NECESSARY CHANGE |
After an extensive examination, and in light of Carolina basketball's
state of turmoil, the University chose to remove head coach Matt
Doherty. Enter Roy Williams, whose experience and UNC ties have
placed the program on firm footing.
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Thad Williamson
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins
magine for a minute you are living in an alternate reality: It's
May 15, 2003, and Matt Doherty is still the head coach at North
Carolina. All the players with remaining eligibility are returning
for next year. There has been no bad publicity to speak of during
the spring, as players, their families, and others in the
Athletic Department (including not least a retiree
named Smith) have come forward to put all the
rumors of behind the scenes dissension to
rest. Every player on the team from Rashad
McCants to Jackie Manuel states how
excited they are to come back and play
for Matt Doherty. At the team banquet in
April, Will Johnson and Jon Holmes spend
five minutes each describing in detail what a
great mentor Doherty has been to them during
their days at Carolina and how much they will
miss being a part of his program.
Sounds pretty good, right? Indeed – and it is just about
certain that this was Plan A for Dick Baddour when he began
his long-awaited postseason evaluation of the men's basketball
program 24 hours after the loss to Georgetown in the NIT.
Why didn't this scenario come to pass, then, if this is what
Baddour (and most everyone associated with Carolina basketball)
preferred as a first choice?
Because it only could have taken place in an alternative
universe or a work of fiction. In reality, April 1st saw
the dismissal of Matt Doherty, and players and
parents beginning to make their feelings about
the former head coach publicly known.
Rashad McCants told reporters "There
were some times in the season where guys
really didn't respect Coach Doherty to a
certain extent and that we felt he didn't
really respect us. That's not what you come
to North Carolina to do and to play for."
If North Carolina had attempted to retain Doherty, Carolina
was facing the certainty of at least some transfers and
the possibility of a total meltdown of the program.
Likewise, Martha Holmes, mother of
departing reserve Jon Holmes, asked by the
Charlotte Observer to give specific examples of
Doherty's treatment of players, replied: "You had to be
there . . . I don't think one particular incident does it justice. I think
you had to be there and experience it, and even after three years, it's
beyond my ability to come up with words to describe it."
Out in Seattle, Joseph
Forte did manage to find
some words to describe it,
telling the Charlotte Observer,
"His people skills are so
poor.... He demeans people....
He belittles them in front of
teammates, classmates, and
people watching practice.
He tried to embarrass me
as a person. He's not a bad
person, but he needs to know
how to talk to people."
Other players, like Holmes
and Will Johnson, chose not
to reveal what they had
told Dick Baddour during
the postseason evaluation,
but nonetheless made it
abundantly clear that they
supported the university's
decision. As Johnson put
it, "I'm comfortable with
the way Mr. Baddour and
the chancellor handled the
situation... This is a unique
situation, and for them to
make that speaks to how
thorough their investigation
was and how they were
willing to take due diligence
of assessing our program."
If North Carolina had
attempted to retain Doherty, Carolina was facing the certainty of
at least some transfers and the possibility of a total meltdown of
the program, as previously anonymous parents and others close to
the program were prepared to go public with specific criticisms of
Doherty and his ability to relate to people. The loss of any players
would have severely undercut hopes for next year as well as the
more general claim that Doherty was in fact rebuilding the program.
Moreover, opposing schools would have made sure that Doherty's
reputation for poor relationships with players, which had already
reached many high school coaches, reached those remaining
prospects that hadn't yet heard about the turmoil in Chapel Hill.
In short, Matt Doherty remaining at the helm of Carolina
basketball was a certain recipe for continued debilitating doubt,
rumors, and tension in Chapel Hill. Even if Carolina had kept enough
players to have a good season next year, prospects for sustaining
the program at a high level on Doherty's watch were almost nil:
teams with internal problems typically underachieve, and coaches
with a bad reputation on the recruiting trail are going to have a hard
time getting the top prospects to sign on the dotted line.
That's the basketball argument for why Doherty needed to go, and
it surely played an important part in Baddour's deliberations. Also
important in those deliberations, however, was an ethical concern
with having a program in which the ability of the head coach to treat
people appropriately and maintain a climate of trust and respect is
beyond question. "Doing things the right way" has been more than
just a slogan in Chapel Hill – for decades, it was a concrete reality,
as Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge commanded incredible loyalty from
former players who recognized that Smith and Guthridge did actually
care about them as people, not just as basketball players. A program
which no longer placed the well-being and learning experience of
the players as the top priority would no longer recognizably be
"Carolina basketball," in the eyes of many former players, many fans,
and, as it turned out, the Athletic Director and Chancellor.
While Doherty enjoyed substantial
support among fans (especially those who
were not aware of the rumors of player-coach
tension) until the day of his dismissal,
as well as among prominent boosters, almost
everyone in direct contact with the program
outside the coaching staff had serious
concerns about Doherty's ability to deal with
Here is more of what those people told the
media in the two weeks following the dismissal:
Melvin Scott: "We discussed [with Dick
Baddour] things that went on, things that
we went through, hoops, everything. That's
what we were talking about. Having an
environment that guys were happy to play.
Some guys weren't, some guys were. Like I
said, the A.D. made that decision. It's out of
our hands. We can't fire a coach as players.
We can't hire any coaches. It's up to the A.D.
and those guys, the organization. We had a
little input, but it's their decision."
Sean May (speaking to the Bloomington
Herald-Times): "I had a pretty good
relationship with Coach Doherty, but
sometimes he would take things too far. I had
been around Coach Knight, so I knew how to
take coaches, how to listen to what they say.
But [Doherty] would ride you so long, just to
see how you would react. I could take it, but
some of the other guys couldn't.... We felt
there were some issues and problems that
needed to be solved. Sometimes the coach
didn't treat his players the way they felt they
should be treated."
James McCants (father of Rashad),
speaking to the News & Observer: "I don't
think [Doherty] was good for the future of
the program. But now, everybody's coming
to the aid of Matt Doherty. We should ask
them how many of them have been in [practices] before they say,
‘He's been hosed and he's been dissed.' There were too many kids
complaining, too many kids not wanting to come to the school,
wanting to leave the school...."
Bill Guthridge, on whether he agreed with the Doherty decision:
"I think Dick's a great athletic director and Matt will be a very good
coach. He admitted that he made some mistakes early on and things
just didn't work out."
Dean Smith, on whether he agreed with the decision: "I was
pushing to give him more time, very much so, and then some people
shared some of the problems and then you could see where they
were coming from."
Even the one player who publicly criticized the decision to dismiss
the coach, David Noel, acknowledged that there were serious issues
in the program. Explaining why he declined to meet with Baddour
during the review process, Noel stated: "Coach Doherty and I had a
great relationship. I knew that a lot of the guys had negative things to
say. I didn't really want to get involved because it seemed like I was
the only one – or maybe a couple of guys – were the only ones who
were going to go and say something positive."
Some Carolina fans, either out of a desire to satisfy their own
consciences that the right thing was done or out of a morbid curiosity
in the details, still pine for more specifics about life behind the
scenes in the Matt Doherty era. But what is clear already from the
public record is that the Carolina program had some major internal
problems, and that Matt Doherty had lost the support of far too high
a proportion of his team and of the Carolina family to continue in an
"When you looked from the outside, everybody wasn't on the same page. My teams have never been accused of not being on the same page."
Nor was that turmoil unnoticed by people who very much wanted
Doherty to succeed – people like Roy Williams.
"When you looked from the outside, everybody wasn't on the
same page," Williams said. "My teams have
never been accused of not being on the same page."
Don't expect Roy Williams to venture very many criticisms of
Matt Doherty in the months and years to come, beyond (as in the
quote above) acknowledging the obvious problems. Comments from
Carolina's new head man praising the job Doherty did in assembling
the current roster will probably outpace comments like the one noted
above by a 10:1 ratio over the next year. Placing the emphasis on
what looks to be a bright future is the smart move, and limiting public
criticism of Doherty to an absolute minimum fits with Carolina's
No one can deny that mistakes and miscalculations got Carolina
basketball into the sad and depressing situation in which a coach
had to be involuntarily removed. But that doesn't mean nothing good
has come out of this situation: for instance, it became evident that
UNC administrators as well as many fans really do care about how
people are treated, not just about winning games. That's a positive.
A second big positive to come out of this is the way the players
on the 2003 Tar Heels stuck together, supported one another, did
their best to keep the problems in-house until they had the chance
to air their views through a formal, confidential process. In general,
the team did a great job representing the university and the uniform
through a long and trying season. Roy Williams put it this way at his
hiring press conference, speaking directly to his new team: "The
adversity you had - it wasn't fun going through. But it's going to
make each one of you stronger. And it's going to make each one of
you enjoy the good times."
The third big positive, of course, is Williams himself. In a
sincere and refreshing statement at his opening press conference,
Carolina's new coach refused to portray himself as savior of the
program. "I've had several former players say, ‘Coach, we need
you.' It's good to feel needed, but I don't buy into that – it's too
much of an ego thing."
Roy Williams, speaking directly to his new team:
adversity you had - it wasn't fun going through. But it's going
to make each one of you stronger. And it's going to make
each one of you enjoy the good times."
That very comment shows exactly why Williams (or someone very
much like him – there are not many) was needed in Chapel Hill to
help heal the wounds of the past three years and carry the program
forward in a unified way. Roy Williams is not going to view the UNC
head coaching job as an ego trip, and he understands that it is a
public trust far bigger than any single person.
For all the debates in the fan base and the fissures in the "Carolina
family" of late, the vast majority of UNC supporters want the same
thing: a successful program on the court that graduates players
and represents the university well, that provides an experience to
players that they can look back on with pride and appreciation, and
that commands the loyalty and enthusiasm of people who have been
involved with or otherwise touched by the program.
Maintaining that sort of program is not an easy task, not even at
North Carolina. The cut-throat nature of the recruiting scene and the
tendency for great players to go pro earlier and earlier makes it much
more difficult to have the year-in and year-out success that Dean
Smith enjoyed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s: continuous recruiting has
increased in importance relative to quality teaching, and recruiting
always involves risk and luck.
Off the court, programs like Carolina also now command
incredible levels of scrutiny: The Dean Dome is now as much fish
bowl as it is basketball arena, and that too poses challenges to any
program and especially to the maturity and self-confidence of the
It's a big job, and one that gets harder with every passing
year. Roy Williams is one of the very few coaches who can take
it on and have a better-than-reasonable chance of success in all
dimensions of the job, not by attempting to work any miracles or
promising the moon, but just by being himself. North Carolina is
very lucky to have him.
Longtime Inside Carolina contributor and columnist Thad Williamson (email@example.com)
is the author of the esteemed book "More than a Game: Why North
Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many."