From The Pages Of The Magazine ...


Posted May 1, 2003


This feature story is from the Summer 2003 issue of the Inside Carolina Magazine. To learn more about the publication and how to subscribe, CLICK HERE.

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
Summer, 2003
WORDS: Thad Williamson
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins

I
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 people effectively.

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 effective way.


“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 historic philosophy.

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:
“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.”

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 head coach.

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

IC
promising the moon, but just by being himself. North Carolina is very lucky to have him.


Longtime Inside Carolina contributor and columnist Thad Williamson (thwilliamson@earthlink.net) is the author of the esteemed book “More than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many.”





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