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More than Winning

By Phil Bors on March 4th, 2015

The beloved Coach Dean Smith, recognized in a mural near Chapel Hill

After a historic career as a revered college basketball coach, teacher and all around great human being, Dean E. Smith passed away last month at age 83. Our little Town of Chapel Hill, NC (and much of this state) has grieved, honored his legacy and remembered how proud we felt to be associated with him. For leaders striving to make their communities, organizations and neighborhoods more active and healthy places, Dean Smith’s style and success provides inspiration.

Here are a few of his philosophies about leadership and life:


“A lion never roars after a kill.”

Even after hundreds of regular season and tournament wins on the basketball court, Smith adamantly resisted the UNC leadership’s desire to name its new basketball arena after him in recognition of his career. (That’s one fight he lost.) He also instilled humility in his players, who were encouraged to give credit by pointing back to the passer after scoring a basket. Effective leaders share and even deflect credit to honor the contributions of others.

Standing on principle

“There is a point in every contest when sitting on the sidelines is not an option.”

Dean Smith was also respected off the court for speaking his mind and acting in conscience, even though his beliefs could be unpopular in a conservative state. He was eager to help desegregate society. In 1964, he recruited the league’s first African American scholarship player, Charlie Scott, who went on to become an NBA all-star and U.S. Olympic squad gold-medal winner. Dean Smith also spoke out against the death penalty and even held basketball practices at local prisons. Community leaders should look for ways to contribute to larger equity goals even if they are indirectly related to their own priority outcomes.

Nurturing relationships

“The coach’s job is to be part servant in helping each player reach his goals within the team concept.”

During Dean Smith’s public memorial service, speaker after speaker recognized him for the caring personal relationships he built with his players, even staying in contact with them years after they left Chapel Hill. He so valued the young men he mentored that he once interrupted a meeting with the university’s athletic director to take a call from one of his players. “Do you mind stepping out while I take this call?” he said at the time. Community leaders understand that success cannot be sustained without good relationships among partners.

Valuing capacity and learning above winning

“If you make every game a life-and-death thing, you’re going to have problems. You’ll be dead a lot.”

Coach Smith was expected to deliver wins on the basketball court, yet he did not make winning his single-minded obsession. Former players recall his greater concern for their education and well-being. Similarly, great community leaders tend to the development of their coalitions, organizations and people who contribute to them.

I admit that coaching college basketball players differs from organizing partners and residents towards a healthier community. For example, increasing parks, trails and safer streets may require trade-offs, but community leaders must look for wins for all sides. And unlike Coach Smith, who had traditional authority over his players, leaders of coalitions, agencies and elected bodies must motivate, collaborate with and learn from constituents, staff members, community members and young people.

While he may seem like a figure from a golden era, at least for Tar Heel fans, Dean Smith left us with timely lessons for leaders that can help us achieve healthier communities.

Phil Bors

Senior Project Director

Community collaborator, enthusiastic brainstormer, and devotee of down time