President Obama will announce on Thursday that Dean Smith will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, according to an ESPN.com report.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation’s highest civilian honor, according to the White House, and is “presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
In addition to Smith, ESPN.com reported that Ernie Banks, known with affection as “Mr. Cub” for his Major League Baseball Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Cubs, will also receive the Medal of Freedom.
Smith coached at UNC from 1961 through 1997, retiring after 36 seasons, 879 victories and two national championships, which the Tar Heels won in 1982 and 1993. He guided the Tar Heels to the ACC tournament championship 13 times, and he led UNC to 11 Final Fours. At the time of his retirement, Smith was the most victorious coach in college basketball history.
In addition to what his teams accomplished on the court, Smith is remembered for the connection he shared with his players off of it. More than 95 percent of Smith’s lettermen graduated, and he fostered an atmosphere that kept players returning to campus years after they’d left school.
Smith in recent years has been suffering from a neurological disorder that has greatly diminished his memory.
Smith’s family in 2010 released a letter about his condition that read, in part: “Our dad has a progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory.
“So now, he may not immediately recall the name of every former player from his many years in coaching, but that does not diminish what those players meant to him or how much he cares about them.”
Pat Summitt, the former Tennessee women’s basketball coach who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year. Other recipients who made their name in sports include: Stan Musial, Bill Russell, Billie Jean King, Muhammad Ali, Buck O’Neil, Frank Robinson, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Hank Aaron.
David Scott has been with the Observer for 28 years and has written about ACC, SEC and other college sports in the Charlotte region. He covers Wake Forest, South Carolina and college soccer for the Observer and (Raleigh) News & Observer.
J.P. Giglio covers the ACC for the News & Observer, where he has worked since 1997, and the Observer.
Andrew Carter covers the North Carolina Tar Heels for the Observer and News & Observer.
Laura Keeley covers the Duke Blue Devils for the Observer and News & Observer. Follow her on Twitter.
Chip Alexander covers the Carolina Hurricanes and college football for the News & Observer, where he has worked since 1979, and the Observer.
Luke DeCock has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist for the Observer and News & Observer in August 2008.
Tim Crothers is an author and former senior writer at Sports Illustrated who is joining the sports staff to write a regular column during the rest of the college basketball season.