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Doherty's passion fuels No. 6 Heels

The fiery coach, a former UNC player, has the team back in top form and a winner of 11 straight.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2001


It was unlike any scene at the Dean Smith Center.

There amongst a horde of students cavorting at midcourt after North Carolina's dramatic win against Wake Forest a couple of weeks ago, danced first-year coach Matt Doherty.

In his neatly pressed dress shirt, silk tie and with stylishly coiffed salt-and-pepper hair, Doherty, 38, stood out. "After the game my wife and I were talking and I said, "I wonder if coach (Dean) Smith was looking down on that in that mosh pit with me in the middle of it, shaking his head like, what has happened to my program?' " Doherty said, laughing. "But I talked to him the next day and I said, "I apologize if that bothered you.' He said, "No. No. I thought it was great. Not that I would do that.' "

Neither would Smith's laid-back, genteel successor, Bill Guthridge.

But Doherty is different.

As was the case during his playing days at UNC, he's unabashedly demonstrative. He usually stands throughout a game, unlike Smith and Guthridge, who sat serenely. He will pump his fist after good plays and get in a player's face after gaffes. He has kicked a trash can in practice and even broke a chair in the locker room at halftime of the UMass game. His team led 40-33 but went on to cruise 91-60.

It is a different scene these days.

But that's not all bad.

At times last season, the Tar Heels showed a lack of passion. Not now. Doherty's fiery persona has become his imprint on the No. 6-ranked Tar Heels (14-2, 4-0 ACC), winners of 11 straight entering today's game at Florida State (5-12, 0-4).

"I'm not surprised in the least bit," said Kansas coach Roy Williams, who turned down the UNC job to pave the way for his former assistant. "He understands playing and coaching at that level and the intensity you have to bring to the court every single night."

* * *

As a player at UNC, Doherty was easy to overlook.

Teammates James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Michael Jordan go a long way in explaining that. Early in his career, Smith suggested to Doherty that he could become the nation's best screener. Wow. But Smith meant that as a testament to Doherty's attention to detail and his non-stop engine.

"I subbed a lot for Matt on the wings and I used to tell him, "Matt, just let me go down to the other end of the floor to see what it's like; just give me a little bit of time,' " said former teammate Buzz Peterson, now the coach at Tulsa. "But that's how he was. He was so competitive. After 30 seconds, he'd go right back in."

In the 1982 NCAA championship game win against Georgetown, Doherty played 39 minutes.

Doherty had dreamed of an NBA career since the fourth grade and was taken in the sixth round of the 1984 draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. That was as close to his goal as he would come. He was cut in camp.

"It was kind of hard to deal with," Doherty said. "I was so faithful and loyal to basketball and I felt like basketball turned its back on me and I didn't want anything to do with it."

So, he parlayed his business administration degree into a prestigious-looking job as a Wall Street bond salesman. He hated it and after 31/2 years quit and moved to Charlotte, where he rediscovered his first love -- this time as a coach on Bob McKillop's staff at Davidson.

"He was always a student of the game," said McKillop, Doherty's former high school coach. "Even as a high school freshman, you could see he had a tremendous respect for the little things. And nothing had changed. Absolutely nothing. He had the same relentless work ethic and passion for what he did."

* * *

After three years at Davidson, Doherty left to join Williams' staff and in his seven years there helped mold the Jayhawks into perennial title contenders. Although a candidate for numerous jobs in that time, he stayed put until Notre Dame came calling in March 1999.

He quickly put his stamp on that program.

After what the local newspaper described as a "lackadaisical" effort in an exhibition loss a few days before the season opener at Ohio State, an incensed Doherty canceled an off day and had his players run sprints.

"I didn't know how long I was going to run them, but I was going to let them know I was not going to accept a lackadaisical effort," he said. "So we ran."

In all, they ran 304 sprints.

Notre Dame went out and upset Ohio State.

"It (the sprints) turned out to be a heck of a bonding experience," he said. "After that, about three of the kids wanted to quit the team. They didn't. They would write 304 in their shoes and when they broke a huddle, they'd yell, "304.' It turned out to be a positive, and we ended up having a heck of a year because I think the team learned to play hard."

He hasn't had to resort to such a tactic at UNC. Oh, sure, he got mad after a listless home loss to Kentucky on Dec. 2 and made sure his players knew it. But they have responded to his intensity.

"We played them early in the year (Nov. 11) and then I saw them play Maryland (Jan. 10) on TV and I was real impressed; I saw major improvement," Peterson said. "But that's Matt. He works his tail off and he's brought them life."

Today: FSU vs. No. 6 North Carolina

WHEN/WHERE: 4; Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center.

TV/RADIO: Ch. 32; WWBA-AM 1040; WZHR-AM 1400; WAMR-AM 1320.

RECORDS: UNC 14-2, 4-0 ACC; FSU 5-12, 0-4.

COACHES: UNC -- Matt Doherty (first season; 36-17 overall). FSU -- Steve Robinson (48-60, fourth season; 94-78).

KEY PLAYERS: UNC -- Joseph Forte, G, 6-4 So. (19.4 ppg, 5 rpg); Kris Lang, F, 6-11 Jr. (13.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg); Brendan Haywood, C, 7-0 Sr. (12.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.4 bpg); Ronald Curry, PG, 6-2 So. (5.6 ppg, 3.8 apg, 3.3 rpg). FSU -- Delvon Arrington, PG, 5-11 Sr. (10.6 ppg, 4.6 apg); Michael Joiner, F, 6-7 Fr. (9.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg); Adrian Crawford, G, 6-5 Sr. (10.5 ppg); Monte Cummings, G, 6-4 Jr. (10.5 ppg, 3 rpg).

NOTES: The Seminoles never have started the ACC schedule 0-5, but to avoid a first they will have to upset red-hot North Carolina. The Tar Heels have won 11 straight, showing the fire of their new coach, former Tar Heel Doherty. It's also helped that Curry, UNC's star quarterback, has blossomed as a floor leader and three-point threat (11-for-26). Julius Peppers, a star defensive end, has returned to provide invaluable muscle and athletic skill in the post and sharpshooter Max Owens is healthy to add more punch and experience. ... A key for FSU will be inside where sophomore Mike Mathews and Joiner must contain bigger, stronger and more experienced players. ... This will be FSU's fifth straight ranked conference opponent after Duke, Wake Forest, Maryland and Virginia. ... UNC leads the series 25-6, but FSU stunned the Heels last season in Chapel Hill 76-71. -- Compiled by BRIAN LANDMAN.

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