On January 17, 1972, the Georgia Bulldogs men’s basketball team beat Kentucky 85-73 on their home court in Athens. Tim Bassett, a 6-foot-8 African-American forward, led the Bulldogs with 27 points and 13 rebounds.
After the game, Bassett was approached by Adolph Rupp, the Kentucky coach, the winner of four national championships and one of the most revered icons in the game.
Rupp told Bassett that he didn’t belong in the Southeastern Conference and that the Wildcats would beat them when they faced each other the following month in Lexington.
Bassett arrived that February to find his image hanging in effigy in the Kentucky gym. Years later, Bassett told the New York Times that he sought out Rupp for an explanation for why he allowed this demonstration of poor sportsmanship to go on inside his gym, but he never got to confront the coach.
“I just wanted to let him know that I was a man and I was just trying to figure why he felt it was O.K. to disrespect anybody in that way,” Bassett told the Times. “What was his mind-set? This is a leader of men, you know, all these years, and for him to allow that, it just didn’t make sense.”
In the 1966 NCAA Championship final, Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team lost 72-65 to a Texas Western squad, which had five black starters.
During his halftime speech to his players, Rupp referred to the Texas Western players as “coons.”
“You got to beat those coons,” he said. “You go after that big coon.”
A white sportswriter at Kentucky’s year-end banquet called the ’66 Wildcats team the best white team in the nation.
With five black starters, the 1966 Texas Western team is widely seen as the impetus for other southern white schools to integrate their rosters.
Rupp retired after the 1972 season with 876 wins and four national championships. Kentucky was one of the last major conference schools in the South to integrate its basketball program.
Rupp never fully made the transition from the Jim Crow era in college athletics to full desegregation by the early 1970s. Dean Smith, who died on February 7 after a long battle with dementia, was one coach that did make the transition.
After signing Charles Scott in 1966, the first Black scholarship athlete at North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Smith attempted to go into the stands during a game after he heard a spectator from the opposing team call Scott a “big black baboon.”
“Racial justice wasn’t preached around the house, but there was a fundamental understanding that you treated each person with dignity,” said Smith in his 1999 autobiography about his childhood in Kansas.
Smith wasn’t the only coach or administrator at a southern white university to embrace the change that was wrought by the Civil Rights movement. Alexander Heard, the Vanderbilt chancellor, in the early 60s spearheaded an effort to bring an African-American to its basketball program. In 1966, the Nashville school signed Perry Wallace as the first Black scholarship athletic in the Southeastern Conference.
Many coaches of that era, including the Alabama’s Paul Bear Bryant, weren’t explicitly opposed to integrating their teams as much as they had been conditioned by their state governments and university boosters to not interfere with massive resistance to desegregation.
As popular as Bryant was in the state of Alabama, it’s doubtful that he could have ever convinced Governor George Wallace in 1963 to let him sign a black football player. But by the early 70s when he did sign his first Black players, Bryant was operating in a country that had been transformed by the Civil Rights movement, which helped to elevate sports to new dimensions.
Bryant’s best Alabama teams were his bigger and faster integrated squads of the 1970s. Smith’s first national championship team in ’82, included players such as future Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and James Worthy, black North Carolina natives born at the beginning of Smith’s career in the early 60s, when no black men played on major white southern university teams.
In 1997, Smith eclipsed Rupp as the all-time leader in wins in Division I men’s basketball. In 36 seasons at Chapel Hill, he won two national championships, 13 ACC titles and led teams to 11 Final Four appearances. He was an innovator—the four Corners delay offense and pointing to the man who gave you a good pass—and a motivator of young men who excelled on the court and in life.
Yet perhaps what set Smith apart from many coaches of his generation was how he adjusted to the various changes in the college game. He coached through the era of a segregated South through the early years of integration through the 70s and 80s, which bore growth at a rate greater than at any in the history of the sport to the implementation of a shot clock and the ascent of one-and-done star athletes.
Smith witnessed all the major shifts and his impact on the game will be felt for generations to come.
Charles Scott remembers Smith as a transcendent figure.
“Basketball was a very small part of what we learned from Coach Smith,” said Scott, who led the Tar Heels to two consecutive Final Four appearances in ’68 and ’69. “He taught up so much more about life.”
President Obama, who awarded Smith the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor in 2013, said on Monday that the coach “exemplified what coaching should be about.”
“Dean was someone who was willing to stand up for what was right in respect to his players and his fellow citizens in North Carolina,” Obama said.
It’s a great and fitting tribute to Coach Smith’s life that the statements about his passing have been as much as about his contributions to the greater good as they have been about his accomplishments as a coach.
He was a great coach because he was a great man.