President honors Dean Smith, Smith's daughter tells WBTV what it - WBTV 3 News, Weather, Sports, and Traffic for Charlotte, NC

President honors Dean Smith, Smith's daughter tells WBTV what it means to family

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When it comes to college basketball there are few names as legendary or revered as that of Dean Smith. 

Smith, now 82, guided the North Carolina Tar Heel basketball team from 1961 to 1997, winning two national championships.  When he retired he was the winningest coach in college basketball history, and he was also a civil rights pioneer. 

Those accomplishments led to Smith being honored today with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  It's the highest civilian award this county can give.  The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded, according to the White House, to individuals who have "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."

It's the latest in a lifetime of honors and recognitions for Smith, but one of Smith's daughters says this one is a particular source of pride.

The books in the living room and the small UNC garden flag outside of her Salisbury home might be clues, but while the world knows Dean Smith as coach, Sandy Combs knows him as dad.

"He was a wonderful father, and still is a wonderful father, but he always always worked towards people who were different, trying to help people," Combs told WBTV.  "He was always trying to help elevate and help everybody who is different, whether its skin color, socio-economic, to become better so to speak."

Sandy said she was about 12 when she first realized that being the daughter of Dean Smith just might be something very special.

"I think it was 1968 or so, we were against Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the UCLA team," Combs remembered. "The thrill for me was riding on the airplane with all the basketball players and the basketball players were in charge of us, the three children at the time. We were going to California and were going to get to to to Disney World.  I thought 'this might be kind of fun.'"

Combs also gave a little insight into what it's like to be the child;d of an instantly recognized father. She says her dad always encouraged his children to be independent.

"He always taught us, as children, we always had a life apart from basketball, he did not encourage us to be followers, he used to always say now if I was a doctor you wouldn't come to my operating room all the time, so he really taught us to be very independent to be people who made a difference ourselves, to work hard, and really to be the best that we could be."

And how did her father deal with all the fans and autograph seekers?  His daughter says he handled each request with grace.

"He was always very gracious," Combs said.  "People would always ask him for an autograph, people would say please come see this person in the hospital and he was always gracious, he never turned anybody away, he did his very best to help others and do be very gracious about his fame, that sort of thing."

Sandy Combs lives in Salisbury with her husband, Reverend Steve Combs, and their two children. Steve is the pastor at Milford Hills United Methodist Church. 

Sandy says the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is a great honor for her father, but also for the whole family.

"What it means for us as a family is that dad is finally being recognized for all the things he did behind the scenes," Combs said.  "He definitely  was somebody who was a champion for civil rights and for people who were perceived as different.  He used to say that basketball, the pros, all of sports was just a great equalizer cause people who were different were able to elevate themselves and be a part of a team."

A pioneer for civil rights in the south at a time when it wasn't popular earned Dean Smith a legacy outside of his basketball credits.

"His successes go far beyond X's and O's," President Obama said of Smith. "Even as he won 78 percent of his games, he graduated 96 percent of his players. "We also honor his courage in helping to change our country. He recruited the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helped integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That's the kind of character he represented on and off the court."

"I'm just really proud that he's being recognized for championing issues that were not popular at the time, not all the time in the south civil rights was not very popular, I'm really proud of him and this honor of the medal acknowledges that," Combs added.

Due to his health, Dean Smith was not able to attend the ceremony.  Smith's wife, Dr. Linnea Smith, accepted the medal from President Obama. Other family members were there, but Sandy was in Chapel Hill with her father.  That's where the arena named in his honor is still an important part of his life and the lives of those famous names he's touched over the years.

"He still goes to the office Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Phil Ford stops by a lot," said Combs.  "He and Phil are particularly close, and when Phil said goodbye he kissed him on the head and said 'love you coach' and you know, that to me is a great example of the love that they did have for him because he cared about them and wanted the best for the basketball players, and the basketball players were his family."

Pictures in the living room at the parsonage where Sandy and her family live show a side of Dean Smith rarely seen outside of the family circle.  A small basketball signed for his grandson says simply 'love Grandpa,' and like the efforts that led to the honor he's receiving, sometimes the things not often seen can carry the biggest impact.

"He was a champion for everybody," daughter Sandy said.  "He wanted to help everybody become their very very best."

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