Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Ultimate NCAA Sweet 16 Villanova/North Carolina Preview, Part 1

To the Wildcat faithful-


Let's begin with one basic fact - entire books have been written about Carolina's program, and I can't wrap all of its history into a couple of articles thrown together in a week's time. I've invited the Carolina folks over to look at these, and requested their help as I created these articles. And for those of you who are visitors here, I'm sure I'm going to make some basic mistakes, so please bear with me. This isn't intended as a comprehensive overview of UNC's program. This is supposed to be a sketch for Villanova fans who want to learn more about UNC in advance of the game (If you want to e-mail me, you can do so at

I am deeply indebted to John Feinstein's magnificent 1998 book on the 1996-97 ACC, A March to Madness, for much of the historical material on Carolina and almost all of it on Smith, for whom that season was his last prior to retirement. It is one of the finest books on the sport ever written, and I highly recommend it - I bought the book as soon as I saw it in the Borders in Rosemont back in 1998. (Every time I use one of the stories from the book, a "JF" will appear.)

So now that's out of the way, let's begin with Dean E. Smith, the most important figure in UNC history and one of the most, nationally.. Much of this will be redundant for many of you who lived through him, but since we have current VU students who don't remember him, let's do some basics.. (It's incredible that it'll be EIGHT years this fall that he announced his retirement.

Dean Smith was - pure and simple - a basketball genius. That's not just hype. That's fact. Dick Vitale called him "Michelangelo", but that was true. Time would forbid me from listing all of Dean Smith's innovations, but let's just leave it at this, all from Feinstein:

His success with the "Four Corners" stalling offense was largely responsible for the introduction of the then-45 second shot clock beginning in the 1985-86 season, the year after Villanova won the national title. (It was reduced to 35 seconds after the 1992-93 season, coincidentally the year after Smith won his second national title.)

  • He instituted the idea of practicing endgame situations in practice.
  • He first began the practice of husbanding timeouts for use at crunch time.
  • He suggested huddling up at the foul line, after fouls.
  • He instructed players to signal when they were tired and wanted to be removed.
  • He first began the tradition of honoring graduating senior players, back in 1962. (Smith naturally felt melancholy as a player, after not starting in his final home game at KU and decided he didn't want his seniors to feel that way.)
Not that Smith didn't have critics. Lefty Driesell, the Maryland coach, once mocked Smith's self-deprecating nature, claiming that "Dean Smith's the only man in history who's won 700 games and been the underdog in every one of them." (JF)

But Smith won, more consistently and for a longer period of time, than anyone else in the entire history of the game. In 36 years as Carolina's head coach, Smith won 879 games, reached 11 Final Fours, captured 13 ACC tournaments, reached the title game five times, and won the whole thing twice - in 1982 and 1993.

In what may have been his most impressive attainment, Smith took the Tar Heels to 13 consecutive Sweet 16s. Or try out this one: From 1964-65 to 2000-01, despite playing in what in most years was the most arduous conference in America, the Tar Heels never finished below THIRD in the ACC - a 37 year span. In the ACC's 50 seasons the Tar Heels have only missed the top three six times.

Only John Wooden, who won 10 national titles in 12 years at UCLA, and Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game, rank clearly above him in the sport's history. Not that this fact has always been clear. Bill Foster, another of Smith's coaching adversaries, once wondered aloud: "I always thought it was NAISmith who invented the game, not DEAN Smith." :) (JF)

Smith could have easily had a political career had he wanted it, and if the political winds had blown more favorably in his direction. An old-school New Deal Democrat who grew up in small-town Kansas (back when Democrats still did well in places like that) Smith probably could have been elected easily to statewide office in increasingly Republican North Carolina. Smith was undoubtedly eagerly courted by the state's Democrats for that reason. But he never wanted to, and now at 73, he's probably too old. There is precedent for sports figures reaching elected office: former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, former Phillies Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, and former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and Hall of Famer Steve Largent all parlayed their athletic feats into elected office, although in contrast to Smith, all three were Republicans. (Ironically, as Feinstein points out, Coach K - the hated enemy in most of North Carolina - is a conservative Republican who would fit in a lot better politically in the state).

But even Dean Smith didn't build Carolina from the ground up. Smith took over from the guy who DID do that, the equally legendary Frank McGuire, whose interesting life I will not go into in the hopes of keeping this to a manageable length :) Suffice it to say that McGuire, a New Yorker who led the Tar Heels to a 32-0, national-championship-winning season in 1957, transformed college hoops forever by being the first to spirit elite New York City schoolyard talent, especially from the Catholic leagues, to the Deep South. (He would later coach the 76ers. Smith was hired by McGuire as an assistant.)

Many of the problems that Carolina has had over the last few years, stem from the problem that all great empires have had throughout history: namely, succession. Even Dean Smith, the Julius Caesar of NCAA basketball, was not immortal. After he broke the all-time win record (games, which by incredible coincidence, I saw in person in Winston-Salem, N.C., because VU was playing in the same NCAA bracket in 1997 :) , he decided to step down, and his long-time assistant Bill Guthridge succeeded him.

This was not a good long-term solution. At least to my limited knowledge, Guthridge wanted to be a career assistant and always intended to retire with Dean, not succeed him. Also, it caused long-term instability, since Guthridge was almost as old as Smith, he certainly wasn't going to coach very long, and he didn't.

Which led to the most publicized coaching succession/soap opera in the nation. One wouldn't think that the Carolina job would have gone a-begging, particularly within the Carolina family, as they were widely viewed as the only ones eligible. "Family" is a stronger concept at UNC than anywhere else. Smith coached so long and so successfully that his former assistants and players brought elements of the Carolina system everywhere in America. According to Feinstein, there is a strict clannish sense down there. If you're a card-carrying member of the family - a former Carolina player, manager, or assistant - you have the run of the place at practice and are welcome to hang out on the floor. Anyone else - regardless of status - has to get a little card from the UNC office saying that he's got permission to attend practice that day and sit in the upper deck of the DeanDome. (Larry Brown once came back with his assistants in tow, and got to watch practice on the floor, while his assistants were banished to the upper deck.)

Smith was a math major at Kansas, where he was a bench player on a NCAA winning team and the sixth man on the Jayhawks squad that lost the title game the following year. (Ironically, Roy Williams would play at Carolina, coach at Kansas, and then return to Carolina as well. But this meant that it wasn't unusual to have, when the teams occasionally met in the 1990s, a KU grad coaching UNC against a UNC grad coaching KU.)

And everything about Carolina's program under Smith, reflected the mathematical elegance of Smith's mind. Everything that goes on in practice is meticulously recorded for "pluses and minuses", and as Feinstein reports in an interesting quirk, graduating players can actually will their pluses to underclassmen. There are elaborate rules as to who can and cannot shoot from certain parts of the floor.

For those of you who haven't had the privilege of seeing UNC's campus, even if only briefly, it fits in well with this philosophy. (I saw Chapel Hill for about three hours, when VU went to the '97 tournament in Winston-Salem, N.C., about 90 minutes away.) It's all pillars and Georgian and Greek Revival architecture, very cool, refined, enlightened, elegant, and rational. Very nice town if you haven't been there. I only saw Durham, where Duke is located, for about four hours, and Chapel Hill for about four hours, but it definitely was one of the most memorable visits I've ever had anywhere, and I would enjoy going back with enough time to actually see everything.

Guthridge went to the Final Four in 2000 and then stepped down, and there were no shortage of candidates: Kansas coach Roy Williams and NBA coaches Larry Brown (then with Philadelphia, now with Detroit) and George Karl (then with Seattle, now with Denver), all of whom had played at Carolina. Matt Doherty, who ultimately got the job, was definitely considered a second-tier candidate. But all of the heavy hitters decided to turn it down. Williams stayed in Lawrence and neither Brown nor Karl were interested.

And so Carolina made the fateful decision that has cost it so dearly, and decided to give the keys to the most storied and successful program in America to Matt Doherty, a 39-year old who had been a head coach for a grand total of one year at Notre Dame after serving as an assistant under Williams at Kansas.

Doherty's sole trump card was the fact that he was a loyal member of the family, a guy who had played on the 1982 team with Jordan. And Carolina desperately wanted to keep it in the family.

The Doherty Dark Ages in Chapel Hill: The Fall (Without Decline) of the Carolingian Empire

Disaster ensued. It will be difficult to convey to future generations, precisely how precipitously Carolina's program crashed in the second year after he took over, 2001-02. It was like in the old Warner Bros. cartoons, when Wile E. Coyote would race off a cliff, look down, cringe, and then free-fall into a canyon amidst a puff of smoke. (Imagine him in a Carolina jersey and you get the picture.)

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire, dedicated to enlightenment, logic, success, and above all, victory over its adversaries, was in much the same situation as Carolina. It never thought it would fall, but it decayed slowly over a couple of centuries, and historians still don't agree as to precisely why Rome fell.

Two thousand years later, Carolina was in an analogous situation, with a notable exception that the succession issues at Carolina were handled without poison, assassins and knives, the standard tools in ancient Rome. Most Roman emperors died of assassination, not of old age - but not that the succession issues at Carolina haven't had their own share of plotting and intrigue, as we shall see.

Another dissimilarity was that Rome declined gradually - and to put it mildly, that wasn't the case at Carolina. It would have been as if at the height of Rome's glory under Augustus Caesar, the barbarians suddenly, without warning, charged in and leveled the entire glorious edifice of the Eternal City. Carolina went from being awesome to being terrible in a space of two years.

And finally, historians diverge as to the issue of who should get the blame for the decline of Rome. No such debate exists in Chapel Hill; Carolina was awesome before Matt Doherty's arrival, was awful while he was there, and is now awesome again, so that provides some fairly powerful evidence as to where fault lies.

For one thing, Doherty did not seem to comport himself with the humility that an inexperienced, 39 year old coach SHOULD have had, with the privilege of taking over at North Carolina solely on the strength of his figurative hoop blood ties. He came in like a bull in a china shop. He fired three long-time UNC assistants, all former players, in order to replace them with his staff from Notre Dame, none of whom were UNC graduates. He let go several beloved members of the basketball support staff, for the same reason. Basically, Doherty got the job because of his UNC ties, and when he returned to Chapel Hill acted as if those ties didn't mean anything. (The ancient Greeks had a word for this: hubris.)

The ancient Greeks had another term which could apply to the Doherty regime: the Furies. The whole Doherty saga did have sort of a Greek dramatic element to it. It was as if the basketball gods - who had uniformly smiled on Chapel Hill for decades, raining down an abundance of talent and victories - had gleefully opted to punish Doherty for his insolence. Doherty lost. And lost big. Carolina had the worst year it had ever had in four decades.

It really isn't right to take pleasure in this, but I do have to admit that during the Doherty Dark Ages, I enjoyed seeing Carolina get taken down a peg or two (or three or four!), and I was hoping that Doherty was going to stick around a while longer to continue running the program into the ground. (Nor was I alone in these sentiments, around the country.)

Doherty's ultimate ouster was a foregone conclusion. Maryland moved into the ACC power vacuum and assumed Carolina's place as chief adversary to Duke, winning the national title in 2002. Wake Forest's sustained success threatened to eclipse Carolina as well in the ACC. Carolina, which used to be in the business of competing for national titles, was now suddenly wondering if it was going to be able to stay in the elite in its own conference, struggling to just stay competitive with Maryland and Wake, let alone Duke, which was light-years ahead. Opposing players were beginning to say publicly that "Carolina's just another game on the schedule."

Doherty's records during his last two years were so appalling, that getting rid of him was the easy part. Nor was Doherty's captaincy a reign of serenity for the team, either. A slew of players transferred amidst shadowy media reports of abusive behavior on Doherty's part (Doherty obviously hadn't recruited most of them). Usually, when coaches get fired, their players are upset (he recruited them, after all) and most of the requiems focus in on the theme of "So-and-so is a nice guy, but..." No such testimonials appeared after Doherty got the ax in Chapel Hill. In fact, it was just the opposite.

In the aftermath of Doherty's ouster, reported that:

"Guys were frustrated and it wasn't because of the losing," said Rashad McCants, one of the team's freshman stars. "It was mostly because we had to go to practice every day saying, 'Man, we've got to deal with this guy.' "

"I've been through a tough year," {Melvin] Scott said. "But I don't hate coach. I didn't want him to get fired. But that comes with basketball, man. Personally, I want what's best for the university. Whatever's best to get this program to where it used to be."

"I don't hate coach."
Pregnant in Scott's words are the implication that he's in the minority on that score and that Doherty was in fact hated by a lot of Scott's teammates, and that Scott would be fully justified in hating him, if he chose to. (How often do you go around saying that you "don't hate" So-and-so?)

Clearly, those aren't the words athletic directors would like to hear from their players about a 42 year old coach who's clearing a salary, plus perks, of over a million dollars a year! Especially when he's just missed the NCAA tournament twice in a row, at a program that hadn't missed it at all since 1974 prior to that. (And Doherty had RECRUITED McCants and Scott. Imagine what the guys Doherty inherited felt about him.)

Gutting the program the day he got there came back to bite him. Not that goodwill would have saved Doherty anyhow, with those records, but it might have if he had been enjoying a little more success. Or maybe at least bought him another year with his top-shelf recruits.

But the Doherty fiasco obviously hasn't fatally wounded Carolina's program, as this season's success amply demonstrates. Rome struggled through some bad emperors, too, (Nero and Caligula come to mind) and they managed to stay on top for 500 years. It happens in all great empires, that the guy at the top won't always cut it, but you try to survive anyway until you get someone better.

Ironically, until Doherty's first NCAA tournament in 2001, there was little reason to think that the new regime would mean anything under than business as usual for the Carolingian Empire. During Doherty's first year, the team went 26-7 and tied for the ACC regular-season title with Duke, the eventual national champion, and lost to the Blue Devils in the tournament final, and Doherty had even won at Cameron in his first try. In fact, Doherty brought the Tar Heels to the #1 spot in the polls for a week in February before losing at Clemson. The Tar Heels ended up with a #2 seed in the NCAAs, demolishing #15 Princeton in the first round before being upset by #7 Penn State in the second.

Of course, by the Carolina standards of the time, not making the Sweet 16 automatically rendered the season a failure, but it was a rookie coach and people were willing to cut him some slack. He did, after all, win the Associated Press National Coach of the Year award. Until his second season - Carolina's worst season in 40 years. (Needless to say, he did not win any awards after that one :)

This is the Wile E. Coyote part. Carolina had been #1 at one point the previous year - and they finished 8-20 (not a typo). They went 4-12 in the ACC. The season got off to a fitting start when they lost to both Hampton and Davidson at the Smith Center. They lost to Indiana by 10, at Kentucky by 20, beat Georgia Tech and Binghamton but then lost to College of Charleston - at home.

Carolina had thus started the season 2-5 with three home losses to non-power conference teams, effectively ending its chance at a NCAA bid before Christmas. After three straight wins over St. Joseph's, NC A&T and Texas A&M brought them back to .500 at 5-5, the ship sank as rapidly as they once did off Carolina's treacherous Cape Hatteras.

Doherty's Tar Heels went 3-15 the rest of the year. They started off 2-10 in the ACC before somehow managing to split their final four games. Highlights of Doherty's sophomore season included:

winning only ONE road game the ENTIRE year, finishing 1-9 on the road and 2-11 on road/"neutral" courts (the neutral court was in Charlotte, against Charleston and St. Joe's, so it was basically a home court for Carolina). Their only legitimate non-Smith Center win was at - you guessed it - Clemson, where they won by 18.
  • a 33 point loss (112-79) at eventual national champion Maryland;
  • a 32 point loss at UConn;
  • a 18 point home loss to NC State;
  • a 29 point loss to Duke at Cameron;
  • a 24 point loss at Wake Forest;
  • an eight point home loss to Ohio University;
  • and a 25 point home loss to Duke on Senior Day.
As you can see, it wasn't an 8-20 season that could have been a NIT year with a few favorable bounces. It was a catastrophic 8-20. The Blue Devils then swiftly and mercifully put Carolina's season out of its misery with a 12 point victory in the ACC quarterfinals. It was the first year Carolina had even missed the NCAA tournament since 1974, let alone had a losing record, let alone finished with 20 losses.

It would have been fair to expect some decline from the year before; sophomore Joseph Forte decided to turn pro and Doherty wasn't able to talk two football players, Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers, into coming back for another whirl. But their losses weren't anywhere near enough to begin to explain a 20-loss season in Chapel Hill.

Obviously, Doherty was in big trouble, and he was going to have to have a HUGE third year to have a chance to survive, and he didn't. Doherty's third and final season, 2002-03, saw the Tar Heels finish with a 19-16 overall record (counting two NIT victories) and only 6-10 in the ACC.

It initially looked like Doherty might turn things around, after he beat Williams' Kansas team, at the true neutral court of Madison Square Garden in the preseason NIT, in a stunning 11-point upset of the #2 Jayhawks, and then beat Stanford by 17 two days later. The Tar Heels made a brief return to the Top 25 as a result. But reality soon set in. The signature embarrassment of the year came on Dec. 27, losing to Iona (not Iowa, Iona) by .nine at MSG.

After starting the season 11-5, even including the loss to the Gaels, and 2-2 ACC, the bottom fell out, as the Tar Heels promptly lost five straight conference games, including blowouts at Maryland and Georgia Tech, falling out of NCAA consideration at 11-10, 2-7 ACC, and rendering Doherty a dead man walking, so to speak. It hadn't helped that Sean May had broken his foot and ultimately missed the entire ACC part of the season. They would scuffle to a 6-10 conference mark and be off the bubble.

The one bone that the basketball gods threw to Doherty, was permitting him to beat Duke at home, which he hadn't yet done, in what would turn out to be his final home game as head coach. Doherty finally led the Tar Heels to a home victory over their archrivals, beating the heavily favored #9 Blue Devils at the DeanDome in the regular-season finale. At 6-10 in the ACC, Carolina was going to have to win the conference tournament to get into the field, and to nobody's surprise it didn't happen. The Tar Heels did manage to upset #14 Maryland in the quarterfinals, but Doherty's fate was sealed when Duke won the rubber game in the semifinals, relegating the Tar Heels to the NIT for the first time in many, many years.

In equally unsurprising fashion, the long-anticipated Grim Reaper made a Chapel Hill pit stop for Doherty's head in March 2003, immediately after Carolina had been ousted from the NIT, following a pair of victories. His final game was a five point home NIT loss to Georgetown in the third round.. Unfortunately for him, Doherty's legacy was to become synonymous with phrases such as "in over his head" and "Thank God that's over." (Ironically, his name just recently resurfaced in the search to replace former Villanova coach Steve Lappas, newly fired at Massachusetts, but it was officially announced that he's no longer a candidate.)

Doherty had actively recruited Jason Fraser, and according to a poster on, the following took place:

Fraser apparently had been quoted saying something to the effect that he wasn't sure where he'd end up but when it did, it would "hit him like a ton of bricks". The next day, Fraser opened a package from UNC with a brick in it. (Fraser didn't think it was funny.) In retrospect, and not just because of the brick incident, I doubt that Fraser is sorry that he didn't attach his future to the U.S.S. Doherty in Chapel Hill.

But don't shed any tears for Matt Doherty. When he was hired, he signed a six-year deal with a base salary of $855,000, which undoubtedly didn't include income from his shoe deal, his UNC basketball camps, his TV/radio shows, and endorsements (although after a 8-20 season they were probably pretty hard to come by). So the buyout package for the three remaining years of his contract has softened the blow. UNC officially announced his buyout as $337,500, including $150,000 for the UNC camps he wouldn't be staging.

As a parting gift to UNC, for his very generous buyout, Doherty had left the cupboard pretty full for his old mentor, Williams. I generally don't follow recruiting closely, but I specifically remember that the year Jay Wright signed the Fab Four, that the 'Nova class was considered one of the top three nationally, along with Duke and Carolina. The recruiting class was, at least in the eyes of the media, considered as a possibly saving grace for Doherty that might buy him at least another year at the helm in Chapel Hill.

Which, in retrospect, was silly. This is North Carolina we're talking about. It doesn't take tremendous recruiting acumen to recruit to Chapel Hill, the way it would to get players to come to, let's say, Providence (where despite its fine academic reputation, fun city, and Big East affiliation, it's cold and there's no on-campus arena). It's not unreasonable for Carolina - at least for $855,000 a year, plus perks - to expect a coach to be able to recruit and win at the same time.

Check out Parts 2 and 3 of the Preview....

Go Wildcats!

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