Changing of the guard College basketball: Coach Dean Smith, reportedly at odds with North Carolina's administrators, leaves the Tar Heels in the hands of his longtime assistant Bill Guthridge.

October 10, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Each spring for the last 10 years, Dean Smith would tell longtime assistant Bill Guthridge to be ready to take over just in case the legendary North Carolina basketball coach couldn't relight the competitive fires for the coming season and decided to retire.

And each fall, Smith would find a way to rekindle the passion and return to the bench.

"He always got his batteries charged," Guthridge said yesterday. "It's all the little things that wore him out. I think he still loves coaching and teaching. But anyone who knows Dean knows he's not going to do things halfway."

That was the reason Smith cited for his sudden decision to resign after 36 seasons in Chapel Hill, where he went from being a relatively unknown assistant under Frank McGuire to becoming college basketball's all-time winningest coach with 879 career victories.

Smith's decision was made Tuesday after a meeting with North Carolina president Michael Hooker and athletic director Dick Baddour. He informed his current players and staff, as well as some recruits, Wednesday and made it public at a packed campus news conference that was carried live on ESPN yesterday.

"I have decided to resign as head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina," said Smith. "There was much speculation. I am healthy outside of no exercise. Somebody said was mad at Chancellor Hooker and that I didn't want Dick as AD. We have a happy family. I'm 66. I enjoy basketball. I enjoy coaching basketball. It's the out-of-season stuff I didn't handle well."

Perhaps also the politics. Despite his denials, there is speculation that the timing of Smith's announcement nine days before the start of preseason practice was done to insure that Guthridge would get a chance to succeed him rather than give the new administration a chance to conduct an outside search.

There have been rumors that Smith wanted former assistant John Lotz, an assistant athletic director at the school, to succeed John Swofford, who left this summer to become commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Guthridge, who has been on Smith's staff for 30 years, was given the title of interim head coach.

Though Hooker said that he has endorsed Smith's recommendation that Guthridge be given a multi-year contract, his future will likely hinge on the job he does and the interest by other high-profile coaches with connections to the school. A source familiar with the situation said that Guthridge, 60, could get a five-year contract.

"He's been instrumental to the overall success," Baddour said of Guthridge. "He has learned well from the master. He is ready and eager to do this job."

Said Guthridge, "It is a very difficult situation to follow the greatest coach of all time. I know I never can live up to what he's done and what he's accomplished, but I'm certainly going to try. I think we'll be successful. This isn't quite the way I envisioned this scenario. I had hoped Dean and I could ride off into the sunset in five years."

In a nearly one-hour news conference, Smith made jokes about his age when he couldn't quite hear a question and about his physique, saying that one of the reasons he was retiring was that he couldn't match the standard of "single-digit" body fat content of his players.

The only time he became emotional was in talking about his players.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world to be here," Smith said. His voice began to crack. "Thanks to my players. Any man. "

The large crowd at the school's athletic center applauded. Yesterday's news conference was attended by current and former players, including Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown, whose team had been training at the school. Also attending was Georgetown coach John Thompson, a longtime friend of Smith who served as his assistant coach on the gold-medal winning Olympic basketball team in 1976.

Smith, who broke legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp's record of 876 victories against California in the second round of last season's NCAA tournament, won two national titles at North Carolina, in 1982 and again in 1993. His teams finished in the top three of the ACC 33 straight seasons and have won 20 or more games in 27 straight years. More impressively, 94 percent of Smith's players left Chapel Hill with their degrees.

"This is very difficult," said Hooker, a former president at UMBC. "I have admired Dean Smith since I was a freshman at North Carolina in 1965. I told him walking down the stairs that I don't think anyone has ever done for higher education what Dean Smith did for North Carolina. We will miss him. Coach Guthridge, welcome."

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