Dean E. Smith Center

Dean E. Smith Center         


When one thinks of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), a reputation of premier sports and athletics often comes to mind. Visitors often do not fully appreciate the excitement that revolves around UNC sporting events and teams, but who can blame them? After all, a university should primarily be about developing students with impressive academic abilities who will eventually succeed in the future. Still, it is hard to ignore the feelings within the community. These emotions manifest in the cheers, tension, and excitement from campus to Franklin Street when the Tar Heels became the 2017 National Champions.

DeanSmith22The UNC sports program would not be what it is today were it not for the legacy left by Dean E. Smith, an important coach in the history of collegiate basketball. As such, it was only logical to name a new building in his honor—one that would serve the students, athletes, and fans from around the world. At the time, UNC had use of the Carmichael Stadium, which could hold only about 10,000 people. Building a new, larger stadium and naming it after someone as renowned as Dean Smith would enhance both the traditions of the school and the capacity of the sports program.


This path led to both opportunity as well as controversy. The University stood to make much higher revenues with a stadium of over 20,000+ seats, but it would change the tranquil landscape of Chapel Hill and upset long-standing residents of the city. It was certainly necessary at the time for UNC to build an addition to the Carmichael Stadium, but it is currently too early to build yet another large stadium. The existing Dean E. Smith Center already serves the school’s financial and cultural needs.

Building Overview

Dean E. Smith Center, now known as the Dean Dome, was completed on January 18, 1986, at 300 Skipper Bowles Dr. Chapel Hill. Frequented primarily by UNC students and alumni, it is an icon of the university’s national championship men’s basketball team. Its predecessor, the 10,000-seat Carmichael Auditorium, hosted both the men’s and women’s teams. As the number of fans grew, a large basketball arena with significantly increased spectator seating capacity became necessary for the University’s intercollegiate basketball program, to increase facilities for non-revenue sports, intramurals, and general recreation [1].

In May 1980, the Department of Athletics and the Educational Foundation embarked on a mission to raise millions of dollars from private donations to construct an arena. The real inspiration for the fund-raising effort came from the campaign Chairman, Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles. Between 1980 and 1984, the fundraising campaign received almost 2,400 individuals’ contributions that totaled $35 million.

                            [2] Inside of Dean Smith Center By Stephen Mitchell

The Center took 43 months to create as builders extracted more than 20,000 yards of rock from a wooded ravine near Mason Farm Road.  In addition, builders redistributed 150,000 cubic feet of soil to clear and shape the land. The 300,000-square-foot structure now stands on seven and a half acres of the University’s south campus, where the student body has easy, convenient access [3]. Today, the 21,444-seat Dean E. Smith Center supports not only Carolina basketball, but also concerts, commencement activities, and other special events.

Building Construction and Design

In July 1973, Chancellor Taylor appointed a special committee to study the need for athletic facilities on Chapel Hill campus over the ensuing decade [4]. The result of the study is that an on-campus location was vital in order to provide easy access for the student body. Further, the study found that the needs for the new building should not only be a mass seating facility; it is also desirable to enhance intramural and recreational programs. The solution was to utilize flexible design with movable seating to provide space for a variety of recreational activities at times when seating is not required. The concept of a multi-use facility became the model for the proposed Student Athletic Center. Essentially, the facility would become an integral part of the campus structure, which is much different from the activity that surrounds a commercial mass-seating arena [5].

[6]Architecture Proposal

The primary architect for the facility was Middleton McMillan Architects. In the proposal, Middleton McMillan explained that the facility must become an integral part of the campus community without overwhelming the surrounding environment. They emphasized that t­­­he architecture of the new facility should be “recognized, translated, and implemented into the total fabric of the University on South Campus. [7]”


                                                           [8]Smith Center By Glenn Corley


The Smith Center makes use of theme-friendly design that fits the character of the UNC spirit.  For example, a giant heat duct that wraps around the arena above the seats stood to make the new facility unsightly with its monstrous heating and cooling pipe that was divided into eight segments.  Builders wrapped it in Carolina Blue Teflon and called it the “blue worm,” much to the delight of students [9]. The Dome is a Teflon-coated, fiberglass roof that is taut enough to support the weight of a fully-grown person. This dome, which weighs less than two pounds per square foot, stands as a “great white cap” that allows the arena to rely on natural sunlight for daily use.






[10]”Blue Worm” By Glenn Corley

Besides doubling Carmichael’s capacity, the Smith Center stayed true to the UNC spirit with oriental rugs, fresh flowers, and Carolina blue carpet that runs throughout the building’s offices. The Dean Center displays UNC’s sports history for tourists in the Memorabilia Room, a mini-museum containing artifacts and highlight tapes of the some of the greatest moments in the University’s rich athletic history. The state-of-the-art facility also serves athletes with a weight room, training room, and six recreational locker rooms.

Building Dedication, Coach Dean E. Smith, and “The Front Porch of the University”

Whether students and faculty agree or not, former UNC Chancellor Taylor describes UNC’s basketball program as “the front porch” of the university [11]. The Chancellor’s remark underscores the fame and importance of the sport to the university, but does not address the many other programs at which UNC excels. Nevertheless, stakeholders agreed that the building should be dedicated to the person responsible for building UNC basketball into a world-renowned sports program. Of course, this fame and reputation did not materialize overnight.

Collegiate basketball skyrocketed in the late 1970s with the beginning of televised college sports. The UNC men’s basketball team grew in skill and reputation, finally appearing on television to play high-stakes conference games. Television and news stations were willing to pay rights fees to be the exclusive telecasters in the TV sports market. Eventually, these steadily spiraling fees amounted to $1.725 billion in 1995 when NBC purchased exclusive rights to televise the NCAA tournament over eight years. This was the richest deal in the history of sports television up to that point [12].

The revenue opportunities were impossible for UNC leadership to ignore; the NCAA championships were instrumental in raising UNC’s world profile. Chancellor Ferebee Taylor felt that the most important part of the school was the education of the students, but when he saw that the majority of the new applicants to the school were academically in the top tenth percentile, he understood the value of athletics to UNC—the basketball program was truly “the front porch” of the University [13].

On August 3, 1961, before UNC’s televised successes, the University of North Carolina officially named thirty-year-old Dean E. Smith as Tar Heel’s basketball coach. Dean spent 36 years of his life transforming UNC basketball from a “widely recognized” program into a national powerhouse and is considered to be one of the greatest coaches of all time. He retired in 1997, having led his teams to win 879 games and two NCAA national championships.  He held the record for more victories than any other coach in Division I men’s basketball history until 2007. Smith died at the age of 83 in Chapel Hill on February 7, 2015 [14].

With the help of some extraordinary young men, Smith built UNC’s cultural basketball legacy. He coached legendary players such as Charlie Scott, Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Kenny Smith, and Eric Montross, and cemented a team culture of integration and real team equality. This was readily apparent when his scorers pointed to their passers to thank them for the assist.

As the capstone to such a long and illustrious career, the Student Activities Center is dedicated to Dean E. Smith, and is now one of the most recognized athletic venues in America.

[15]Chancellor Fordham sends congratulations to Dean Smith

Vanguard on Social Rights

Dean Smith was not just a leader on the basketball court. He was one of the few leaders of      athletics to really look out for the well-being of all of his team members. Early in the basketball program’s history in the 1950s, Jim Crow segregation was an unpleasant reality in Chapel Hill. Most businesses, including 19 restaurants, allowed no black customers or patrons. “White” and “colored” water fountains and bathrooms were a fixture in town. Barber shops, beauty shops, public school were all segregated to one degree or another.

The desegregation of Chapel Hill public schools did not start in earnest until 1964, and the UNC men’s basketball team hosted its first black member in 1966. Coach Smith specifically recruited Charlie Scott for his skill and abilities on the court. Recognition of this African-American scholarship athlete at UNC Chapel Hill for his skill and welcoming him onto the team was a seminal act in bringing civil rights and racial equality in the South.

This act came as second nature to Smith—it was nothing special. In his own family, Dean’s father taught him to “value each human being,” nothing less. He was taught to believe in the “human family” from day one, and other than that there wasn’t much to say about it. The Smith family deeply understands that racial justice is not preaching around the house, but rather is about treating each person with dignity.

DeanCharlieMichael20In 2013, President Obama awarded Dean Smith with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to recognize Smith’s work off the court. The former players say that Coach Smith did not command respect, he humbly earned it. Adding to the accolades, Michael Jordan once said: “Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith. He was more than a coach — he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father, [16]”

As a public figure, Smith often asked himself what his obligations were when it came to taking stands on social issues. He stayed true  to his calling. That meant avoiding the endorsement of products in advertising and leading a good and honest team.

[17]Charlie Scott, Dean E. Smith, and Michael Jordan

Surprisingly enough, Dean took the same stance on the Smith Center as academics do today.  He believed that the money could be better spent on a burn center for the University hospital or for academic pursuits. He did not believe that the basketball program needed a state-of-the-art facility to recruit. He believed that winning, improving players’ skills, and graduating young adults on a beautiful campus in a college town are the things that really sell. In the end, a facility does not sell a prospect. Dean only joined in fundraising for UNC, because the increase in capacity would mean more students and alumni could get in to enjoy the games [18].


                                                   [19] UNC Basketball Team 1967-68

Building Controversies

A building with such a history is not without its controversies. Due to the limited availability of land, the Smith Center needed to stand in a residential area, which naturally led to some consternation. The eventual site was located on Mason Farm Road, and residents there strongly opposed the building of the athletic coliseum in their backyards. The primary concern was that the building would disrupt their neighborhood and create endless traffic problems. Other concerns included the fear that the giant building would not fit on the college campus; the traffic and noise are more conducive to commercial districts [20], not a peaceful and quiet learning environment for students.

In the struggle to define the university as one that was academics-first, athletics seemed to win out in the early 1980s. According to Daily Tar Heel, after the 1982 NCAA basketball championship, University officials actually halted the construction work on the new Davis Library and diverted its funding to the construction of the Student Activity Center [21]. An alumna who supported this change said: “Face it, the libraries did not make this University what it is today. Basketball made this University.” While her statement makes monetary sense, it does not address the core purpose of an institution of learning. Without excellent educational programs, a University will lose its real value. Basketball championships may bring pride to campus, but they do not supplant the importance of education.

In recent years, Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham and others proposed to renovate or build a new basketball arena. The renovation plan includes the addition of a large video board suspended from the ceiling, widening the concourse, and creating ample premium seating.

Requiring significantly more capital, another plan seeks to build brand new arena altogether with the most modern amenities near the Smith Center [22]. Cunningham said that both proposals would leave UNC with a modern facility capable of meeting fans’ needs, and the premium seating such as luxury suites or club seats would generate more revenue.


While a new facility sounds like a potentially attractive option, the renovations that Smith Center has had in the past actually proved sufficient. Upon the completion of the renovation in 2001, Dean E. Smith Center’s total seating capacity reached 21,750 [23]. During the subsequent years, the arena had gone through quite frequent renovations and improvements, which kept it on the cutting-edge of basketball arenas [24]. Some important renovation such as building a standing-room-only section allowing 400 students to move court site not only satisfies students’ demand for closer to court experience, but also help creating more excitement during the games [25]. However, I think the idea of adding luxury suites is more of a corporate status symbol; upscale suites will not benefit UNC and its students. Moreover, the idea of building a new arena should not be in any interest of the University.  Alumna E.T. Malone Jr. said: “I believe that luxury seating, clubs, and suites are contrary to the spirit of a public university…[26]”

The 30 year-old Dean E. Smith Center and its memories should remain with UNC since the history of the building is valuable to all Tar Heels, past and present. As such, renovation will be the optimal solution to the future needs of the UNC community. Instead of building a new facility, UNC should renovate what it has to increase capacity. Dean Smith, who fought for the reputation of our university, would likely agree. Either way, the Student Activities Center will continue to stand for loyalty, dedication, and achievement. This will be enough for the town of Chapel Hill, the students, the faculty, and the staff of University of North Carolina.


Further Readings on Dean E. Smith Center:

Architectural proposals for student athletic center. July 27, 1979. North Carolina Collection. 1979.

Smith Dean, Kilgo John, and Jenkins Sally. A Coach’s Life: my forty years in college basketball/Dean Smith. Random House. New York. 1999.

Game Changers: Dean Smith, Charlie Scott and The Era That Transformed A Southern College Town

Commitment to Excellence: The Dean E. Smith Center. Four Corners Press. Chapel Hill.

Chancellor Christopher Fordham records. Box 4:1. North Carolina Collection.

University of North Carolina Dean E. Smith Center [picture] : January 18, 1986-January 18, 2011 : 25 years : Smith Center record 301-56 (84.3%). North Carolina Collection. 2011.

Basketball. Video recording: Duke/North Carolina. Paris: Ethan Productions. 2002.Smith, Dean.

The Carolina Way: Leadership Lessons from a Life in Coaching Dean Smith and Gerald D. Bell with John Kilgo. New York: Penguin Press. 2004.


[1] University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Office of the Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance, issuing Architectural proposals for student athletic center: July 27, 1979. North Carolina Special Collection.
[2] Commitment to Excellence The Dean E. Smith Center. Four Corners Press. Chapel Hill. North Carolina Special Collection
[3] University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Office of the Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance, issuing Architectural proposals for student athletic center: July 27, 1979. North Carolina Special Collection
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid 3
[7] Ibid
[8] Ibid 2
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid
[11] Smith Dean, Kilgo John, and Jenkins Sally. A Coach’s Life: my forty years in college basketball/Dean Smith. Random House. New York. 1999.
[12] Ibid
[13] Ibid
[14] Ibid
[15] Chancellor: Christopher Fordham records. Box 4:1. North Carolina Special Collection
[16] Ibid
[17] Smith Dean, Kilgo John, and Jenkins Sally. A Coach’s Life: my forty years in college basketball/Dean Smith. Random House. New York. 1999.
[18] Ibid
[19] Ibid
[20] An Imposing Presence. The Daily Tar Heel. November 9, 1978.
[21] Cash for Dunks, not Books. The Daily Tar Heel. April 1, 1982
[22] UNC has vision of what new Smith Center, New Arena, Might Look Like. Web.
[23] The Daily Tar Heel.
[24] Official Site of Carolina Athletics
[25] Ibid
[26] UNC, Architects Looking at Future of Smith Center. Web.