Dean Smith: an appreciation

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Brian Simmons (No. 56) was in the middle of the Bengals' return to contenders under Marvin Lewis.

Brian Simmons never met Dean Smith.

Not in person, anyway. But long before he became the most versatile linebacker in Bengals history and then continued his NFL journey as a college scout for the Jaguars, Simmons wore Carolina blue because of Dean Edwards Smith.

 "When I was coming out of high school in the '90s, regardless of what sport you were going there to play, in some small part you probably wanted to go there because of what he built," says Simmons, who didn't sift through the other offers very long down there in New Bern, N.C.

Not from North Carolina State. Or Virginia. Or Georgia Tech. Or Duke. Or East Carolina. Or South Carolina.

 "I was a Carolina fan growing up because of Dean Smith and the basketball team. I was a Carolina basketball fan before I was a Carolina football fan," Simmons says. "I didn't follow Carolina football until I was a junior in high school. You go through the (college) process, you go through all the visits and stuff like that, but I couldn't really see myself going anywhere but the University of North Carolina."

It is Monday, about 48 hours after Smith's death at age 83 in the wake of a devastating siege of memory loss, and for Simmons the passing of North Carolina's long-time basketball coach is one of those markers that mark your own time passages.

Simmons, 39, actually lived in a house without cable. That happened way back when, kids. But when he was a kid in Dean Smith's '80s, Simmons could still get his heroes through Raycom Sports or Jefferson Pilot, the ACC Network.  Sam Perkins and J.R. Reid.  James Worthy and King Rice.

"Even Pete Chilcutt," Simmons says.

Smith taught his players to point to the guy who helped them score. It was not lost on 12-year-old Brian Simmons watching some frosh named Chilcutt beat a Syracuse Final Four team late in his first college game.

"I grew up on the Carolina Way," he says. "It illustrates it's about team work and needing the help of others and acknowledging those who helped you have success. At the end of the day, that's what it was about."

By the time Smith retired in October of 1997, Simmons was in his senior season at Chapel Hill and about to end a career that would make him a first-round draft pick of the Bengals the following April.

"He was one of the main leaders of the university. He might have been the leader of the university," Simmons says. "Some people abuse power like that. But he used it in a positive way. At least not in an unselfish way."

After Simmons played nine seasons for the Bengals and 10 years in the NFL, he moved into scouting and began to hear about Smith's battle with memory. Simmons had a football teammate at UNC who also played basketball and Octavus Barnes pulled no punches when he talked about Coach Smith to his football teammates.

"People said his memory and people skills were one of a kind," Simmons says. "He could remember everything and anything about anybody he encountered. He'd recall   facts about them two, three, four years later off a 15-minute conversation."

It brought back grim memories for Simmons, whose 75-year-old grandfather died of the same thing.  By the time the disease had ravaged memories and membranes, his grandfather didn't know who he was and he knew what the heartbreaking erasures meant for Smith's family.

"It's a sad way to see somebody that you love die, I'll tell you that," Simmons says. "You see them every day getting taken away from you."

It was about that time that Simmons learned how powerful a figure Smith had been in the integration of the ACC and Chapel Hill. In the mid-60s, along with his pastor, Smith and an African-American student integrated the restaurant where the Tar Heels ate their meals. Two years later Smith recruited Charles Scott, the school's first scholarship African-American athlete.

Think of that now. A coach or a player making such a stand in a pit of rigid and banal corporate political correctness that has become sports.

 "It's the first I ever knew of it. As a kid, you don't even pay attention to stuff like that. Honestly, it's only about watching basketball," Simmons says. "But about the time he was diagnosed they talked about how he basically de-segregated certain parts of the community and Chapel Hill. Some of the restaurants. And that made me appreciate him even more."

Simmons thinks back to Franklin Street of the late '90s. That's where more than 30 years before Smith helped integrate that restaurant called "The Pines."

"For the students, Franklin Street is the heartbeat of the campus," Simmons says. "Everybody is there. Athletes, non-athletes. Black. White. Hispanic. Everybody. It's the pulse of campus. You don't even think about it.

"It's always harder to be the first one. He stepped out there and made that happen….Ultimately, whatever we do, if you're granted power, it's your obligation to use your power to help other people improve themselves and that's what he did in his position.

"I think," Simmons says, "he probably would agree. Everything in his life he's done as a coach, that's probably up at the top."

There is the little kid watching Jordan and Jefferson Pilot and there is the pro linebacker and there is the NFL scout and all of them come together Monday.

"If you were a Carolina fan," Simmons says, "you didn't like Dean Smith. You loved Dean Smith."

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