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Paul Putz

Dean Smith stands seventh on the all-time wins list for NCAA men’s basketball coaches. With two national championships, eleven Final Four appearances, and four national Coach of the Year awards, Smith—who passed away in 2015—is one of the giants in the game.

But in 1965, his fourth year as the North Carolina head basketball coach, his career was just getting started. The national championships and Final Four appearances all lay in the future. Smith was just a young coach trying to make it in the game.

Not only that, Smith was a young Christian coach trying to figure out how his faith and his vocation were connected.

Writing in The Christian Athlete, the official publication of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Smith opened up about this struggle. He wrote of growing up with the idea that “the best possible Christian” was the one who became a missionary or pastor or entered into some other type of church-related service. He wrote of how he made a deal with God in junior high: If God would grant him a spot on the baseball team, Smith would become an overseas missionary.

God did grant Smith the spot. But Smith grew uneasy with his deal. He took his faith seriously and wanted to honor God. Yet he also loved sports and felt called to be a coach.

The guilt persisted through his college years at the University of Kansas, where he was a back-up guard on a national championship team, and after graduation when he took his first coaching job. Eventually he talked it over with his sister, who happened to be enrolled in seminary. “After many discussions,” Smith wrote, “she suggested that I do some reading and sent me many books in theology—some of which I understood! This was the first step toward lessening the guilt of my decision to coach.”

The key insight Smith got from his reading, which included authors like Elton Trueblood and H. Richard Niebuhr, was this: coaching could be a sacred calling, a way to participate in God’s work in the world. It was not less important or inferior to full-time ministry. As Smith put it: “My vocation is acceptable to God if it involves work that is necessary in God’s world or work that makes a positive contribution to man’s well-being and happiness.”

Smith brought this new perspective with him when he arrived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1958 to take a position as assistant basketball coach. There, his theological understanding of vocation was strengthened by his decision to join Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church, a brand-new interracial congregation pastored by Robert Seymour.

At the time, segregation still reigned supreme in the South, and most white Christians either passively accepted or actively supported Jim Crow—even in their churches. The vast majority of Southern Baptist churches (over 90 percent) barred Black people from membership. But Seymour was part of a small minority of white Christian leaders supporting the work of Black civil rights activists.

Seymour quickly brought Smith into this work. In 1959 the two men took a Black theology student out to dinner at a segregated restaurant in Chapel Hill, hoping to help break down the color line. In 1961, soon after Smith was named head coach at North Carolina, Seymour encouraged him to “find a black basketball player for the university” as part of his vocational calling.

Smith immediately set out on his task, although it would take until 1966 before he signed Charlie Scott, the first Black scholarship athlete at the University of North Carolina. In the meantime, Smith continued to support his church’s civil rights work in Chapel Hill. Historian Charles Martin, author of Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, took note of this, describing Smith as “one of the few southern coaches who viewed athletic integration as an ethical and moral responsibility.”

Martin’s point is important. While there is no doubt that Smith—like other white southern coaches—benefited from recruiting talented Black athletes, his efforts to challenge segregation were not merely transactional. They flowed out of how he lived the rest of his life, including the church that he attended and the work that he supported in his community.

It is in Smith’s support for racial justice that we witness the full implications of his theological understanding of vocation. Seeing coaching as a sacred calling, an opportunity to love God and others, provided a sense of freedom and removed the guilt he used to feel. But it also came with responsibility.

“We have a double standard for the clergy and the laity, the sacred and the secular, and I don’t think that’s the way God intended it,” Smith later explained. “I don’t think a pastor’s Christian ethic should be different from any other professing Christian.”

Christian coaches and athletes—and others in the sports world—can learn from Smith’s example. There are probably fewer Christians today who believe sports are trivial or incompatible with their faith. But the other side of Smith’s witness bears repeating: Christian work in sports requires ethical and moral consideration. It requires us to examine sports and, in Smith’s words, to “interpret the world of won-loss records, erratic performances, and our own attitudes toward an athletic contest” in light of our Christian convictions.

“Our faith,” Smith wrote, “enables us to take the awful emptiness of defeat as well as the wonderful elation of victory and reminds us that neither is the whole meaning of life.”

This proper sense of perspective is just as important as recognizing the sacred potential of sports. It helps us see that sports are one important part of a much larger world—a world created by God and in need of repair and faithful Christian witness, in sports and beyond.

NOTE: This post was adapted from introductory material in the Faith & Sports Institute’s online certificate course on “Sports & Theology.” If you’re interested in exploring sports from a theological perspective, you can check out FSI’s online certificate program here: baylor.edu/truett/fsionline