SI Vault: Bill Guthridge's retirement at North Carolina set off a chain reaction
This story originally appeared in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's Sept. 4, 2000 issue.
Delaware basketball coach Mike Brey was eating breakfast with his wife, Tish, on the porch of their Rehoboth Beach, Del., vacation home on July 7 when he read the news in USA Today: Kansas coach Roy Williams had turned down the job at North Carolina made vacant by Bill Guthridge's unexpected retirement seven days earlier. Suddenly, as if a hidden path had opened right before his eyes, Mike turned and spoke four of the most common words in his profession: "Pack your bags, honey." In this case, he knew exactly where he and Tish were headed. "We're going to South Bend."
Call it what you will--clairvoyance, intuition, a sixth sense. Some folks see dead people, coaches see the next job opportunity. When Williams declined the Tar Heels' job offer, Brey reasoned that Notre Dame's Matt Doherty would be next in line at North Carolina. The Irish, in turn, would need a coach, and Brey had been a finalist for the job a year ago when Notre Dame hired Doherty.
So even though Notre Dame officials hadn't contacted him yet--even though they didn't yet have a vacancy to fill--Brey knew. "When the dominoes start falling, it's like you can hear the rumble in the distance," he says. "When somebody like Bill Guthridge retires, everybody in this business, from established coaches like me right down to a graduate assistant at East Dakota State, starts thinking, Gosh, I wonder if that will create an opening for me." Sure enough, on July 11 the 38-year-old Doherty took the North Carolina job, and three days later Brey, 41, became the new coach at Notre Dame.
One job gets filled, another one opens, over and over again. It happens every year (though rarely as visibly as it did in the aftermath of Guthridge's retirement, which came long after the end of the usual coach-switching season), and as the changes unfold,they touch the lives of coaches and assistants, athletic directors and athletes, to say nothing of secretaries, trainers and fans.
Since June 30, Guthridge's retirement has caused no fewer than 21 coaches from 10 schools to change their addresses (chart, right). As of Monday, there was still one job that had yet to be filled. Here's a look at how some of the lives of these fallen dominoes were affected.
Matt Doherty was preparing for an approach shot on the 15th hole at Warren Golf Course in South Bend on June 30 when his cell phone rang. The caller was a sportswriter advising Doherty of Guthridge's resignation. Doherty's mind quickly shifted to the Domino Theory. "I thought, Coach Williams will be the next Carolina coach, and maybe I'll get a call about replacing him at Kansas," Doherty says. "It was exciting to imagine how the dominoes might fall."
Composing himself, Doherty allowed a foursome to play through and then sliced his next shot into a greenside bunker. After a futile attempt to blast out, he picked up his ball and told his playing partners, "I'm moving on." So he was.
After 11 breathless days during which North Carolinians watched bulletins trail across their television screens informing them that none of the vaunted Tar Heels alumni in the coaching fraternity--not Williams, not South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler, not Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl, not Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown--would become Guthridge's successor, Doherty was the last obvious candidate standing. "When I saw myself on the front page of USA Today, the magnitude of the move really hit home," Doherty says. "When you're handed a program that's been to six of the last 10 Final Fours, you can see it as pressure or as an opportunity. I think it's pretty cool."
A forward on the 1982 Carolina national championship team, Doherty returned to Chapel Hill with only one season of head coaching experience at Notre Dame after seven seasons as an assistant under Williams at Kansas and three as an assistant at Davidson before that. He accepted the job during the critical July recruiting period and immediately set off on a recruiting odyssey made more chaotic because the wives of two of the assistants he was bringing with him from South Bend went into labor. It quickly became evident how much happier recruits were to see Doherty wearing powder blue than Irish green. At the Peach Jam tournament in North Augusta, S.C., on July 18, Florida coach Billy Donovan mused about how he had an oral commitment from highly touted 6'6" swingman Jackie Manuel from West Palm Beach, Fla., until Doherty made one phone call. Manuel changed his commitment to North Carolina after talking to Doherty. "That had never happened to me before," Donovan says.
At that same tournament Doherty ran into Mike Brey for the first time since both men changed jobs. Brey, a former Duke assistant, kidded Doherty about Doherty's meteoric rise and then thanked him for creating the opening at Notre Dame. Says Brey, "Who'd have thought that all the Carolina movement would help a Duke guy?"
"Congratulations," Doherty responded. "Want to buy a house?"
Turns out that Matt and his wife, Kelly, were putting the finishing touches on an addition to their home in South Bend. In fact, the night Guthridge retired, Matt had signed a previously negotiated five-year contract with Notre Dame because he didn't want Irish athletic director Kevin White to think he would use the Tar Heels' opening as leverage. That contract did, however, contain an escape clause that would allow Doherty to accept the North Carolina job if it became available.
Doherty was the Tar Heels' coach for more than three weeks before he spent an entire day in Chapel Hill, and he went 17 days without seeing Kelly, who was tying up loose ends in South Bend before coming East with their two kids, Hattie, 11 months, and Tucker, 3. Then, just when it seemed as if things had calmed down a little, Doherty faced his first player crisis. He had to inform his highest-rated incoming recruit, Jason Parker, that he was being denied admission to North Carolina after the NCAA Clearinghouse disqualified his SAT score. Guthridge, who had recruited Parker, and Doherty traveled to Charlotte to deliver the news to the Parker family.
"The transition has been more difficult than I ever expected," Doherty says. "Only recently has our staff finally had time to take a deep breath and begin to look ahead."
Only North Carolina's fourth basketball coach since 1953, Doherty follows Frank McGuire, who guided the Heels to their first NCAA title, in '57; Dean Smith, the college game's alltime winningest coach; and Guthridge, who took the Tar Heels to two Final Fours in three years but was nonetheless never wholeheartedly embraced by North Carolina fans. Undaunted by the enormous expectations, Doherty for the first time in nine years is wearing his '82 national championship ring, and he has talked to his team about winning another one this season.
After his introductory press conference, on July 11, Doherty and his assistants detoured through the Smith Center gym to gaze up at the championship banners and happened upon a girls' summer basketball camp. All the girls stopped their dribbling drills to give Doherty high fives. One young camper asked her counselor, "Is he the President?"
Yes, it's a long way from South Bend to Chapel Hill, but Doherty has understood the college basketball pecking order since the sixth grade, when every summer evening he walked to Prospect Park near his home in East Meadow, N.Y. The park had two basketball courts, and the best players--college stars, NBA refugees, even Julius Erving now and again--played on court number 1. Doherty always arrived early in hopes of getting into the elite game and battled to keep winning when he did because a loss meant he wouldn't get picked for another game that night. "I learned to compete at that park, and now I feel like I'm back out there on court number 1," he says. "I'm testing myself against the best, knowing I'd better win or I could be on court number 2 in a hurry. My goal is to make sure Carolina is my last job. I hope I'm never one of those dominoes again."
The July 1 headline on the Delaware sports Web site neatly summed up the situation: MEN'S BASKETBALL COACH MIKE BREY AWARDED CONTRACT EXTENSION THROUGH 2007. Two weeks later came another: MIKE BREY RESIGNS AS DELAWARE MEN'S BASKETBALL COACH.
Don't contracts mean anything? "They do, because they're binding on the institution," says Delaware president David Roselle, "but I had an agreement with Mike that if one of the majors wanted to hire him and it was a good school, I would help. He did well by us, and we did well by him."
So what do you do if you're a successful mid-major program--the Blue Hens were 99-52 in five seasons under Brey--that wants the best coach possible, on short notice, in the middle of the summer recruiting period? Start dialing. On July 14, within hours of learning that Brey was leaving for Notre Dame, Roselle was on the phone with a couple of friends, former Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton and Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino. "I wouldn't do anything in basketball without talking to C.M. or Rick," says Roselle, who hired both men during his tenure as president at Kentucky. "So I called them and said, 'My coach went to Notre Dame. Do you have a good name for me?'"
Roselle posed the same question to coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, a school Roselle also knows well, having earned his Ph.D. there in 1965 and having hired Brey off Krzyzewski's staff in '95. Later Roselle rang Florida's Billy Donovan, who had been a Kentucky assistant under Pitino. Over the weekend Roselle and Delaware athletic director Edgar Johnson made a few final calls. By Monday, faster than you could say, "Assistants without pedigrees need not apply," the Blue Hens had a list of four candidates: John Pelphrey, an assistant to Donovan who had played for Pitino at Kentucky; David Henderson, an assistant to and former player for Krzyzewski at Duke; Mike Davis, the top lieutenant to Indiana's Bob Knight; and Tim O'Shea, a relative outsider as an assistant to Al Skinner at Boston College. "Things are done in this world through networking and friendships," Johnson says. "Fortunately Dr. Roselle is well connected, and I have a few friendships, too."
Still, university presidents rarely lead coaching searches, especially university presidents who have every reason to resent the role of basketball on America's college campuses. A mathematician by training, Roselle is still reviled by many die-hard Kentucky fans as the man who cooperated fully with the NCAA investigation of the Wildcats' basketball program in 1989 that resulted in the ouster of coach Eddie Sutton and three years of probation for the Kentucky team. Saying that the basketball scandal had made it impossible for him to be an effective president, Roselle resigned and left for Delaware later that year. "The agenda for the University of Kentucky is education," he said at the time, "and I had a difficult problem, which was basketball."
Nonetheless, Roselle took part in the interviews of all four candidates for the Delaware job. "It's a little unusual, but I place a high value on the basketball program," Roselle says. "It's an evening's entertainment, and it's great for the community and the university. This year we have a waiting list for season tickets for the first time."
And for the third straight time a former Duke assistant was hired as the Blue Hens' coach. One week after the resignation of Brey, who had succeeded former Blue Devils assistant Steve Steinwedel, Delaware announced the hiring of Henderson.
The men behind the minicams waited for Ryan Humphrey to blow up. What would you expect him to do after learning that Matt Doherty had just resigned after one year in South Bend? Hadn't Doherty persuaded Humphrey to choose Notre Dame when he transferred from Oklahoma, lured him like the Pied Piper, only to coldcock him with his flute? But all Humphrey said was, "It's not a problem. I understand."
What the men behind the minicams didn't know was this: Humphrey had been receiving hate mail from Sooners fans since he left Oklahoma after his sophomore season a year and half ago. And one day last year, while Humphrey was strolling through a mall in his hometown of Tulsa, a heckler had called out his name and yelled, "Go back to Notre Dame, you traitor!"
Traitor. The epithet was in the back of Humphrey's mind on July 10 when Doherty invited him into his office. Humphrey could tell something was wrong. Doherty's voice broke. His face turned red. He told Humphrey, haltingly, that he was going to interview for the North Carolina job. "Coach," Humphrey replied, "I'm your friend first and your player second. I remember when I transferred, how my so-called friends in Oklahoma turned on me. I saw how fickle people were. If you feel this is best for you and your family, then I'll support you. I won't go negative."
Humphrey has kept his promise, though the coaching change hasn't been easy for him to accept. "Sure, it hurt," says Humphrey, who has known Doherty since his sophomore year of high school, when Doherty began recruiting him for Kansas. "He was the reason I came to Notre Dame. His leaving was on the same level as your girlfriend breaking up with you after you've been going together for a while. You'll be sitting in class and just start thinking, Man...."
Almost immediately after Doherty announced he was leaving, there was speculation about Humphrey's future: He's transferring back to Oklahoma. He's following Doherty to Carolina. Eventually Humphrey felt compelled to go on a South Bend TV news show and say he was staying. He likes Notre Dame, nearly as much as he likes new coach Mike Brey.
On July 14, the day he took over, Brey met with all of the Irish players who had remained on campus for the summer. Brey cracked a few jokes, trying to break the palpable tension, and before long he was asking about the players' preferences for conditioning drills. Humphrey looked at his teammates. They were nodding approvingly. A few days later, when Brey returned from a recruiting trip, he called the players together and said, "I don't know anybody here. Is it all right if I hang with you guys?" That night Brey, All-America forward Troy Murphy and some teammates spent three hours trading tales at Bruno's, a pizza joint.
Still, Humphrey does have a few concerns. "Everyone's nervous because practice starts in a couple of months, and you don't know where all the shots are coming from in the offense," he says. "You don't know what the practice style is going to be. He's going to bring in different stuff than Coach Doherty, but the good thing is, we're a veteran team. We'll pick up everything more quickly. Hopefully I can have an even better relationship with Coach Brey than I had with Coach Doherty."
On the night of July 24, Humphrey returned to his dorm room and saw the light blinking twice on his answering machine. The first message was from Brey, who wished him a happy 20th birthday. "If he's doing that," Humphrey says, "it's only right that I should try and make him feel comfortable." The second message was another birthday greeting--from Doherty, calling from North Carolina. As he went to sleep that night, Humphrey thought back to their final exchange in Doherty's office, to the bear hug his coach had given him, and then he gave thanks for his friends.
Pat Sullivan's apartment contains enough powder-blue paraphernalia to decorate the all-male wing of a large children's nursery. Among other things, there's a game ball signed by his 1993 national champion teammates at North Carolina, a framed pair of '93 Final Four tickets bearing the scrawl of Dean Smith, and an assortment of photographs from his participation in five Final Fours--three as a player and two as an assistant coach--with the Tar Heels. "Everything's Carolina," says Sullivan, 28, surveying the scene. "I treasure all that stuff."
In fact, about the only thing that isn't Carolina is Sullivan himself. Four months after helping guide the Tar Heels to another Final Four, he's unemployed, a man without a school.
It's the cruelest of ironies. Loyalty--a virtue instilled at North Carolina--was the reason that Roy Williams turned down the Tar Heels' offer and remained at Kansas, just as it was the rationale Matt Doherty cited for bringing his assistants from Notre Dame to Chapel Hill. Another man's loyalty, in effect, claimed the jobs of Guthridge's most loyal assistants: Sullivan, Phil Ford, 44, and Dave Hanners, 46, all former Carolina players. "I'm not bitter," Sullivan says. "There's nobody really to be bitter toward. It's just that nobody thought about what was going to happen after Coach Guthridge was gone."
Least of all Sullivan. When Guthridge resigned, Sullivan hardly stopped to consider his own fate. "I was happy that Coach did what was best for him," he says, "but then I went to the beach that weekend and came back and thought, I wonder what's going to happen to me and the other assistants?"
Thus began a week with his job in limbo. At times Sullivan's hopes would rise, as on the day the Durham Herald-Sun reported that Williams would take the Carolina job and retain Sullivan as an assistant. At other times they would ebb, as on the day following Williams's decision to stay at Kansas. Sullivan hit the recruiting trail anyway, flying to Teaneck, N.J., for the Adidas ABCD camp. Suddenly, 300 coaches from around the country were asking him the same questions: Sully, what's going to happen? Sully, who are they talking to? "They were nice, but when you've got to answer it a hundred times, it kind of wears on you," Sullivan says. "Shoot, I didn't know what was going to happen."
Finally, on July 4, five days after the resignation was announced, Guthridge and athletic director Dick Baddour called Sullivan, Ford and Hanners into Baddour's office. His voice breaking, Guthridge told them that Doherty had accepted the coaching position and wanted to bring in his own staff. "It was hard for him to get it out," Sullivan recalls. "They know the three of us would bleed for Carolina. Coach Ford and Coach Hanners have over 25 years invested in this program, so I know where their loyalties lie. I've been in this program more than a third of my life. Even if Mike Krzyzewski was the coach, I'd still pull for Carolina."
Doherty, too, met with the three outgoing assistants and said he was sorry. "I felt a little guilt, sadness, awkwardness," he says. "They did nothing wrong--two Final Fours in the last three years. I have a great deal of compassion for Pat and the others because sometimes this business is not fair."
What now for Sullivan? He'll still receive a paycheck from Carolina this season, and he plans to try to catch on with another school in the spring when the coaching turnover begins again. But for a while he toyed with the idea of getting out of the profession and going into business. "I'm torn," he admits. "Part of me says I still want to coach, but part of me wants to close this 10-year chapter and say, 'Five Final Fours in 10 years, you can't top that.' I'm spoiled here."
Sullivan, who is single, had envisioned a different career track, one that until July 11 closely resembled the path taken by Doherty. "I figured I'd be here for a while," Sullivan says, "but I wanted to be a head coach, and I knew I'd have to take a smaller job somewhere, do well there, and maybe I'd be able to come back 10 to 15 years from now. That was the dream, to be the head coach at North Carolina someday." He smiles, then shrugs. "I don't know if that's possible anymore."
The toughest moment, Sullivan says, came when he was cleaning out his office and he bumped into the new assistants. "I've learned how fragile things can be," Sullivan says. "Like when Coach Smith retired. I went home one night after work as an administrative assistant, someone who basically got Coach Smith's lunch. Next day, boom! I'm on the staff. Same thing now. I was on top of the world. We'd just finished summer camp, and I was excited to go on the road recruiting. Boom! Next day Coach Guthridge retires, and I'm like, Shoot, I'm out of a job."
There's a windowless room in the basement of the Dean Smith Center that serves as an office for Smith and Guthridge. On Aug. 21, Guthridge stood in that room and talked about the sad morning seven weeks earlier when he couldn't bear to tell his staff he was retiring, so he passed out handwritten notes instead. He said this had been both the best and worst summer he could remember. He marveled at the long chain of coaching promotions resulting from his departure, from Doherty all the way to Northwestern assistant Billy Schmidt, who replaced Chris Collins at Seton Hall after Collins replaced Henderson at Duke. He grinned when he was told that Wildcats coach Kevin O'Neill was on vacation trekking to Machu Picchu in Peru and was probably trying to contact candidates from there to fill Schmidt's job. (O'Neill had 117 messages, mostly from job seekers, on his voice mail when he got home.) "When I left I didn't think about the impact outside our program," Guthridge said, "but I've come to realize that many coaches out there are very happy that I quit."