Now that the NCAA has acknowledged it has no jurisdiction over the sanctioned courses offered at its more than 1,000 member institutions, it is time to defend the notion that UNC’s ongoing athletic scandal began with the late Dean Smith more than 18 years ago.
Smith believed in educational opportunity for all people. Yes, in his last 10 years as UNC’s basketball coach he did accept more recruits with academic records below the university’s baseline. He was allowed to do so because of his outstanding graduation rate of players up to that time and his assurances that these sub-standard admissions would get the help they needed to make it through four years at Carolina.
Some biased publications like the Duke Basketball Report claimed Smith wholesaled these special-exception students. Here is an excerpt from a column written by the DBR’s J.D. King in 2015, quoting several former ACC coaches whom Smith’s teams beat like a drum:
“They (UNC) took the most exceptions the last few years of Dean Smith’s career, they took the most exceptions of any school in the ACC. Meaning kids that would not normally get accepted into the university, that were accepted to the university to play sports. I remember one year at Carolina they had five exceptions starting on their men’s basketball team. So they were taking guys with very low level qualifications and then they would keep them eligible. By putting them in these courses. So if a guy was close to not being eligible and his GPA was a 1.8 he would then take a couple of these courses and his GPA would be up to 2.4 and then everybody took a deep breath and they did it again.”
Funny how these coaches seemed to know what was going on in other programs more than their own.
[King, whose writing is obviously pro-Duke, unfairly cited former UNC player Kevin Madden as having a sub-par SAT score; conveniently, he did not know or mention that ACC coaches who recruited two-year Duke guard Will Avery and saw his transcript said Avery could not get into to any of their schools.]
Did Smith attempt to help athletes whom he knew would struggle against UNC’s normally rigorous academics? Of course. Here is how he did it:
The relatively few athletes he helped were placed into elective courses that would be both of interest to them and less-demanding than some they were required to take in their General College curriculum the first two years. Most African-American athletes took some AFAM courses at UNC, which is logical. My recent book Game Changers recounts how the Black Student Movement’s original 23 demands delivered to Chancellor Carlyle Sitterson in 1968 included the creation of an African-American studies curriculum. Classes in black history were soon offered long before official formation of the AFAM department.
Since Smith’s roster had become at least 50 percent African-American, wasn’t it logical that many black athletes took courses in history highly relevant to them? But Smith had three rules for all of his players:
1) They had to go to class. Assistant coach Bill Guthridge was notorious for walking across campus and peeking into classrooms to check attendance. Those without excused absences were running the stairs of Carmichael Auditorium or laps at the Smith Center that afternoon, in or out of season.
2) Players had to do the work that was assigned to them.
3) They could get tutored by basketball academic advisor Burgess McSwain, who knew she could help the players but not do the work for them.
Simple. Go to class, do the work, get some legal help and complete the course. Over and over again for all of Smith’s players, who graduated at a rate of about 96 percent. Every kid who played for him from 1961 through 1997 will tell you that. If you know any, ask them.
Smith’s program has been run ever since by disciples Guthridge, Matt Doherty and Roy Williams, and they all followed most of the tenets and procedures established by their mentor. Go to class, do the work, get a grade and, eventually, graduate.
Smith bristled at the notion that some kids who wanted to go to college did not belong there. In Smith’s mind and world, everyone who desired a chance deserved it. Even if they came from a poor educational system based in a community with sub-standard resources, Smith believed they still had the right to fulfill their potential as students and athletes.
As much as “play hard, play smart, play together and have fun,” that was the Carolina Way. Just being away from home, experiencing a new environment, making friends from different backgrounds and cultures and forming lasting relationships – not to mention the education and college degree they received – increased the odds they would go on to lead successful and productive lives.
I can fill five more paragraphs of this column listing the names of basketball players at Carolina, athletes at UNC and college graduates across the country for whom that is true. Besides fielding the best team he could each season, within the boundaries he set for himself and his program, it was the mission of Dean Smith.
And it was a mission that made Smith far more than a basketball coach.