In the early 2000s, Kenan Professor of English Alan Shapiro received an unusual job offer from Dean Smith.
Smith had recently retired from head coach of the men’s basketball team at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and he asked Shapiro to be the next shot clock keeper for the team’s home games. “I didn’t know what that entailed exactly,” Shapiro remembers. “But I certainly was open to the idea.”
The job offer wasn’t entirely out of the blue. It had been a mutual love for the sport that catalyzed a friendship between a poet and a basketball coach, and Shapiro wasn’t the unlikeliest of candidates for the job, either. He had played competitively as an undergraduate and was known for being a regular at campus pick up games in Chapel Hill. When Smith invited Shapiro to pay a visit to the basketball court to scope it out, he obliged.
On the court, Shapiro had what he calls a “classic Dean Smith” moment. Prior to his visit, Smith had distributed copies of Shapiro’s latest collection of poems to members of the athletics staff and team. “He wanted me to feel as though as I was well respected and honored within the department.” Shapiro declined the shot clock job (“It’s no way to watch a basketball game”), yet the memory is poignant, and indicative of how Smith approached his work at Carolina. “It was a gesture of how much he wanted the athletic program to be integrated into the intellectual and cultural life of the university as a whole.”
Shapiro and Smith had become fast friends in the spring of 1999 while in the same cohort of the Faculty Fellows program at the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. The program offers faculty semester-long, on-campus leaves to work on major scholarly projects, and then-director Ruel Tyson personally invited Smith to join and work on his autobiography. “I was not fishing for a famous person to be a visiting Fellow. I was looking for a ‘case in the making’—his biography—and for ways to enrich the conversation,” he says.
Smith’s presence in the 13-member cohort generated more than a small amount of excitement at the group’s first weekly seminar. “We’re sitting around the room, about to have lunch and meet everybody,” remembers mathematics lecturer Mark McCombs, a recipient of the Chapman Family Teaching Award that year. “Coach Smith walks in and I’m going, ‘Okay, am I in the wrong room?’”
Excitement gave way to mutual intellectual curiosity and respect between Smith and the cohort. “He was a complete participant and he read everybody’s work,” says Shapiro. The Faculty Fellows format gives each Fellow one three-hour session to present on his or her work and then solicit feedback, and everyone remembers Smith’s ability to ask incisive questions. McCombs was developing a math course for liberal arts majors at the time. “He helped illuminate what was going on in a way I hadn’t thought about,” he says. George Lensing, Mann Family Distinguished Professor of English, adds that Smith’s participation was always without pretension. “He consistently would make comments or ask questions that were very insightful and intelligent, but also authentic to who he was. He wasn’t trying to play the scholar, even though the rest of us were responding in that capacity. He was obviously a very intelligent man.”
Smith worked on what would become his autobiography, A Coach’s Life, throughout his time as a Faculty Fellow at the Institute. Co-written with John Kilgo and Sally Jenkins and published in 2002, Smith names each member of the cohort in his introductory acknowledgments.
In 2002, Smith joined the Institute’s advisory board (a “happy consequence” of his fellowship, says Tyson) and he remained on the board for the next seven years. Fellow board member Jennifer Lloyd Halsey ’94 was struck by his warmth and humility. “Here is this accomplished man with international acclaim, and yet there was none of that in his demeanor. He was the most humble man in the room. He was so open, and natural, and easygoing.” Smith was committed to the mission of the Institute—and therefore a bit reluctant to talk sports. “His focus was genuinely on the opportunities faculty needed to do this interdisciplinary work,” she says, yet he did offer Halsey a small piece of advice when her first son was born. “Dribble left, shoot left, go left,” she remembers, laughing. For Halsey’s father’s eightieth birthday, Smith secured the family front row seats to the Carolina-State game and spent over an hour with him before the game. “I think he did that over and over and over again for people. He welcomed them in and shared that experience with them, which is just a sign of his extreme generosity of spirit.”
In the opening pages of A Coach’s Life, Smith writes: “I’m interested in the complete picture. I’ve witnessed some significant cultural shifts, from the civil rights movement to the burgeoning of collegiate basketball as a commercial enterprise worth billions, and one can’t do that without deciding there is more to life than strictly Carolina basketball.”
At the Institute and well beyond, Smith’s legacy is very much about the complete picture.
—Jenny Morgan, IAH communications specialist