UNC's Smith must design a new play

July 10, 2000|By KAN ROSENTHAL

Dean Smith is hating this. Hating that North Carolina's plan to hire Roy Williams backfired. Hating that the process is now out in the open. Hating that he must now play favorites in a way that he never did as coach.

The decision on Bill Guthridge's replacement doesn't belong to Smith alone, but the former North Carolina coach is again serving as kingmaker, conducting interviews with UNC athletic director Dick Baddour.

The suspicion here is that he plotted the line of succession, just as he plotted it when he resigned as coach on Oct. 9, 1997. Smith left no time for Carolina to conduct a search for his replacement. Guthridge, his faithful longtime assistant, was the only logical choice.

The plan worked to perfection, and Guthridge led Carolina to two Final Fours in three years. Perhaps he was pushed to resign, convinced by those he trusted that the only way to satisfy his critics was to win a national championship. But once again, the timing was impeccable.

Guthridge stepped down eight days before the start of the July recruiting period, leaving Carolina with a sufficient window to hire Williams. Only problem was, Williams deviated from the script. Some would argue he defied his mentor. Others would say he learned all too well.

By staying at Kansas, Williams demonstrated the loyalty and selflessness that Smith always tried to instill in his players and assistants. It was a classic Smith move - so unconventional as to be almost heroic. But Williams understood the pain he was inflicting on Smith and, to a lesser extent, Guthridge, the men to whom he owed his career.

Guthridge, too, is involved in the selection process, but Smith, as usual, will carry the greater burden. He was a coach who left nothing to chance, but now a carefully orchestrated coronation has disintegrated into a public debate. Smith finds himself in an uncomfortable corner, a father forced to choose among many sons.

The Carolina family operates by its own code. "It's a cult," Chuck Daly once said, "but a good cult."

Two years ago, I interviewed Larry Brown for a soon-to-be-published book called, "I Remember Dean Smith," a collection of more than 100 first-person accounts from those who knew Smith best. Brown, like everyone else I interviewed, displayed incredible reverence for Smith and seemed genuinely moved by the hiring of Guthridge.

"Through the years, there has always been talk of who's going to replace Coach," Brown said. "I never wanted him to be in a position where he had to choose. I wanted him to stay forever, for him to do it his way. Even though I love that school so much and it would always be an honor to coach there, it couldn't have worked out better in my mind.

" One of the greatest feelings I've had in my life is to see the way Bill Guthridge has allowed Coach to continue to be part of it. And the way Coach manipulated it to where Bill couldn't turn it down, it's one of the most selfless stories you can ever have, from both people's perspectives. It's pretty wonderful.

"The way the transition was made, the fact that the guy who is there now has the integrity and the character to allow Coach to do it on his terms with his dignity, it's been phenomenal."

But this transition is not proceeding as smoothly.

Brown, the coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, is now a leading candidate to replace Guthridge. He interviewed for the job yesterday. His career-long wanderlust and his desire to coach at Carolina have been well-documented. Still, he probably wouldn't have quarreled with the hiring of Williams, who appeared to be the ideal choice for UNC.

Williams graduated from Chapel Hill and spent 10 years as an assistant under Smith. He was the perfect age (49). He had the right amount of college experience (12 seasons at Kansas). He carries glowing credentials (a 329-82 record, best for a Division I coach with at least five years of experience).

None of the other candidates with Carolina ties offers as complete a package.

Brown, nearing his 60th birthday, would be nothing more than a short-term solution. Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl, a CBA and NBA coach for 18 seasons, has never worked at the college level, and thus never recruited.

Notre Dame's Matt Doherty has coached only one year. Middle Tennessee State's Randy Wiel and Tenneseee Tech's Jeff Lebo lack high-profile experience. Carolina assistant Phil Ford pleaded guilty last November to driving while intoxicated. South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler withdrew his name from consideration.

Brown, one of the game's best teachers and leading tacticians, no doubt would do a terrific job, creating fits for Maryland's Gary Williams and the rest of the ACC. Let's not forget, Brown accomplished something at Kansas that Williams has not, winning a national championship.

Still, much as Brown might want the job, he probably would admit it is coming later than he would have liked, even if it offers an escape from Allen Iverson. Roy Williams was the right man at the right time for North Carolina. And Dean Smith is hating that the play he diagrammed didn't work.

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