Former North Carolina coach Dean Smith will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the nation’s highest civilian honor -- today along with 15 other recipients that include former President Bill Clinton.
Smith’s wife, Linnea, told WNCN television in Raleigh last week that traveling was difficult for the 82-year-old Hall of Fame coach and that he would not be able to attend. Back in 2010, the family revealed Smith had a neurocognitive disorder that affected his memory.
UNC coach Roy Williams and former coach Bill Guthridge will accompany Smith’s wife and family members to the White House ceremony to receive the award on his behalf.
“I feel very honored to be about to go up there and see that happen, to be with his wife and some of his children,” Williams said. “That will be a neat deal for me.”
President John F. Kennedy signed the Executive Order that created the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. There will be a special recognition of its inaugural class today.
President Barack Obama, who selected the honorees, announced this year’s class in August. He said the award goes to individuals who have, “dedicated their own lives to enriching ours. This year’s honorees have been blessed with extraordinary talent, but what sets them apart is their gift for sharing that talent with the world.”
That’s a definition that Williams would say fits Smith perfectly.
“I’m very thrilled to have worked with coach Smith, he taught me so much more about people than he did about zone defense or man-to-man defense or anything whatsoever,” Williams said. “I think he’s truly one of the great mentors that you could possibly have and he was a mentor to me and every player. He truly cared his players.”
Smith joins former UCLA coach John Wooden and former Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt as the only college basketball coaches who have received the award.
“Coach Smith, you’ve heard me say this before, is the best that ever was, in my opinion, on a basketball court and he was far better off the court,” Williams said. “And the things that he did off the court meant so much more than the time that he spent on the court.”
Williams was nearly brought to tears when asked about Smith on Sunday saying he was, “just a unique man and leader for so many people.” Williams said there wasn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t utilize some principle -- not just on the court, but in life -- that Smith used to emphasize.
“I ask myself all the time what would coach Smith do right now?” Williams said. “Would coach Smith be proud of the way I handled some things?”
Smith’s 879 wins, which were the most when he retired in 1997, has been surpassed by other coaches. And Williams has matched Smith's two national titles. But he said no number could quantify the impact Smith has had.
“I’ll never be as good as he was,” Williams said. “I don’t think anybody ever will be.”