People of Faith Against the Death Penalty

Ex-coach takes on a higher cause
North Carolina basketball legend Dean Smith is working to end the death penalty in his state

By Bonnie DeSimone
Tribune staff reporter
February 9, 2003

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The winningest college basketball coach of all time leveled his finger at the chief executive of North Carolina.

"You're a murderer," Dean Smith told Gov. Jim Hunt in a voice as mild as his point was not.

Smith then pointed at one of the governor's aides and in turn at each of the other half-dozen people in a meeting room in Raleigh in November 1998.

"And you're a murderer, and you're a murderer, and I'm a murderer," Smith said.

Legal execution, he went on to say, is a communal act, one he did not believe was moral or effective.

A year after retiring from a renowned 36-year career as head coach of the University of North Carolina, Smith was part of a delegation from People of Faith Against the Death Penalty asking then-Gov. Hunt to stop a scheduled execution.

Hunt listened respectfully, according to those present. He did not grant the request. Two weeks later a convicted murderer named John Noland, whom Smith had befriended, was put to death by lethal injection despite a history of borderline mental illness.

The personal plea is perhaps the most dramatic gesture Smith has made on behalf of the movement to abolish capital punishment, but it isn't the only one. He is reluctant to speak about his role, fearing it will be exaggerated.

"I really haven't done much other than send a little money and talk to the governor and do some public-service announcements, so don't make me out to be too much of a hero," he said.

But death-penalty opponents in North Carolina, who are pushing for a moratorium on executions similar to Illinois', feel differently.

As a person of unimpeachable credibility in his home state, Smith's support is "invaluable to us who do this work day in and day out," said Gerda Stein, a staff social worker for North Carolina's Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

Silent coaches

It is also unusual in his profession. Sports figures, while often active in charitable causes, generally avoid taking sides in divisive, emotional national debates such as the one concerning the death penalty. Coaches for major Division I programs, as Smith was, recruit from a wide swath of the population and have an interest in not alienating people.

The pressures to remain neutral are both cultural and financial, said assistant professor Susan Zieff, who teaches a course on sport and social issues at San Francisco State University.

"Athletes are encouraged to be self-centered, and the system rewards that," Zieff said. "They're not taught or encouraged to be independent thinkers.

"Their corporate sponsors, historically, don't like political statements being made ... Anything that seems inflammatory is going to be risky."

Richard Lapchick, who heads the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, points out that sports stars who make explicit political statements, such as Muhammad Ali's draft resistance, may pay a heavy price in terms of image and marketability.

"Athletes have been schooled in being quiet," Lapchick said.

The deeply religious, self-effacing Smith says he acts out of the convictions of his faith.

"I do not condone any violence against any of God's children, and that is why I am opposed to the death penalty," he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, "A Coach's Life."

He has backed other controversial causes. Smith accompanied his minister and a black student to a segregated Chapel Hill restaurant in the early 1960s, and in 1966 he recruited Charles Scott, the first black basketball player to wear Carolina blue. He has spoken out for gay rights and a nuclear freeze.

Social conscience

Smith considers himself an educator, with the same intellectual freedom as any campus peer. He said he never feared his quiet activism would affect his job or the basketball program, and has received only a trickle of criticism.

"I'm a human being, like any professor," Smith said. "I can say what I believe."

In his sixth year of retirement, Smith is still a consultant to the basketball program and spends some time each weekday in a tiny, cluttered basement office in the multisport facility formally known as the Dean Edwards Smith Center but fondly called "the Dean Dome."

Yet Smith's true center may be a few minutes' drive away, in the high-ceilinged sanctuary of the Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church.

Smith has always credited the church's pastor emeritus, Rev. Robert Seymour, for encouraging him to step forward on social issues. Seymour said the coach's inner compass would have led him the same way.

"I don't think it's anything but wanting to do the right thing," Seymour said.

In the mid-1990s, Seymour began a petition drive in which People of Faith Against the Death Penalty solicited the signatures of 100 North Carolina business and civic leaders. Smith was the first to sign.

He serves on the group's board of advisers, has donated items for a fundraising auction and recorded a message in support of the proposed moratorium that was played on telephones in 10,000 homes.

In a 1999 dust-jacket blurb for a book on the death penalty, Smith wrote: "It simply is not fair and it doesn't even work."

"We've been very fortunate to have his involvement," said Stephen Dear, the group's executive director.

"In North Carolina there are three people who have an identity any organization would love: Billy Graham, Andy Griffith and Dean Smith. Coach Smith has more sway, in terms of the average North Carolina citizen [than the others]."

Smith's persona is not solely based on competitive success, although his teams won more than 77 percent of their games and two national championships. He was equally well known for running a scandal-free program with a near-perfect graduation rate.

The coach also emphasized community outreach. His teams visited hospitals, schools and prisons, including Central Prison in Raleigh, where Death Row is located. Players walked through the cellblocks, scrimmaged for the inmates and sometimes spoke with them.

No need to preach

Smith did not talk to his players about the death penalty but tried to teach by example that prisoners were individuals deserving of human dignity.

He paraphrases one of his favorite Scripture passages, a parable from Matthew, to illustrate his point.

"I just really believe that so much of anybody's ethical action is, `Do it for the least of these my brethren, do it unto me,"' Smith said. "For the unconditional love we receive from the Creator, we're supposed to respond with ethical action."

Years after the visits, Smith's former players remember them vividly, including the orange jumpsuits that distinguished Death Row inmates from the rest of the prison population.

"Coach Smith would get right in the cells with them," said Hubert Davis, a 1992 graduate who currently plays for the NBA's Detroit Pistons. "We could tell how much they looked up to us, what a good day it was for them when we were there. It gave us a visual impression of how lucky and blessed we were. On the way back, every time, the bus was always silent."

Brad Frederick, an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, played for Smith during the coach's final season.

"He never pushed his causes on us," Frederick said. "... I was opposed to the death penalty before I went [into the prison] and that reinforced it."

Smith met Noland, whose cell was plastered with Tar Heels paraphernalia, on one of those visits. Noland, who killed the sister and father of his estranged wife in 1982, was waiting out numerous appeals; two federal judges ordered new trials, saying the sentencing jury was not properly instructed in mitigating circumstances. But higher courts overruled them.

The two men corresponded occasionally for the rest of Noland's life, exchanging thoughts on religion and basketball.

Rev. Jim Pike, now pastor at Binkley Baptist Church, had become Noland's spiritual adviser in the mid-'90s. The minister knew what the coach meant to the inmate.

"I think it was the fact that this larger-than-life figure accepted him without judgment or ridicule or fear," said Pike, former pastor of the Community Church in Wilmette.

Noland and Smith spoke on the telephone two days before Noland was executed after 16 years on Death Row.

The conversation was upbeat, Smith said, because Noland had accepted his circumstances and believed he had been saved.

"He seemed as ready to go as anybody, in great spirits," Smith said.

"I said I was sorry I couldn't do anything. But that would have been true if it was somebody I didn't know."

What the future holds

There are currently 202 inmates on North Carolina's Death Row. Gov. Michael Easley supports capital punishment but has granted clemency twice since taking office in 2001. The state has executed seven prisoners in that time.

The state legislature recently reconvened for a new two-year session. The moratorium bill didn't make it out of committee last session, but death-penalty opponents, energized by the developments in Illinois, plan to reintroduce it.

People of Faith Against the Death Penalty has gathered 40,000 signatures and 600 endorsements from businesses, congregations and civic groups in support of instituting a moratorium.

There are things Smith doesn't do for the movement, mainly because he remains fundamentally shy. For instance, he doesn't participate in vigils outside Central Prison on execution nights.

When Smith joined the group visiting Hunt (who declined to be interviewed), he avoided interviews by using a separate exit.

Smith will not discuss whether he counseled his most famous protege, Michael Jordan, during the 1996 trial of the two men who murdered Jordan's father three years before. The Jordan family never made its feelings known regarding punishment, according to Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt.

The prosecution asked for the death penalty for both defendants. Separate juries sentenced Daniel Green and Larry Demery to life in prison.

Smith will not criticize sports celebrities who eschew activism, saying he believes athletes are sometimes unfairly pegged to lead when it is incumbent on everyone to be socially responsible.

But he said he will continue to be an ally of death-penalty opponents in North Carolina. Architect of the four-corners slow-down offense that routinely wilted Tar Heels opponents, he is well-versed in patience but still wants to win.

"When we have the death penalty, I think every time somebody is killed, I'm killing them," he said.

"Ruth in there. Bill in there," Smith said, gesturing toward two adjoining offices.

"All of us in this state are killing. I can't remember wanting to kill someone."

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune

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