Thad: The Week That Was

Thad: The Week That Was

What a week for Tar Heel basketball. Everyone knows sports are unpredictable, but no novelist could have invented the unique combination of two sharply diverging storylines over the past week.

On the one hand, a struggling, young Carolina team seems to finally have overcome the loss of Sean May and started producing the kind of basketball hinted at back in November, with two excellent wins over Duke and Maryland. On the other hand, Carolina has also received some extraordinarily negative publicity over the past week with regard to the climate within the program off the court--and no one can be sure that there may not be more to come.

At the center of all this is Matt Doherty, his job status, and how well he performs the dual functions of "coach" and "educator."

Let's start with the "coach" part first. Do we really know just how good a developer of talent, a sideline strategist, or practice teacher Matt Doherty is, in definitive terms? No, we do not.

Obviously, the injury to Sean May clouds assessment of this season; without May, Carolina could not be reasonably expected to challenge the top 3 teams in the ACC over a 16 game schedule. But neither Matt Doherty nor the players would have been too happy with the suggestion back in December that the Heels were doomed to do no better than a 6-10 league mark and a probable NIT bid. On the other hand, the Heels did have some sporadic good performances in January and February and gutted out some tough, thrilling victories at home to stay above the .500 mark. Most recently, the team seemed to have turned a corner with the well-played wins over Duke and Maryland, before backsliding a bit in the rematch with a fired-up Blue Devil team Saturday.

Given the youth and obvious promise on the roster, as well as the occasional bursts of brilliance seen this year, the default presumption, other things being equal, has to weigh strongly in favor of Doherty returning.

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Indeed, even if Carolina had not put together this unexpected mini-run on the court, it would have been wrong for Doherty's job to be in jeopardy because of wins and losses. I strongly believe that the principle of giving a revenue sport coach five, or at worst four, years to prove their wares on the court or field is a good rule of thumb--if it is clear that a given coach meets the other parts of the job description in fine fashion, the part that has to do with human relationships, not wins and losses.

So let's set the wins and losses aside--the real issues facing university administrators in the days and weeks to come lie elsewhere.

It's at this point an unavoidable fact that the mountain of rumor surrounding the day-to-day life of the program simply cannot be ignored or wished away. The kinds of problems that have been said to exist in the Carolina basketball program in the past week are not going to be solved by a few wins, no matter how impressive. When the season is over, university administrators will need to re-affirm Matt Doherty's leadership in unmistakable terms or indicate that the program will be going in another direction.

The major question at issue is this: is Matt Doherty and his coaching style a good fit for this institution, its values, and its aspirations? Three years should be plenty of time for the relevant decision-makers to form a judgment on that question.

At the heart of the matter, of course, is Doherty's relationship with his players. Does Doherty treat players in a way consistent with what the university's historic values have been? Well, to answer that question, one must first have some sense of what those values are, and second, a sense of the facts.

In my judgment it's not too hard, with some simplification, to identify the core of the relevant values: Coaches at UNC are supposed to be not just competitors but also teachers and leaders. Good teachers must know how to communicate effectively and inspire different kinds of people; they must exhibit self-control, including control of their emotions; and they must recognize that teaching and coaching involves drawing one's most fundamental satisfaction from helping others achieve their goals--not in winning public acclaim for one's self. A good teacher or coach habitually commands the loyalty and respect of their students--even if they are at times quite tough and quite demanding.

Unless administrators stand up and say otherwise, or declare that UNC is now the sort of institution that only cares about winning games or only cares about whether coaches look good on TV, I think it's reasonable to presume that the university community's basic expectations of coaches approximate those noted above. Indeed, the Athletic Department's own mission statement observes that it aims to provide "educational and athletic opportunities for young men and women to grow and develop" and that "coaches, as educators, are foundational to this process."

What is much more difficult to discern than these basic principles, however, are the facts of how well a coach is meeting those expectations. Matt Doherty's regime in Chapel Hill to date has been marked by persistent rumors about his relationships with players, which, combined with some very public and unprecedented statements from players and their families in the past couple of years, have led to serious doubt among a significant chunk of Carolina fans--and in the basketball world--about what is really going on in Chapel Hill behind closed doors.

The bottom line is this: If what is going on is in fact the building of positive, respectful, and productive working relationships between the coaching staff and the players, such that all the players slated to return are excited about the prospects of coming back next fall and playing for Matt Doherty, as he is here and now, then there is really no reason for the head coach's job to be called into serious question at this time (and much reason to be excited about the talented team coming back).

But if relationships--or a significant portion of them--between players and coaches are adversarial and marked by distrust and resentment, then there is a serious problem. A program marked by such an environment is not going to be stable or conducive to positive learning and development, not least because someone will always be leaving or thinking of leaving. Unhealthy relationships between coaches and players--that's not what Carolina basketball needs to be about. Period.

It is university administrators' job to know "what is really going on" with respect to these issues, and to act accordingly, drawing on their own best judgment. That means finding out first-hand the facts of the situation and making the decision that best exemplifies the values of the university. It does not mean taking a public opinion poll, figuring out which way the wind is blowing in newspaper columns and internet message boards, or taking purely personal considerations into account.

Decisions affecting people's livelihoods are never, ever easy and never should be entered into lightly. For many Carolina fans, the very idea that a head basketball coach may be facing the possibility of losing their job is the ultimate nightmare--and that's a feeling I sympathize with greatly. Other Carolina fans are concerned about the head coach position turning into a revolving door and don't want Carolina to become another UCLA--another legitimate concern which I share.

But neither of those concerns should be regarded as absolutely binding, universal moral principles which ought to be applied regardless of the concrete situation. If a leader is simply the wrong person, an inappropriate fit, for the job, it is not fair to those being led to keep that leader in place.

This is not a fun time, but Carolina Basketball WILL get through the present uncertainty, IF it is confronted honestly and forthrightly by the university leadership. It's that simple. This is a program-shaping decision, and it is vitally important that whatever decision is carried out be accompanied by a persuasive and definitive explanation of why exactly it was made. Firing a coach after three years demands a darn good explanation.

And in this case, re-affirming Matt Doherty as the man for the job also would require both a definitive and persuasive statement illustrating beyond any reasonable doubt that he has the full confidence, support and respect of his team, those he works with in the Athletic Department, and the larger Carolina basketball family--and that he is capable of maintaining that support for years to come. Moreover, administrators need to specifically affirm that they are comfortable and happy with the type of learning environment present in the basketball program, and that the players in the program are indeed having and will continue to have the healthy experience of "growth and development" promised in the Athletic Department mission statement.

Anything less will invite continued skepticism and speculation, with potentially detrimental effects on recruiting, internal morale, and the reputation of both the program and even the university. University administrators would be fooling themselves to think that a couple of great wins alone will be enough to remove the deep-seated doubts about Doherty and his leadership style present among not only many Carolina supporters but also the basketball world.

In the meantime, there is a tournament to be played and this team needs and deserves all the support it can get. With Sean May back in action and the likelihood of a homecourt advantage in the NIT, the possibility that this group could yet pull out a 20-win season is very real.

As to the larger issues, if, like many Carolina fans, you simply do not know what the best way forward is for this program and the best way to definitively deal with the growing storms clouds, simply wish for this: that the leadership act from its best principles in a spirit of integrity and with foremost consideration given to the experience of Carolina's student athletes; and that whatever decision is arrived at be carried out with the utmost dignity, grace and consideration for all parties concerned.


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/carolinabook.html. Thad welcomes your emails at thad@uncbasketball.com.

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