Dean Smith, who built the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team into a perennial national power in his 36 years at Chapel Hill and became one of the game’s most respected figures for qualities that transcended the court, died on Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 83.
The university announced his death. His family said in 2010 that he had a progressive neurological disorder that affected his memory.
Smith had 879 victories, fourth most among major college men’s basketball coaches, and his teams won two national championships.
But it was his values — his fight against racial discrimination when segregation was still prevalent in the South and his insistence that his players prepare themselves for a future beyond the game — that earned him an especially enduring stature.
President Obama awarded Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, in November 2013, citing his “courage in helping to change our country” through his progressive views on race relations.
In a statement released after Smith’s death, Mr. Obama said, “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 alone ever could.”
Michael Jordan, perhaps basketball’s greatest player, was among a host of all-Americans who played for Smith. Jordan issued a statement on Twitter saying that Smith was “more than a coach — he was a mentor, my teacher, my second father,” who had taught him not only about basketball but also about “the game of life.”
Like most successful coaches, Smith, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and a four-time national coach of the year, was adept at diagraming plays on a blackboard. But unlike many, he ran a program that was never accused of N.C.A.A. violations, and about 97 percent of his players graduated.
And for all the future N.B.A. stars he turned out, he emphasized unselfish team play, encouraging a shooter who made a basket to point to the teammate who got the assist.
Smith, drawing on a moral code implanted by his parents in Depression-era Kansas, broke racial barriers in a changing South. While still an assistant at North Carolina, Smith integrated a popular restaurant in Chapel Hill where the basketball team, all white at the time, often ate, accompanying a visiting black theology student for a meal there.
And he recruited Charlie Scott, an outstanding high school forward from New York City, who became the first black basketball star in the Atlantic Coast Conference, in the late 1960s, and an N.B.A. All-Star with the Phoenix Suns.
“My father said, ‘Value each human being,’ ” Smith recalled in “A Coach’s Life” (1999), written with John Kilgo and Sally Jenkins. “Racial justice wasn’t preached around the house, but there was a fundamental understanding that you treated each person with dignity.”
North Carolina-Duke became a classic basketball rivalry, but for all its frenzy, Smith’s rival on the sidelines, Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski, was an admirer.
“I can’t think of a time I’ve ever heard him blame or degrade one of his own players, and in return his kids are fiercely loyal to him,” Krzyzewski told Sports Illustrated in 2005, adding: “He had a style that no one’s ever going to copy. To be that smart, to be that psychologically aware, that good with X’s and O’s — with that system, and to always take the high road — that just isn’t going to happen again.”
Krzyzewski said in a statement Sunday, “His greatest gift was his unique ability to teach what it takes to become a good man.”
Dean Edwards Smith was born on Feb. 28, 1931, in Emporia, Kan., where his father, Alfred, was a teacher and the high school basketball coach, and his mother, Vesta, also taught.
Smith’s parents instilled a sense of racial tolerance in him, in a highly segregated state, long before the modern civil rights movement. His father put a black player, Paul Terry, on his 1933-34 team, which won the state championship, although Terry was barred from playing in the state tournament by Kansas sports officials.
When Smith was 15, his family moved to Topeka. He played basketball, football and baseball in high school and received an academic scholarship to the University of Kansas.
Smith was a 5-foot-10-inch substitute guard on the Kansas team coached by Phog Allen that won the 1952 N.C.A.A. championship, and he became immersed in a basketball heritage that stretched to James Naismith, the inventor of the game, who had coached Allen at Kansas.
After stints as an assistant coach at Kansas and the Air Force Academy, Smith was hired in 1958 as an assistant to Frank McGuire, who had taken North Carolina to an undefeated season and an N.C.A.A. championship in 1957 with a triple-overtime victory over Smith’s alma mater, Kansas, and Wilt Chamberlain. When McGuire became the Philadelphia Warriors’ coach in 1961, Smith succeeded him.
Smith was only 30 years old, he had never been a collegiate head coach, and he inherited a program that was serving a year’s N.C.A.A. probation for recruiting violations.
Smith’s first North Carolina team went 8-9. In January 1965, he was hanged in effigy on campus after the Tar Heels were routed on the road by Wake Forest. But he began to attract talented players, and in the late 1960s his teams went to the N.C.A.A. tournament’s Final Four three consecutive times.
Smith’s first N.C.A.A. championship came in 1982 when Jordan, a freshman at the time, sank the winning basket in a 63-62 victory over Georgetown. His second N.C.A.A. title came in 1993 with a 77-71 triumph over Michigan. His Tar Heels also won the 1971 National Invitation Tournament.
Smith’s teams won 13 A.C.C. tournaments and appeared in 11 Final Fours. He had 27 consecutive 20-victory seasons and coached the United States gold medal team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1983.
Smith’s 879 victories at North Carolina were an N.C.A.A. Division I record when he retired in October 1997, having eclipsed Adolph Rupp’s 876 victories at Kentucky. Among men’s coaches, only Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Bob Knight, who has retired, have won more games.
Smith popularized the Four Corners, a spread offense in which the point guard does most of the ball-handling, with the other players remaining for a time at the edges of the frontcourt. He used that offense to slow things down when he was ahead late in the game or simply to assert control earlier. But he prided himself on being flexible, using an up-tempo offense as well, and his teams pressured opponents with tenacious defense.
“My basketball philosophy boils down to six words,” Smith said in “The Carolina Way” (2004), written with Gerald D. Bell and John Kilgo. “Play hard; play together; play smart.”
Smith regularly attended Baptist church services and said Christianity provided him with a moral code. He once signed a petition against the death penalty, and in “A Coach’s Life” he wrote: “What do you call the worst human beings you know? Human beings loved by the Creator!”
Many of Smith’s players became basketball coaches or executives, including Jordan, Larry Brown, Billy Cunningham, George Karl, Mitch Kupchak and Doug Moe.
Smith outlined his strategy in “Basketball: Multiple Offense and Defense” (1981).
He retired with a career record of 879-254 and was succeeded by his longtime assistant Bill Guthridge. The North Carolina basketball arena is the Dean E. Smith Center.
Smith is survived by his wife, Linnea, and their daughters, Kristen and Kelly; his daughters Sharon and Sandy, and a son, Scott, from his marriage to his first wife, Ann, which ended in divorce; a sister, Joan Ewing; seven grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
Smith considered himself essentially a teacher.
Matt Doherty, a forward for Smith’s 1982 N.C.A.A. champions and later the head coach at North Carolina, told Sports Illustrated: “In a team meeting once, we were going over a trapping defense, and he referred to ‘the farthest point down the court.’ Then he stopped and said: ‘You know why I said “farthest,” not “furthest”? Because far — F-A-R — deals with distance.’ That’s an English lesson I got with the basketball team, and I’ve never forgotten it.”