to me to work my tail off for a month, two months, whatever it may be before the draft to see how far I can take this thing and get the right fit.”
And according to his head coach, no matter what path Connaughton ultimately walks, he’s going to continue to be a special kind of star.
“Now I’m an Orioles fan so I’m a little torn here,” Brey says. “I don’t want to lose a heck of a pitcher, but he’s always handled playing both at Notre Dame on his terms. He hasn’t panicked. He’s thought it through, his family has been great, and we talked about it the other day; I think he methodically goes through it and explores it.”
Battling the flu while taking the court against his hometown Eagles, Connaughton posted one of his more modest stat lines of the night, finishing with eight points, four rebounds and an assist. The stat line didn’t matter to Connaughton.
“It was a great day,” he says, simply, of the weekend, in which he visited his home town, watching a practice at Fidelity House the night before taking the floor at Conte.
And as throngs of family and friends remained in the empty arena an hour after the final horn had sounded to greet their native son, with Connaughton seeming to embrace each and every one of them, it was apparent that no matter what he ultimately chooses to do in life, Arlington will always have his back.
It sounds so cliché: Dean Smith left an impact on everyone who ever picked up a basketball during his lifetime. It is a phrase — in one incarnate or another — that has flooded the airwaves, taken over television screens and been displayed across print articles every day since the legendary coach passed away at the age of 83 on Feb. 7.
Yet with each passing hour — and the thousands of new stories, told by players and coaches from every level of the game that continue to roll in — it is obvious that Smith transcended the tired sports clichés about the impact a coach can leave on everyone he comes in contact with and turned them into the gospel truth.
Even in the Colonial Athletic Association — a conference akin to a single grain of sand sitting at the bottom of the great wide Atlantic Ocean that is the ACC, the conference Smith called home patrolling the sidelines for the University of North Carolina for nearly four decades — Smith’s lasting legacy was paramount.
On Tuesday morning, all 10 CAA head coaches took time out of their weekly teleconference to talk about the impact Smith had left on them, and all — ranging from William & Mary head coach Tony Schaver, who played for four years as a walk-on under Smith, to James Madison’s Matt Brady, who only knew Smith as a fan from afar — were touching and unique.
“Other than my father, there has never been a male figure who has influenced me more than Dean has. Today, I look at it much more as a person than as a coach,” said Shaver, who played for Smith from 1972-1976. “He was such a great coach and such a great teacher. He was an incredible teacher of the game of basketball and how to live your life.“
“I never met coach Smith,” said Brady, “[But] he’s had such a tremendous impact not only on his program and the players he’s touched, but on everybody who aspired to be a basketball coach.”
Smith’s Hall of Fame career at North Carolina literally revolutionized the game, with the coach implementing systems and schemes that remain a part of the college landscape, while simultaneously continuing to evolve his system to suit the strengths of his roster every season.
“He taught us so much about basketball,” said UNC Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts. “When you look at it, I would say he’s a trendsetter. There’s not a program that you play in any conference that’s not running the Carolina back screens, the backdoors and everything else.”
With 879 career wins, 17 ACC regular-season titles, 13 ACC tournament championships, 11 Final Fours and two National Championships (1982 and 1993), Smith’s career will always be know for his gaudy numbers. But to Towson head coach Pat Skerry, Smith will forever be linked to a different kind of numbers, as the coach analyzed advanced statistics long before the term “sabermetrics” had ever been coined.
“It’s impressive that he was kind of ahead of the game with the analytics and the advanced stats,” said Skerry.
But for all of the coaches who had the opportunity to meet him, even in passing, the biggest impact Smith left had nothing to do with Xs and Os, but how he was as a man.
“As everyone keeps saying, it was the human side of him. The basketball side of him speaks for itself,” said Hofstra head coach Joe Mihalich, who got to know Smith when he was working as an assistant at Dematha Catholic High School in Maryland in the late 70s and early 80s.
“A few years later when I was an assistant at La Salle I had just had twins, and I didn’t think he knew about it and he came up to me and asked all about them… he was an amazing person,” Mihalich remembered.
“I think his biggest thing was the way he maintained relationships with everybody and was always looking to help,” said Northeastern head coach Bill Coen.
Coen coached against Smith’s Tar Heels in the 1993 NCAA tournament as a University of Rhode Island assistant.
“I think at the 16-minute mark we were up 11-10 and Dean Smith called a timeout and we thought we were doing pretty well, and by halftime we were down by about 40,” laughed Coen.
Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint first met Smith when he was a young kid, all of 10 or maybe 11 years old, in Philadelphia. His father was helping the legendary coach recruit a local player.
“He sent me a poster of the Carolina team that lost in the Final Four. Every player signed it… At 10 years old that’s huge,” said Flint, noticeable pride in his voice all these years later. “Once I got in coaching, those guys actually talked about when they met me when I was 10 years old. [Smith] would say, ‘I remember you,’ and ask me how my dad was… that always put a special place in my heart about Dean Smith.”
But it was Smith’s former player, Shaver, on whom Smith left the biggest impact.
“There’s probably two percent of things that I’ve done in my career that is not exactly like the way he did them,” said Shaver. “He treated everybody fairly. He cared about everybody that was in his program, and I think the loyalty that he built because of that was the most impressive thing about his time at North Carolina.
“How he cared about people, and how he took a stand about what he thought was right. That goes from the Civil Rights movement right down to how he coached.”
For every CAA coach, from his surrogate son in Shaver to those who had never met him, Smith left behind an impossible void to fully fill, and an indelible impact that will never go away.
“When I woke up on Sunday to hear that he passed, it was such a said day because of all the players and people he touched,” said Keatts. “We’re going to miss him.”
They say with age comes wisdom. I don’t know if that sentiment really holds true, but in my own experiences, with age at least comes a little bit of perspective. And over my 30-going-on-31 years on this earth, I’ve gained as much perspective on the late Dean Smith as any other figure in American history.
In our society, we often unjustly elevate sports stars to the level of historical icons and heroes simply because they can run fast, jump high, make a lot of money, and are plastered all over our television screens.
Yet in the case of Smith, who coached men’s basketball at the University of North Carolina for 36 years and passed away on Feb. 7 at age 83, not nearly enough has been said about the way he used his powerful position in athletics to irrevocably change our culture and society for the better.
Even after all of the awards, the National Championships, the Basketball Hall of Fame induction, the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and now the posthumous prose from a who’s who of the biggest media outlets and voices in the world, not enough has been said about his impact on American society. In a head coaching career that spanned from 1961-1997 Dean Smith literally changed the game of basketball, spurring one evolution after the next for nearly four decades, but he helped to change the nation far more off the court.
“He was 1 (SIC) of the great figures in basketball, even more so for his humanity than his coaching brilliance,” wrote Steve Kerr, a 15-year NBA veteran and the current head coach of the Golden State Warriors.
Condolences to Dean Smith’s family. He was 1 of the great figures in basketball, even more so for his humanity than his coaching brilliance.
“Coach Smith showed us something that I’ve seen again and again on the court – that basketball can tell us a lot more about who you are than a jump shot ever could,” said President Barack Obama in a release.
During his 36-year head coaching career, Smith won 879 games, which at the time of his retirement was the most in Division I history and remains fourth in the all-time record book. Smith won 17 ACC regular-season titles, 13 ACC Tournaments, led the Tar Heels to 11 final fours, winning two national championships (1982, 1993). He also coached Team USA to an Olympic Gold in 1976. Smith was an eight-time winner of the ACC Coach of the Year award and four times was named the national Coach of the Year.
Yet his laundry list of awards doesn’t begin to tell his story.
Smith was born in Emporia, Kansas, spent his high school years Topeka, was a student-athlete at the University of Kansas, and spent the final 54 years of his life living in North Carolina. While Smith’s route through the Midwest and South might have been a common trek for an athlete, it was hardly the typical route taken by a progressive thinker or champion of equality.
Yet Smith was, quietly, just that, spearheading integration first on his own high school basketball team in Topeka, then on the Tar Heels roster, and then in the community at large. When all was said and done, perhaps no one had done more to break racial barriers and advance equality in North Carolina – a state fielded more confederate soldiers than any other in the Civil War – than Smith.
The story has been told many times before, but Smith’s sense of fairness and equality was instilled in him by his father, Aflred, a high school basketball coach, fielded a roster with the first African-American player in school history in 1932 and led Emporia High to the 1934 Kansas state champion – becoming the first integrated team in the history of the state tournament.
A terrific story written for ESPN.com by Richard Lapchick in 2011 detailed Smith’s efforts as a student at Topeka High to integrate the basketball team. At the time, Topeka High has an integrated student body, and several of their athletic teams fielded multi-racial rosters, but the basketball team was all white, with a separate, semi-incorporated team of the high school’s black players suiting up and playing in the junior high school. The school also held segregated dances and African American’s also could not use the school’s swimming pool.
According to Lapchick, a teenage Smith relentlessly pestered school administration to integrate the team, and, thanks to the efforts he spearheaded, the team became fully integrated in 1951 – three years before the landmark Brown v Board of education decision striking down segregated schools across the country.
After being hired as the head coach at UNC in 1961, Smith not only worked to integrate the Tar Heels, making future NBAer Charlie Scott the first African-American scholarship athlete in 1966. But Smith didn’t simply desegregate the basketball team: He desegregated the entire school, then the surrounding Chapel Hill Community, and the entire ACC Conference.
Stories abound of how, before Smith ever recruited Scott, the coach would routinely dine with African-Americans at restaurants that had previously refused to serve them, and eating at previously segregated restaurants with African-American students, and helped a black man purchase a home in a previously all-white community.
As Edmund Burke famously said, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Far too often in our society, people in positions of power do just that. Not Smith. Smith went out of his way to face inequality and injustice head on and use his position of power to help, even though it could make his life more complicated.
In addition to issues of race, Smith also spoke out against the Vietnam War and the death penalty. Whether you agreed with his views or not, there is no denying that in the conservative south, Smith risked ruffling feathers and alienating fans and it is impossible not to respect someone who stands for his beliefs, regardless of how it could negatively affect his life.
On the court and in practices Smith was also a rare breed. While words like “mentor” and “father-figure,” are tossed around the coaching world, they often ring hollow in the million dollar coaching industry. But according to the accounts of hundreds of former players, from arguably the greatest player of all-time in Michael Jordan, future NBA stars like James Worth, Sam Perkins, Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace and Vince Carter, down to the end of the bench walk-ons, Smith genuinely loved his players, and they loved him back.
“Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach — he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father,” said Jordan in a released statement.
He also graduated his players, at a clip of nearly 97-percent, something unheard of in today’s one-and-done era.
I never had the pleasure of getting to know Smith. As a young kid who grew up watching the “Refuse to Lose” UMass Minutemen of the early to mid 1990s, I knew Smith only as the head coach of the team that, on paper, epitomized the basketball establishment whose party UMass was trying to crash.