Eleven miles. Seventeen minutes. That's it. The trip from Duke's
Cameron Indoor Stadium to North Carolina's Dean Smith Center is
one of the shortest rides home in college basketball. What a
pity. If only there were more than 15 stoplights along the way.
If only a few more of them could have been red. The Tar Heels'
first-year coach, Matt Doherty, reclined in the front seat of
the team bus after a validating 85-83 win over the Blue Devils
last Thursday night and wished he could savor the biggest
victory of his short career a bit longer.
The North Carolina players, none of whom had ever won at Cameron,
gleefully listened on their cell phones to the raucous
celebration in Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, the supposedly overmatched
Doherty, the only coach ever to win his first eight ACC games,
leaned over to his assistants and said, "Guess we fooled 'em
Alas, the clock struck midnight during that bus trip, and arrival
at the Smith Center meant the fun was over. Doherty went right to
work, watching tape in preparation for a game two days hence
against Georgia Tech. He finally drove home at 2:30 and woke up
for work again four hours later. On Friday evening he fell asleep
in his office chair at 8:30 with a Yellow Jackets tape still
running. The next afternoon the Tar Heels defeated Georgia Tech
82-69 to improve to 19-2, extend the nation's longest winning
streak to 16 and vault to No. 1 in this week's AP poll. "It's
unbelievable how far Coach Doherty has come in six months," North
Carolina assistant Doug Wojcik says. "These players needed a
leader, and they've eagerly hopped into the foxhole with Matt."
Ever since he was hired on July 11, Doherty has spoken candidly
about being motivated by an acute fear of failure. It's the
anxiety of a man who previously coached only one season, at
Notre Dame, and is taking over from Bill Guthridge, who led the
Tar Heels to two Final Fours in the three seasons after he took
over from Dean Smith, the winningest coach in college basketball
history. It's the apprehension of a man who landed the job only
after the heir apparent, Kansas coach Roy Williams, turned it
down and who didn't even get an interview until a Who's Who of
North Carolina alumni was publicly weeded out.
There have since been countless reminders of the disparity
between Doherty's resume and the results that are now demanded of
him. Shortly after his hiring, Matt and his wife, Kelly, were
eating lunch together at the campus cafeteria in Chapel Hill when
a student across the table asked him, "So, what do you do for a
The next morning Doherty was walking into the Smith Center when
he was stopped by a maintenance man who asked, "Coach, how many
games do the Tar Heels play this season?"
"I guess about 35 if we go deep into the NCAAs," Doherty
"O.K.," the man said. "We expect you to win 36."
Doherty, who's 38, decided from the start not to hide from his
youthfulness. He played in a three-on-three game against North
Carolina's intramural champions at Midnight Madness, and as he
lumbered around the court that October night, onlookers could not
help harking back to his predecessor, the genial sexagenarian
Guthridge, who regularly joked that he disliked games that began
at nine o'clock because they kept him awake past his bedtime.
Instead of high fives, Doherty gives his players fist pounds. He
leaps recklessly into the locker-room mosh pits that the Tar
Heels have instituted this season to punctuate big victories.
After years of Smith's discipline by sarcasm and Guthridge's
velvet diplomacy, Doherty has arrived with a temper, a passion
that has reinvigorated a program long considered among the
stodgiest in the nation.
At one benchmark early-season practice, a North Carolina player
dived on the floor and most of his teammates rushed over to help
him up, as mandated by Doherty, but All-America guard Joseph
Forte stood still. Doherty dressed down Forte, who has been among
the first players to pick up teammates ever since. Later that
same day, Doherty booted starting center Brendan Haywood out of
practice for sneaking in a water break. "At first I thought that
stuff was petty, but I realized he was bonding us as a team,"
Forte says. "We've all come to accept that there's a new sheriff
Doherty is so active during games that he removes his sport coat
in the opening minute and begins pacing the sideline, stomping to
get his players' attention because he doesn't know how to
whistle. "Doherty has brought a buzz, a new energy that they
didn't have last year," Duke's Jason Williams said the day before
the game against the Tar Heels. "You feed off a guy like him more
than you do a guy sitting there with his chin in his hand."
With North Carolina ahead by seven points at halftime of a 91-60
win over 2-7 Massachusetts on Dec. 29, Doherty threw a chair
across the locker room to convey his displeasure with the Tar
Heels' effort. He wept on the court during a postgame celebration
after a dramatic 70-69 win over Wake Forest on Jan. 6, but his
appreciation for victories is short-lived. During a phone call
after an 88-81 win over Virginia, in which Doherty was critical
of himself, Smith implored him to enjoy his wins more. "It fires
you up to see how much Coach Doherty cares," Haywood says. "One
day he was helping me with my free throw shooting, and he missed
three in a row and he got really mad at himself. He wants us to
be that angry when we fail." Doherty, meanwhile, puts so much
time into his job that when he was asked last week what has
surprised him most about his debut season at North Carolina, he
said, "That my wife hasn't left me."
He also makes it clear that these aren't the same Tar Heels who
began the season 3-2, including a humiliating 93-76 home loss to
Kentucky on Dec. 2 after which Doherty apologized to the Carolina
Nation. His orders to play tougher took root soon after when the
Heels plugged two football players into their rotation,
quarterback Ronald Curry and defensive end Julius Peppers. When
freshman point guard Adam Boone proved unready to succeed the
graduated Ed Cota, North Carolina's career assist leader, Curry
stepped in at the point, and his tenacious defense provides a
crucial contrast to that of Cota, who as a defender gave new
meaning to the nickname Tar Heel.
The 6'6", 270-pound Peppers has reprised his role from last
year's Final Four run, providing some inspiring dunks and the
kind of intimidating presence in the lane that one might expect
from a guy who led the nation with 15 sacks last fall. Anchored
by the 7-foot Haywood, North Carolina's alltime blocked shots
leader, the Tar Heels ranked first in the ACC through Sunday in
field-goal-percentage defense at 37.9% and hadn't allowed an
opponent to shoot 50% in their last 16 games. "Julius and I have
added a certain grit, especially on defense," Curry says. "We get
more stops now, and that takes some pressure off our scorers."
Forte, a sophomore, is Carolina's offensive catalyst. After
shooting a combined 13 for 38 in consecutive early-season losses
to Michigan State and Kentucky, he has averaged more than 21
points. In a stretch of four consecutive tight games, concluding
with the one at Duke, Forte demanded the ball in the final
minutes, a cockiness he picked up from watching one of his
favorite videos, Michael Jordan's Air Time. "I try to emulate the
way Jordan took over a game at showtime," Forte says. "I feel I'm
the best player in America, and Coach Doherty has helped provoke
me to prove it."
Part of the reason Guthridge stepped down after last season was
the withering criticism he endured for losing his last five games
against Duke--North Carolina's longest winless streak in the
series in nearly four decades. To understand how the rivalry acts
as a litmus test, Doherty needs only to think back to his days as
a Tar Heels player, when the Blue Devils' Mike Krzyzewski was a
fledgling coach trying to establish himself against Smith.
Doherty says he began thinking about facing Duke the night he
took the Tar Heels' job, and a few days later, when he left for a
family vacation, he packed two game tapes, North Carolina's two
matchups last season with the Blue Devils. "Right now Duke is
seen as the measuring stick in the ACC, and we want to become the
measuring stick again," Doherty says. "I'm a better coach because
the Blue Devils are right down the road."
Three days before the game in Durham, Doherty sat down for an
hour with Smith to talk X's and O's. At practice the day before
the game, he handed out copies of a permit obtained by Duke
students to build a bonfire on campus after the presumed win over
the Tar Heels. For support on game night, he had his 73-year-old
father, Walter, sitting at the end of the bench. After North
Carolina led most of the game, thanks to Forte's 24 points and 16
rebounds, the Blue Devils tied the score at 83-83 on Mike
Dunleavy's three-pointer with 3.9 seconds remaining. Then the Tar
Heels got the kind of debatable foul call that a visiting coach,
especially one with Doherty's scant credentials, isn't supposed
to get at Coach K Court. Duke senior All-America Shane Battier
was whistled for bumping Haywood with 1.2 seconds left as Haywood
caught a pass 20 feet from the Tar Heels' basket. Haywood, a
48.6% free throw shooter who practiced his stroke for 90 minutes
on Christmas Day, swished two for the winning margin. "I hated to
put a damper on Duke's bonfire," Haywood said. "We heard Battier
say that he'd never been in second place in the ACC in his life.
Well, it's time to experience new things."
After the victory, a fan asked the North Carolina coach to
autograph a homemade sign that read, WELCOME TO THE DOHERTY ERA!
Eleven miles away, Guthridge took a celebratory walk with his new
puppy. Smith scribbled down some game notes on a pad and left a
proud phone message at the Dohertys' house. Still sweating
profusely from the mosh pit, Doherty exited Cameron and grinned
when he was told that Carolina students were lighting bonfires in
Chapel Hill. As he prepared to board the bus for the too-short
ride home, Doherty paused to hug his dad, and both men teared up.
The son looked at the father and said, "This doesn't suck,
Doherty, "and we want to be the measuring stick again."