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Guthridge's gall: Success sans Dean

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2000


INDIANAPOLIS -- Ray Perkins followed Bear Bryant, achieving non-legendary Alabama results. Gene Bartow couldn't live up to John Wooden's greatness at UCLA. Vince Lombardi's successor, Phil Bengston, became a Green Bay loser.

Who will be the lucky jocks bequeathed opportunity after a few more seasons, replacing Bobby Bowden at Florida State or Bob Knight at Indiana or Joe Paterno at Penn State or Steve Spurrier with the Florida Gators?

Odds can be ugly.

In the victorious wake of a coaching giant, turbulence is often outrageous, unfair, distorted, sickening and nearly impossible to overcome. Bill Guthridge flirted with such sobering emotions, taking over University of North Carolina basketball from Dean Smith, history's winningest NCAA coach.

Two weeks ago, in Guthridge's third boss season, UNC had an 18-13 record. Tar Heels had become unranked, disrespected ACC also-rans. One more defeat and they would be Carolina's losingest, lowliest team since 1952, so long ago that Smith still was an unknown backup guard for the national champion Kansas Jayhawks.

So far, the Heels haven't dropped that 14th game. Four do-or-die NCAA wins in a row. As an eighth seed, they ruled the South Region, escalating to the Final Four. Vindicating resurgence turns a bitter pit of a UNC season into a cherry pie. Next up is the Gators in a Saturday night national semifinal, a possible a la mode.

Guthridge bashing has cooled.

What a shock, he's no Dean Smith. Just as Jay Leno is no Johnny Carson. Roseanne never will be Lucy. By now, a knee-jerk-critical NCAA hoops constituency should be accepting that Guthridge does know the game, is quite adept at coaching young athletes and is not turning Carolina Blue red with embarrassment.

Bill never asked for Dean's job. He was bequeathed it, having served one of history's longest, most celebrated apprenticeships. Thirty years. Guthridge sat beside Smith almost as long as Prince Philip has walked one step behind Queen Elizabeth II.

In his first post-Smith chance, Bill made the Final Four. But Year 2 would come to quick, thudding, embarrassing termination, an opening round flameout against Weber State.

This season, results continued to be insufficient by heavenly UNC/Smith standards. November through February brought escalating criticism, nasty mail, widespread degradation, media badgerings and lots of screaming for him to be strapped into a golden parachute for early retirement.

"You have to be strong to be North Carolina head coach," said Phil Ford, an assistant to Smith and then Guthridge after excelling at point guard in Chapel Hill. "When we struggled this season, Bill blamed himself. That was unfair. It was all of us. But when it's counted most, the Guthridge ways have clicked."

Smith is around. He'll be in the RCA Dome. When the current coach asks counsel, the Carolina icon delivers. Guthridge kept preaching, in his low-volume style, the team concept that produced so bountifully during the Smith generation. Nobody ever has been bigger than the UNC program, not even Michael Jordan.

Dean reminded his old lieutenant, "Remember, they hung me in effigy in my early seasons with the Tar Heels." Guthridge gave a sweet smile, saying, "Being hanged in effigy is fine, as long as they don't get me for real."

Bill bemoans letting the Heels down by "not pushing the right buttons earlier." Brendan Haywood says the coach "has taken a lot of flak when we deserved it. Blame should've gone to us players. Finally, we're listening hard, following instructions and believing we can beat anybody."

Monday, hours after UNC erased Tulsa in the South final, Guthridge was in his boyhood hometown of Parsons, Kan., for the funeral of his 96-year-old mother, Betty. A son's grief was exceeded by expressions of joy for a woman's good, long life, plus the relief that her suffering had ended.

"It's painful, seeing your wonderful mom go blind, then be ravaged by Alzheimer's," he said. "I'm not sure she knew I became North Carolina's head coach. I told her, but there was no indication it got through. She has suffered. It was sad. Mercifully, the end came."

Bill's dad, Wallace, was school superintendent in Parsons. He died in 1967 from cancer. There's a school, one young Bill attended, that has been renamed Guthridge Elementary, honoring his father.

In the early '50s, Wallace hired a new Parsons basketball coach, Harold Johnson. He would mold Bill's boyish skills. Now 81, Johnson talks often with Carolina's low-key commandant.

"Critics say he's not involved enough because Bill doesn't rant and rave on the bench," Johnson said. "Sports writers irritate me when they act like he doesn't care enough. Maybe these wins, getting to the Final Four, will get some people off Bill's back."

Maybe.

UNC demands so much.

Guthridge wept when the Heels upset Stanford. After the Tulsa conquest, his eyes were moist. Bill cares. Maybe too much. He's no Dean Smith but, like his old Chapel Hill mentor, Guthridge just might enjoy a national championship. Either that or be burdened with a 14th defeat, the losingest UNC season since the Truman administration.

Such a thin line, really.

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