Thad: The Matt Doherty Era - What Went Wrong?

Thad: The Matt Doherty Era - What Went Wrong?

No amount of preparation--even for those who strongly suspected that this was coming--could prepare followers of North Carolina basketball for the finality of the announcement that Matt Doherty's tenure as head coach in Chapel Hill is over after just three seasons.

A lot of people are going to have emotional reactions to this announcement, and naturally so. But once the shock fades, fans are going to want--and need--to start to come to grips with how and why exactly this day came. This article is intended as a start to that process.

It would be disrespectful to Coach Doherty and his family, as well as to the long tradition of Carolina basketball, to characterize Tuesday as a "good" day, a "happy" day, or anything of the sort.

In my judgment however, Tuesday was, unfortunately, a necessary day. The university has made the right decision for the future of the program and for the well-being of Carolina's basketball players. In the process, the university has asserted its core ethical values and re-affirmed its expectations as to what the character of UNC's athletic programs will be. While I can't think of any days that have made me sadder as a Carolina fan, I also can't think of many days in which I was more proud of a decision, a difficult and extremely painful decision, which UNC administrators have made.

Needless to say, many fans are not, at the moment at least, going to see it that way. Nor are parts of the local and especially national media--certainly not now, possibly not ever. But what both many Carolina fans and the national media may not really grasp is simply this: the decision to dismiss Matt Doherty was not, fundamentally, about wins and losses.

If it were simply a matter of wins and losses, and if the true situation was that Matt Doherty had the overwhelming respect and support of his players, the Carolina basketball family, and those he works with in the Athletic Department, but just hadn't yet turned the corner in his efforts on the court, then Coach Doherty should and would still be the head coach today--and, quite possibly, for years to come.

Nor is this decision about the "inmates running the asylum" as some so predictably have charged. Rather, it is about administrators finding out first-hand from not only players and their families but also other responsible adults familiar with the day-to-day life of the basketball program what kind of climate has been allowed to exist, then deciding that that climate is not consistent with UNC's own expectations, and that it could not be corrected with measures short of removing the head coach.

Administrators could have collected the evidence and concluded that players' concerns were lacking in gravity or simply consisted of whining, or that the issues raised were nothing that could not be resolved with less drastic measures. Many writers and fans seem to have the grossly mistaken notion that if leaders in a hierarchy take steps to ensure that the decisions they make are truly for the good of the whole enterprise, then they have thereby yielded authority and created democracy or anarchy.

But authority's moral justification comes from the ends to which it is directed--in this case the well-being of the players and the well-being and reputation of the university itself. Consulting those being affected by a decision before proceeding is not "democracy," it is basic good sense and the decent and correct way for leaders to exercise authority: collect information, consult with those affected by a decision, then decide based on one's own best judgment and values. That is what appears to have happened here.

And given the degree to which Dick Baddour has staunchly supported Matt Doherty in the past, from the initial somewhat surprising decision to hire him through the 20-loss season and the rumors of this year, it's a very safe conclusion that for Baddour, dismissing Doherty was the least attractive resolution to this situation, the absolute worst-case scenario. And yet, in the end he too, was convinced this was the best and perhaps the only decision to make for the good of the program. While it is to be hoped that UNC will be as forthcoming as possible about the reasoning behind this decision, the fact that Matt Doherty's biggest supporter has been the one to make this call, no doubt with extreme sadness and disappointment and knowing that he himself will be sharply criticized by some, in itself puts a very strong stamp of legitimacy on the decision.

*

How did the Matt Doherty regime ever get to this point in the first place?

The answer to that question has two primary components, taken up here in reverse order of importance.

The first--and by far less critical--reason has to do with how Doherty handled non-basketball related affairs upon taking over as head coach. When Doherty took over in July 2000, the Carolina program had been on top for 30-plus years, including a run of five Final Fours in eight years, and had done so while fostering a family-like atmosphere and climate of mutual respect. The program had also built up an enormous web of supportive relationships and an enormous well of goodwill--within the university, in Chapel Hill, statewide, and nationally--to the extent that it would have been no exaggeration to describe Carolina basketball not just as a "program," but as an institution.

Given this background, it was hoped that Doherty could bring some fresh energy to the program--and that he did--but it was also assumed and hoped that he could play the role of "successor" to Dean Smith: that is, continuing what was good about the program while also bringing in some fresh ideas of his own.

What happened instead can be described usefully by the metaphor of "regime change." That is to say, Matt Doherty soon made it very clear that this was now his program, he was calling the shots, and that it was not a simple continuance of the Smith-Guthridge era. The most visible substantive move along these lines, of course, was bringing in his own staff and dismissing one of Carolina's two all-time great icons, Phil Ford. In time, a near complete turnover of the office staff followed--a fact which was decried by some former players who relied on familiar staffers to stay in touch. And, in some cases, Doherty either broke off or failed to nourish longstanding relationships with supporters of the program.

In short, in attempting to place his stamp on the program, Doherty moved aggressively to clean a house that most people thought wasn't dirty--or at most needed a little dusting--to begin with. Doherty was certainly within his rights to do this as head coach--the real question is whether it was smart for him to do so. For, in moving so fast to do things his way, Doherty succeeded in turning a lot of people off at a fairly rapid pace--even during the first year when things on the court seemed fine.

Indeed, a key result of Doherty's moves was that more and more people familiar with the program worried that Doherty did not see himself as a steward of and servant to the program--but instead saw the program as a means to serve Matt Doherty. This is not to deny Doherty's very real love for the institution, or that he had significant support and help from some former lettermen and other "family members." It is to say that over time, numerous people close to the program detected a unnerving pattern of excessive self-regard in Doherty's actions and day-to-day handling of people

In short, the general impression that was left from the first year or two of the Doherty era was that of a CEO undertaking a nominally friendly but substantively hostile takeover of an organization. At Notre Dame, where Doherty et al clearly were taking over from a somewhat failed regime and where basketball interest had been waning, perhaps he could get away (at least for a time) with such an approach. In Chapel Hill, that same strategy was, if not a substantive mistake, simply bad form and bad politics.

This aspect of the story, to emphasize, is not the most important part. That is to say, if Matt Doherty had done nothing worse than ruffle a bunch of feathers, turn a lot of longtime intimate supporters of the program off, take steps which alienated some former players, and even flat out rub some people the wrong way, he would still very likely have his job today. Doherty's approach and actions in this part of the job do not explain why he was dismissed. But they do help explain why there was little if any outpouring of public support from members of the Carolina basketball family in the past few weeks when Doherty's job came under extreme and obvious pressure.

*

The second, more important part of the story has to do with Doherty's relationships with his players. College basketball players are not inmates in an insane asylum, prisoners in a jail, or even indentured servants who are bound to an employer for a fixed number of years. They have lives apart from basketball, and they have the option of packing their bags and leaving a given situation.

Coming into this year, four scholarship basketball players had done just that in two short years of the Doherty regime, leaving a combined nine years of eligibility on the table. That's a lot for any school at any time, no matter the circumstances. But more important than the quantity of the defections was the reason cited by Adam Boone's father in explaining his son's decision: a lack of a respectful environment within the program.

Taken as an isolated comment, it might have been easily dismissed. Instead, Boone himself confirmed the comment--as did graduating senior Jason Capel; meanwhile freshmen Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel were also considering transferring and saying things needed to change. At the same time, outside of the published media, knowledgeable people in Chapel Hill, in the Carolina fan base, and in the basketball world were beginning to hear what seemed to be a constant stream of unflattering stories about the new regime, some of which filtered onto message boards and the like in the form of rumors.

In that context, it was vital that in 2002-03, with his own recruits, Doherty and the team enjoy a harmonious year, and that whatever tensions or problems which arose in 2001 and 2002 subside.

Instead, we had almost an entire season of rumors and whispers of the most troubling kind. Many and probably most Carolina fans, understandably, wanted to believe the rumors had no basis in fact. Unfortunately, this decision--as well as the process by which it was made--indicates that neither the rumors nor the disturbing reports published in The ACC Area Sports Journal this season were groundless after all

At this point in time, it would be inappropriate to get into some of the specifics and particular actions which marked the Doherty era. As time goes on, it is likely that at least some such "stories" will make it into the public record as players and others feel freer to speak openly.

As a fuller picture emerges, I don't expect we will find current or former players painting a unanimous picture of Doherty as an unambiguously bad guy, or saying that every day was bad, or denying that Doherty had some good points and good moments. I do suspect that players might say that playing for Doherty has been an emotionally exhausting experience, that he pushed his intense style too far at times, that he did not handle particular situations well, that he did not handle particular people well.

College basketball players can tolerate a lot of demands, a lot of screaming, a lot of challenges from a coach if they feel they are not being treated as mere objects and that the coach has their own best interests foremost in mind. If that's not the case, problems are going to arise--be it in the form of players and teams burning out mid-season, or in the form of transfers, threats to transfer, and the associated uncertainty that goes with that.

The bottom line is this: if the current, 2003 roster, really wanted deep in their hearts nothing more than to play basketball for Matt Doherty, Doherty would be back next year. If, on the other hand, the case is that the players like each other and like UNC and Chapel Hill, but would consider leaving early because of a desire to escape the coach and the climate in the program, then a decision like the one taken Tuesday was inevitable. You simply cannot have a functional basketball program, let alone a highly successful one, if the players do not want to play for the head coach, to the extent that even players getting plenty of playing time would contemplate leaving or threatening to leave.

That appears to be what the situation is here, though more details are sure to emerge in time. And when a pattern emerges that a coaching regime cannot make it through a whole season without generating significant problems and issues off-the court, the administration really has no choice.

I've said it before and will say it again: college sports are intended to be run for the benefit of the student-athletes and their learning experiences, not for the benefit of coaches. If a college coach--even unwittingly--becomes an undermining, negative, emotionally draining influence on a player's learning experience as a person and as an athlete, he should not be in such a position. Period. Administrators at UNC now apparently agree--and they are on the firmest of moral grounds in coming to that decision.

*

And so the saddest chapter in the history of Carolina basketball comes to an end. A lot of fans are going to be upset and angry, and inevitably so. Upset, first that a basketball coach has been forced out for the first time in 51 years, and not just any coach but a former letterman who was a part of some of the best moments in Carolina history, and someone who truly bleeds Carolina blue.

Second, some fans are likely to be upset at the evident reality that at least some of the rumors in fact had a factual basis, and that what has been going on behind the scenes the past 3 years appears to have been less pleasant than what most long-standing Carolina fans would ever have thought possible. Third, some may be angry at the university itself for not dealing with this sooner, or for providing PR cover for a coach who, some will say, did not deserve to be defended.

So expect a period, perhaps a few weeks even, of venting, shock, and no little disillusionment. In the end though, I really hope that fans will declare a general amnesty with respect to this episode--with respect to other fans who had and have different opinions on this matter, with respect to the university itself, with respect to anyone who sincerely cares about what is best about Carolina basketball.

A mistake was made 3 years ago; to err is human. Be thankful simply that the mistake has been corrected, and that the program, in my judgment, is still on strong enough footing that it can bounce back and go on without serious lasting damage.

And, if that is difficult, at least be appreciative of the team we have and all that the players have been through. This year's team was absolutely determined to keep things "in house," and did so with admirable success. I hate that the players were forced into such an awkward situation, but respect the decision that no dirty laundry would be openly aired while the season was going on. A lot of stuff was going on behind the scenes all year, and I have enormous respect for the players who were able to persevere through that and, for the most part, show up and compete hard in the games.

*

Two final thoughts, for now: First, I hope that as the process of healing gets underway, that fans recognize that Matt Doherty is and always will be a part of the Carolina basketball family. His legacy as a player who personified hustle, intelligence, and unselfishness stands undiminished. And no one can doubt the hard work and tireless effort he put into the head coach's job these past three years. Moreover, if Carolina goes on to any kind of success on the court the next couple of years, Doherty will have to be thanked for assembling this particular group of players, a group with both talent and character.

Even the most fervent critics of Doherty should be able to wish him, his staff and their families well at this time and thank the outgoing coaches for their efforts.

As to the future: simply put, the pressure is on the administration to hit a home run with this hire. Nothing less will do: Carolina needs to bring in an experienced coach who can command the immediate respect of the players, the fan base, and indeed the basketball world.

But there will be plenty of time to debate the future and its prospects. For now, be sad that this day has come, and perhaps even sadder that it had to come; but also be resolute that this program can repair, revitalize, and restore itself to a level of excellence, on and off the court, worthy of the moniker "Carolina basketball" in the months and years to come.


Thad Williamson is the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html#bookstorelink. Thad welcomes your emails at thad@uncbasketball.com.

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