When retired UNC basketball coach Dean Smith came to Chapel Hill as a UNC assistant in 1959, he joined Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, one of the Triangle’s most progressive congregations.
By coincidence or divine design, Smith attended his first Binkley service on the same Sunday that Binkley’s first pastor–now pastor emeritus–the Rev. Robert Seymour, was delivering his inaugural sermon.
An early advocate of civil rights and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, Seymour would have an enormous impact on the faith and public life of Smith. In 1961, when he was named UNC head coach, Smith wrote that Seymour told him: “Go find a black basketball player for the university.”
As a young coach, Smith stood in front of the Franklin Street Post Office in opposition to the Vietnam war. And he did as Seymour suggested, integrating the Tar Heels basketball team by recruiting the great Charlie Scott as the university’s first African-American scholarship athlete.
Smith remains an admirer of and good friend to Seymour, and although the very private Smith has not always taken as strong a stand on important social issues as Seymour would have liked, Smith remains a man of principle who has done far more to support liberal causes than any other head coach around.
This year, Smith offered some thanks to his former pastor and spiritual advisor in a forward to When Life Becomes Worthwhile, a collection of Seymour’s sermons published by Chapel Hill Press and the fourth book Seymour, also a columnist for The Chapel Hill News, has authored since his 1988 retirement.
“Through the years, I have publicly taken ‘controversial’ stands on issues beyond race,” Smith writes, “such as supporting a verifiable freeze on nuclear weapons, ending the death penalty, and promoting tolerance for gays and lesbians. While I’d like to think that I would have taken these stands on my own, there is no doubt that the support of Bob Seymour and the faith community that he helped to create and foster encouraged me to speak out sooner and made it easier to do than would have been the case without him.”
Smith, a Democrat who stumped for candidates such as Kerry/Edwards and fellow Binkley member U.S. Rep. David Price, wrote that he had always encouraged Seymour to publish a book of his sermons.
“Under Bob’s guidance, Binkley Baptist Church took the lead in any number of social issues,” Smith writes. “His preaching always succeeded brilliantly in what many pastors try to do: comfort the guilty and make guilty the comfortable.”