The following is excerpted from Rebound: From Pain to Passion—Leadership Lessons Learned by Matt Doherty. Copyright © 2021 by Matt Doherty. Used by permission of Sports Publishing Group, an imprint of Clovercroft Publishing.
I thought I would be in South Bend forever. We had a great season. Recruiting was going well. We received a big-time commitment from high school point guard Chris Thomas from Indiana. Notre Dame hadn’t gotten the best players in the state with Bobby Knight at IU and Gene Keady at Purdue. We were making a lot of noise in the world of college basketball!
I remember playing golf at the Warren Golf Course at Notre Dame with some coaches who were in for our basket- ball camp. It was the most relaxed I had been since taking the job. My family was finally settled. We had a good season. We had a good team coming back and good recruits in the pipeline. Then I noticed there was a call I missed on my cell phone. I hate being on the phone while playing golf, but as a college coach, it is pretty much the norm. I checked the voice mail and listened to the message. UNC’s Bill Guthridge just announced his retirement! My mind started to race. I shanked my next shot! Who retires in June? Coaches may leave college for the NBA at that time, but most college coaches retire right after the season. This seemed odd. Shank! Is his health okay? Shank! I was sure Coach Williams would take over at UNC. Shank! Will Kansas contact me when Roy leaves? Shank!
Everyone in the country believed Roy Williams would replace Coach Guthridge as the next coach at UNC, including me. I had been at Kansas with Coach Williams for seven years. We often talked privately about other coaching jobs. He had been mentioned about UCLA at least once, and other programs had approached him. He had been mentioned about a few NBA jobs, but he knew UNC was the best job in the country and believed it would be the only job he would ever leave KU for.
Kansas basketball was special. One could argue it was more special than UNC. It had a deep tradition. Dean Smith played there, and James Naismith, the man who invented the game of basketball, was its first coach. Wilt Chamberlain played there. Allen Fieldhouse was the loudest arena in the country. The home court advantage was huge. But Carolina was Carolina. The UNC brand was huge. The color was a brand. Michael Jordan played there. Roy had a beach house in SC. He loved to golf. Pinehurst No. 2 was sixty minutes from Chapel Hill. He was an assistant at UNC for Dean Smith for ten years. He and his wife were from NC. He attended UNC. His two children attended UNC. He and Coach Smith were very close. Even though he had been at KU for twelve seasons and had massive success with good young players in the program, many that I helped recruit, Carolina was home. It was a perfect fit for Roy Williams, and everyone knew it.
My family and I finally had a chance to get away on a vacation late June. We traveled to Lake Michigan and stayed at a cabin with Fred and Christy Quartlebaum. It was anything but a vacation. Bill Guthridge had just announced his retirement. Roy was expected to take the job. The KU job would be open and July recruiting was getting ready to start!
The cell service at the cabin stunk!
I called Dean Smith, seeking his advice in case Kansas were to call me about becoming the next Jayhawk coach. I remember Coach Smith saying, “It’s not a done deal with Roy yet, and you are on the short list.” A tremendous feeling of pride overcame me. Here is Dean Smith telling me I was on the list of candidates for the coaching vacancy at UNC!
I jokingly responded, “Well, that’s a no-brainer.”
After about seven long days of deliberation, Roy Williams finally decided to stay at Kansas. About a week later, I was flying on a private plane to Chapel Hill with Kelly to interview with Coach Smith and Athletic Director Dick Baddour about being the next head coach at UNC!
We stayed at the luxurious Siena Hotel. As I was getting out of the car, I saw a guy literally pop out from behind a bush and ask me if I was going to be the next coach at North Carolina! Think basketball is important in Chapel Hill!
Notre Dame AD Kevin White called me that night. He was a great AD to work for. Even though he joined ND after I was hired, we connected quickly. Kevin was now recruiting me to stay in South Bend, and we discussed a large contract extension.
As I prepared for my meeting with Coach Smith and Dick Baddour, I wanted clarity on three things:
1. Could I bring my staff with me from Notre Dame?
2. That this was going to be a rebuilding process after year one.
3. Would I be able to truly run the program as the head coach in the presence of Dean Smith?
If I felt comfortable that those three items would be clearly understood by all parties, then I would be able to take the head coaching position at UNC.
In talking with Dick, I emphasized my desire to bring my staff with me from Notre Dame. Doug Wojcik, Bob MacKinnon, Fred Quartlebaum, and David Cason were terrific assistants, great people, and wonderful friends. I couldn’t leave them behind, especially in the middle of July. They would have a hard time finding another job. Plus, one of the many lessons I learned from Dean Smith was loyalty. The big issue was that my assistants would be replacing a staff of former UNC players who included Phil Ford, Dave Hanners, and Pat Sullivan. Phil may still be the most popular player in the history of Carolina basketball! All three were loyal Tar Heels who did a good job for Bill Guthridge and Dean Smith.
Dick agreed that I could bring my staff with me to Chapel Hill, and I didn’t feel any pushback.
In addition, I recall telling Dick, “Our first year, we will be good. The second year, we won’t, and our third year, we will be rebuilding.” I then asked, “Are you tough enough to get through that with me?” He said, “Yes.”
Finally, I was to meet with Coach Smith in the building that bears his name, the Dean E. Smith Center. I am going to meet with the man who I played for and revered. The man who won the most college basketball games up to that point.
The man who was ranked as the most popular figure in the State of North Carolina, along with Billy Graham and Andy Griffith!
Dean Smith was an icon, and I was going to meet with him in his building to discuss taking over his program. Even when I was a player, I was nervous talking with Coach. He was intimidating. You always wondered what he was thinking, and you always wanted to please him.
Many people were telling me that I should stay at Notre Dame because it was “my program” and that at UNC, it was still “Coach Smith’s program.” ESPN’s Dick Vitale called me several times trying to convince me to stay at Notre Dame. Dick loved Notre Dame, but I was anxious to hear Coach Smith communicate his vision for the future. During our meeting, we discussed several topics. He asked me if I used a practice plan at Notre Dame. I loved talking basketball with him. He was a basketball savant, and I was eager to learn and ask questions. Finally, he offered the words I needed to hear, “It will be your program, and you can run it how you see fit.”
We continued to discuss UNC and the philosophies of running a program, and he finally asked, “Well, can you take the job?” I responded, “I have to talk to my wife.” Coach Smith replied, “Well, just a few weeks ago, you said it was a no-brainer.” Typical Coach Smith!
My wife, Kelly, and I flew back to Notre Dame on a private plane. I remember saying to her, “I could be the head coach at North Carolina or I could be the head coach at Notre Dame!” Wow! How about that? It was both a blessing and a burden. Great options often lead to tough decisions!
The next few days were a blur. The Nike All-American Camp was taking place in Indianapolis, and I was there wearing my Notre Dame polo shirt, evaluating the high school talent. Chris Thomas was playing, and he had already committed to us at Notre Dame. He was a great talent who would complement the returning players we had in the program. Every coach in the country was present, and I felt a lot of eyes on me, as the world of college basketball was wondering if I would be the next coach at North Carolina.
I asked Roy Williams to meet with me to discuss my decision. He was my most trusted advisor on all the career decisions I made over the last eight years. We met in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel. Coaches were coming in and out. It was hectic. I was trying to focus on our conversation. It seemed rushed. The last thing I remember him saying was, “You can do that job!” Then we went our separate ways.
I was strongly leaning toward staying at Notre Dame. I loved the university and the players. Kevin White and I were becoming close, and I loved working with Bubba Cunningham. Kevin and I were both from Long Island, and he had a great reputation as a leader. He had already brought a new energy to the athletic department. In addition, I knew we were going to be good, as the foundation had been laid.
I could tell my staff had some trepidation on making the move to UNC. They had finally settled into South Bend and the university community. Everyone was in new homes and we all had young children. We were welcomed there, we had success, and the future was bright.
Coach Smith was a masterful recruiter, and he knew me probably better than I knew myself at that time. He knew what buttons to push. He had Michael Jordan call me. As Michael and I talked, I recall him finally saying, “If you don’t take the job, Coach Smith will probably go outside the family and hire Rick Majerus.” Button pushed! I knew right then that I would take the UNC job! I didn’t want anyone outside “The Family” leading the program I loved so much. I felt no one but a former UNC player or coach would understand what it meant to be a part of the Carolina program.
Kevin White offered me a 10-year contract worth over 12 million dollars, along with a large signing bonus, to stay at Notre Dame. I remember the conversation as I was standing in my hotel room in Indianapolis. I was extremely flattered and humbled. I now knew what the market value was for me as a coach. I did have a brief thought that if that was the market value for me, why didn’t I get that offer after the season? If that would have been offered, I would have gladly signed it and had been locked up at Notre Dame for a long time.
It would be very difficult for me to tell the players and recruits I was leaving. I remember visiting with transfer Ryan Humphrey in my office. We talked openly about the UNC opportunity that lay before me. Ryan was a high school All-American who we recruited at Kansas. He chose to play at Oklahoma, but decided to transfer after his first year, and I was grateful that he and his twin sister, Robyn, decided to attend Notre Dame. Ryan was the first transfer Notre Dame ever took. I took some minor grief from some alumni that I would “ruin the program” by bringing in transfers. Not only did Ryan flourish on the court at Notre Dame under Mike Brey, but he now is an assistant coach on Mike’s staff! So much for ruining the program. Mike ended up bringing in several transfers who helped his program, and he once thanked me for “breaking the ice.”
As my conversation with Ryan was winding down, he said to me, “You know, Coach. You are my friend first and my coach second. If you feel going to Carolina is the right thing,
I support you!” Oh my God! What maturity for a young man to say that to me, given the circumstances. To this day, Ryan and I remain close.
After much thought and sleepless nights, my wife and I decided to return to North Carolina. It was the state she grew up in, it was the program I loved, and it was the place we wanted to live. I didn’t want to look back with regret that I didn’t take the job. Plus, we would have a chance EVERY year to win the national championship.
The hardest part was telling my players and Kevin that I was leaving. I wanted to tell the players in person. We met on campus to meet in a large room away from the Joyce Center. I got up in front of the players and tried to talk, but no words came out. I got emotional. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I loved those guys. I loved that team and I love Notre Dame to this day!