Tribute to the late Dean Smith comes from unlikely source

Aaron Kirschenfeld literally played the role of the Blue Devil mascot before graduating from Duke in 2007. Even though he’s receiving a law degree and master’s from North Carolina, there is no question where his alliance lies in the Carolina-Duke rivalry.

Yet the death of legendary Tar Heels coach Dean Smith hit him in a way he never could have anticipated.

"When I learned more about his strong advocacy for racial equality I really had an admiration for his moral courage as a human being," said the 29-year-old.

Kirschenfeld thought Duke fans should find a way to honor Smith. He took to social media and floated an idea on his blog. Instead of the dark blue shirts with white letters that read "Duke," what if he substituted the word "Dean" in the same font as a tribute?

The idea gained a lot of support, as Kirschenfeld thought it would. What he hoped was that someone would put it into action.

That didn’t happen immediately.

Enter Ryan Cocca.

He grew up in Chapel Hill, is a Carolina graduate, and is the co-owner and founder of Thrill City, an apparel company on Franklin Street. Cocca sheepishly admitted that he had printed Duke-related t-shirts before -- none of them good.

He followed the conversation of the "Duke 4 Dean" T-shirt on Twitter, and even made a mock design "because I saw someone made a really bad one." But he had no plans of getting further involved since he felt like this effort needed to originate from the Duke side of things.

Cocca changed his mind after he said he received a call from a Duke alum in California, and then Kirschenfeld inquired about getting a minimum of 25 shirts printed and selling them privately. It was a low-risk proposition for him business-wise, he just had to get past his hatred for the Blue Devils.

"I’ve definitely done stuff before that was more like incendiary toward Duke," said Cocca, who was about to re-release a shirt he called offensive toward Duke. "... Dean Smith’s death changed my plan. It didn’t seem like a very appropriate thing to do the week that he died."

What did seem appropriate was collaborating with Kirschenfeld to make the idea a reality. The shirt went on sale for $18 last Thursday. As of Tuesday morning, Cocca said he has received 500 pre-orders for it. All profits will go to the InterFaith Council for Social Service, one of the organizations Smith’s family supports.

"We decided together this really was about something larger than just what side of the war you’re on," Kirschenfeld said. "... True rivalries are about respect. When the leader of one institution passes away you respect them, you honor the legacy. (Smith) is certainly worthy of the honor."