Memories from the Sidelines: Dean Smith’s Legacy as Witnessed by UNC Sports Medicine Providers

Basketball great Dean Smith touched many lives during his time at UNC, including several at Campus Health Services. Unlike most other universities, UNC’s Sports Medicine clinic is a part of the health service which cares for students at large. This model results in a collaborative relationship between Campus Health Services staff and UNC varsity coaches, staff and athletes. Two such staff discussed their memories of the inspiring coach, Dean Smith.

Marc Davis, a semi-retired athletic trainer with Campus Health Sports Medicine clinic, served as the head physical therapist and athletic trainer for the men’s basketball team from 1978 to 2008, which included 10 years of Dean Smith’s tenure at Carolina. Davis noted that he was initially somewhat intimidated by Coach Smith. “He was already a legend when I started with the team in 1978. But he wasn’t a hard person to work with. He expected you to do your job and if you did it everything went just fine,” Davis said.

Davis continued discussing anecdotes and overall thoughts about the coach, reiterating more than once that “the good things that you’ve heard about him are true.”

Dr. Timothy Taft, a mostly-retired sports medicine provider, served as the team orthopedic surgeon for the entirety of Dean Smith’s career and submitted a prepared statement. “Coach Smith – everyone called him “Coach Smith” – was an inspiration to all of us who had the chance to work with him. He constantly challenged us to do our best work and this was particularly evident in the medical care he expected for his players.  He often accompanied them to the clinic so he could hear what we had to say and ask the questions that he and the players needed answered. On more than one occasion he visited me for a mini medical school course about a given injury or problem. Coach Smith wanted to understand what was going on and how the condition would impact the player in both the short and long term. There is no question that he cared deeply about the players and always wanted the best for them.”

The Gentleman Coach

Dean Smith was the definition of gentleman. “Coach Smith grew up in another era,” Davis said. Smith offered the first UNC athletic scholarship to a student of color in 1967. Coach Smith also supported his athlete’s spiritual upbringing. “When he would recruit kids, he would ask their parents if they went to church,” Davis recalled. “If they did, he made sure the athlete attended church their freshman year. After that it was up to them, but that first year, even when we were on the road, Coach Smith would look for a church for the guys even if they had a game later that day.”

Davis maintained that in addition to his kind, polite, and low-key demeanor, Dean Smith was a competitor. “Just because he was a good guy doesn’t mean he wasn’t interested in playing hard and winning,” Davis reminded. Coach Smith’s record speaks to that competitive drive; he retired with 879 victories and 2 national championships.

A Huge Impact

As Davis recalled his time with Coach Smith, it became clear how wide of a circle the legend coach had touched. “He had a major impact on college basketball and the young men who played.” Davis explained, “t’s hard to believe that he was one of the earlier era of modern basketball. A lot of folks view the championship UNC won in 1982 as the advent of big time media coverage of college basketball. It was the first championship ever played in a big stadium.” For those with less basketball history ingrained in their memory, that year was when Michael Jordan, a UNC first year student, hit the national championship-winning basket over Georgetown. Jordan later called the moment the turning point of his basketball career.

“As I get older and these things come to memory, I realize that it was really pretty special,” Davis said. “At the time, I thought, ‘this is my job and I’ve done it pretty well’ but then I look back on it and realize that was a pretty good deal. That was the game where he hit the winning shot.”

Coach Smith saw to it that Davis’ and the player’s families attend games whenever possible. “My daughter got to experience a lot of it,” Davis noted. “Coach Smith was always very kind and always spoke to her. She has very fond memories of him.” The team, and at times their families, traveled to places they otherwise would have never been. “We played in Greece, Japan and England…places I nor the players ever would have visited otherwise,” Davis pointed out.

Davis explained the positive regard players held for Coach Smith. “Almost all of them – across the board – have the utmost respect for him. Over such a long period that’s probably pretty unusual,” Davis observes. “He was concerned about their growth as individuals and not just as basketball players. He always had an open-door policy – even for those players who had graduated. They would come back to get advice and he would help in any way that he could.”

Coach also made an indelible impression on Davis’ career. “He made me never want to stop working here…I stayed with the men’s basketball team until my retirement.”

Many may not recall that in the first few years Coach Smith was at UNC, people were not particularly excited about him as a coach. In the words of Davis, “When he was hired, he was 29. He was very young. UNC hired him thinking that it would de-emphasize basketball…and then he made history.”

Image courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Media Services. Image taken on the sidelines of  1997 Eastern Regional Finals in Syracuse, NY. 

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