Right-hand man No. 1 in own right Guthridge: He's not Dean Smith. But after 30 years of anonymity at the legend's side, he's reluctantly stepped up to lead Carolina to a 17-0 start and No. 1 ranking.

January 14, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- He now has an unlisted telephone number. His office still has more of Dean Smith's mementos than his own. Bill Guthridge wanted neither, and relishes the day when he can go back to his previous life of blissful anonymity.

The way things are going here, it will likely not be for a while.

When Smith suddenly retired last October as the legend-in-residence of the North Carolina basketball program, Guthridge was thrust just as quickly into a spotlight he had managed to avoid for the past 30 years. In naming Guthridge, the administration wanted a smooth, quiet transition.

But how many figured on the Tar Heels going 17-0 and being ranked No. 1 in the country coming into tonight's game at Maryland?

"I think it's a tribute to Coach Smith," Guthridge said Monday afternoon. "First of all, he certainly didn't leave the cupboard bare. These are really good players and really good guys and are easy to coach. His training of them and his training of me continues."

It might look to some as if Smith merely put the Tar Heels on autopilot when he called it quits after 36 seasons and a record 879 victories. But it's also a testimony to Guthridge, 60, the loyal assistant who had planned to retire with Smith when his contract ran out in 2001.

Instead, Guthridge has his own television show, two radio shows and a five-year contract that pays him substantially more than before. One more thing: Guthridge already has received a few letters criticizing his coaching, specifically his inability to develop a bench.

Even Guthridge will try to make you believe that little has changed.

"We all have egos to a certain degree, and my ego was fulfilled by being an assistant coach," said Guthridge, who came here from Kansas State in 1967. "I want all of the help that Dean will give me. If somebody came in and tried to say, 'We're going to do it my way' and it wasn't like Dean Smith, then I think there would be problems.

"I believe 100 percent I'm trying to do what Dean would be doing. People ask me what the mark will be of a Bill Guthridge team. I hope there isn't any. I just want it to be a good Carolina team and do what we've done in the past."

The ink on his stamp is still drying, but its shape is noticeable nonetheless. The concept of rotating six players as starters belonged to Guthridge; the idea of starting them in some sort of alphabetical order belonged to the players. That he even listened to their suggestion was something new. "With Coach Smith, it would have never even come to that," said sophomore point guard Ed Cota. "It's not that much different, but he lets you have a little more impact. With Coach Guthridge, you can do a little more talking."

Not that Guthridge, with his monotone voice and the shuffling gait of a country preacher, is a soft touch. He already has suspended Cota for one game for failing to live up to terms of an academic contract, and has benched senior center Makhtar Ndiaye for coming a minute late to a pre-game meal.

Disciplining Jordan

Remember, Guthridge is the guy who used to run the three miles from the basketball office to Finley Golf Course with players who failed to get up in the morning for class, including a couple of memorable 7 a.m. runs with Michael Jordan. He was also the guy who instituted the 7 a.m. study hall after he got tired of running.

"Like some assistants, I wasn't the goody-goody guy," said Guthridge. "I did a lot of the disciplining. I've run with most of the guys. I could beat a lot of them, but I could never beat Michael. He's such a competitor. He'd toy with you for a while."

But Guthridge admits that the relationship he has with his players is different that what Smith had, and to an extent, still has while coming to his office at the the building named after him several days a week. One is an icon, perhaps the most influential man ever to coach college basketball; the other has simply been the guy in the next chair.

"They certainly show me the utmost respect," said Guthridge. "But I'm not Dean Smith and haven't done what he's done over the years. Maybe they were more intimidated by him, if that's the right terminology."

Said junior forward Vince Carter: "With Coach Smith, there were times you felt like you were talking to a legend, to the winningest coach in college basketball. With Coach Guthridge, you know you're talking to a coach and it's a lot easier."

For most of his three decades in Chapel Hill, little was known about Guthridge. About narrowly avoiding the polio that put his best friend in Parsons, Kan., in a wheelchair. About playing the back nine of Augusta National in 1-over par -- and quitting the game shortly afterward.

He was thought of as an extension of Smith, his semi-altered ego. Or as Guthridge put it earlier this season, "He was Edgar Bergen and I was Charlie McCarthy." Guthridge had come close to leaving once, after accepting the head coaching job at Penn State in 1978 and changing his mind before getting on a plane to State College, Pa.

Grudging promotion

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