The death penalty has become one of the flash points in our society, and was used effectively as a "wedge" issue by the GOP in the 70's and '80's (ie., Bush v. Dukakis, 1988). In the 1990's, the conventional wisdom held that any Democrat who wished to hold high office had to support the death penalty. Bill Clinton famously returned to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to preside over the execution of one convict, and Grey Davis took a more hawkish position on the death penalty than his Republican opponent in the last election.
Recently, the mood has shifted slightly on the issue. Republican Governor George Ryan of Illinois imposed a morotorium several years ago on its implimentation, and commuted the sentences of everyone on death row before he left office. In the last presidential election, both Gore and Bush supported the death penalty, but it was then-Governor Bush who was forced to justify the often slip-shod procedures by which the ultimate punishment was meted out in Texas. In addition, the Roman Catholic church has lobbied aggressively to abolish the penalty, and some, like conservative TV and radio commentator Bill O'Reilly, have been outspoken opponents.
So what's does this have to do with college sports. Well, according to the New York Times, three former coaches, including the only ex-college coach sitting in Congress, have publicly come out in support of either the abolition or the suspension of the death penalty. Those coaches include Dean Smith, whose liberalism and advocacy on civil rights go back four decades, but also Dale Brown, who is often discussed as a possible GOP Senate candidate in his home state of North Dakota, and Tom Osborne, who is now a two-term Republican Congressman from Nebraska. Rep. Osborne acknowledges that his position is not one his constituents share, but was shaped by the many years spent coaching, recruiting, and mentoring African-Americans during his career with the Nebraska Cornhuskers [link via TalkLeft]