Thursday, February 28, 2008

Matt Doherty

Former University of North Carolina coach and player, Matt Doherty was back in North Carolina yesterday, for his SMU team's game against East Carolina, one of their Conference USA rivals. Remarkably, there was not much press attention, as Doherty attempts to recover from his ouster as UNC mens's basketball coach in 2003.

Although North Carolina alumni and fans are deliriously happy with Roy Williams and the results he has gotten in putting UNC back on top in the college basketball world, they are less certain about the treatment that Doherty received and whether he will ever be comfortable returning to his alma mater for alumni functions.

I honestly am not sure whether we will see Mr. Doherty at UNC anytime soon. This is a complicated issue. Essentially, Carolina never got over a similar riff that it had with Frank McGuire until last year. Frank McGuire led UNC to the 1957 national title, going 32-0, which is still the record for most wins without a loss in a season, and became a state hero, before encountering some mild rules violations and fleeing for the NBA, leaving Dean Smith as head coach.

The former McGuire players like Lennie Rosenbluth, Larry Brown (less so), Doug Moe, and Billy Cunningham have generally not been as beloved as the Smith guys by Carolina fans. Some of this is simply due to temporal proximity, but a lot of it is because Frank McGuire did a Rick Pitino squared, by taking the South Carolina job, and hiring UNC alum, Donnie Walters as chief assistant, in the mid-1960's, and escalated the bad-boy aspect of his personality, as well as the South Carolina versus North Carolina state rivalries, thereby elevating USC almost instantly into everyone's biggest rival in the conference. By the time South Carolina left the ACC in 1972, McGuire may have been less popular in Chapel Hill than Coach K is now. Some of the 1957 guys have said that they have never felt particularly welcome at UNC until last year's celebration.

With respect to Doherty, things were a mess on several levels. He was an excellent recruiter and doing well at Notre Dame, which seemed a great fit for an Irish guy from New York.
I love Dean Smith, and I think he is a great human being, but he is human and from what I have read, he did not want Doherty to have the job from the beginning, and may not have been particularly helpful to Doherty.

Smith had already essentially forced Carolina to hire Guthridge and was still the power behind the scenes and some of the problems Doherty had seem trivial and stupid, but had to do with things like angering Smith's secretaries and the like. Adam Lucas covers much of this in his book, but essentially Roy Williams did much of the same things as Doherty--i.e., refusing to hire assistants from UNC, but no one complained because he was a famous coach.

Apparently, Doherty's worst trait was an Irish temper(hey, I am part Irish and I sometimes have it, too) that could explode in all directions, even at his chosen assistants in the huddle. He had a penchant for using the "P" word, it is said, at players who displeased him. After playing for the subdued and grandfatherly Guthridge, some players like Forte, apparently couldn't stomach Doherty's intensity.

His first season ended poorly, but going 13-3 and first in the ACC and taking 3 out of 4 from eventual Final Four teams, Duke and Maryland was pretty darn good overall. The 26-7 record was far better than the 22-14 record of the year before, although that team made it to the Final Four (and no one has any idea how to this day).

His second season was strange. Yes, the Heels went 8-20, but they still won 4 conference games, keeping them far above the Duke 2-14 fiasco or the Wake record under Skip the year after Chris Paul left, of 3-13. Carolina played just about the toughest schedule in the nation that year and also played about the fewest games possible, leading to the perfect storm that made them look worse than they actually were. For example, State will probably finish 4-12 in the ACC this year but with a record much closer to .500.

What is forgotten is that aside from his driving Forte away, which was a tragedy for all involved, Doherty also inherited years of neglect by Guthridge on the recruiting trails. All of this came to a head in 2002. Perhaps he should have sought treatment for a bad back.

Doherty, however, did not rest on his laurels and garnered one of the greatest recruiting classes ever, probably better than any by his successor, Roy Williams at Carolina thus far. The Heels rebounded to 6-10 in the ACC, 19-16 overall, winning the pre-season NIT, beating Williams' Jayhawks, and going into the second round of the ACC tourney and the post-season NIT. They beat Duke and while they were erratic, who knows how much better they might have done had Sean May not been injured for much of the season.

Using mostly the same, more-experienced talent the next year, Williams was unable to do much better, finishing 19-11, and 8-8 in conference and losing in the first round of the ACC tourney, without beating Duke, although Carolina did get a NCAA tourney bid, where they underperformed and went out in the second round.

The conventional wisdom is that Doherty had the players so screwed up that it took Roy Williams over a year to turn them around. The facts are probably somewhere in between.

The real truth is that Carolina fans were never going to be comfortable with Matt Doherty because he was too much like Coach K, a working-class Catholic kid who had made good but who simply makes us feel uncomfortable. North Carolinians are more laid-back and the Kansan Smith was a good fit. McGuire was popular and fiery in his day, but he got away with it by being erudite and stylish, ultimately losing that good will when he went to USC. Roy Williams is fiery, but has learned how to use his "Ole Roy" persona to deflect some of his aggresiveness.

Matt Doherty was too much like Bobby Knight and K, with the profanity and hystrionics and making fun of cheerleaders, and I believe that many of us were secretely happy that the 2003 team performed slightly below its level, which should have been the final 32 in the NCAA, because it gave us a reason to fire Doherty besides the fact that he was simply kind of "icky." As much as Carolina dislikes Duke, many of us couldn't quite stomach the near brawl that occurred during a 2003 game against Duke. It just wasn't classy and was a throwback to an earlier time 25 or 30 years earlier, when even Smith got into it, apparently, with a UVa player, a time that had been long forgotten by most and such actions, if once tolerated, were no longer appropriate, regardless of who was to blame.

But looking back, had Carolina upset Duke in the second round of the 2003 ACC tourney, they very well might have snuck into the NCAA tourney and the story would have been the great turnaround, even without Sean May.

But, because Carolina did not win 20 games and did not make the NCAA tourney, the administration had an out, they could fire him because "he was mean to the players" and the players did not like him. Doherty had committed no recruiting violations and had just assembled two excellent recruiting classes after years of mediocre recruiting, but we (including me) just didn't feel comfortable with him as coach. We had made a mistake and wanted a divorce and now Roy Williams was available.

I truly feel sorry for Matt Doherty because he was put in over his head. Had he stayed at Notre Dame, he would probably be reaping the rewards that current Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is. A lot of this unpleasantness could have been avoided had Coach Smith, I think somewhat selfishly, somewhat selflessly, not decided to quit right before the 1998 season. His decision essentially forced UNC to hire Guthridge and forced Guthridge to take the job and I am not sure either party wanted him to be head coach, but Coach Smith had forced the scenario.

What should have happened is that Smith should have announced his retirement but coached that year, allowing a proper replacement decision. It probably would have been Williams, but possibly Larry Brown or Eddie Fogler. Instead, Carolina ended up with its initial Roy Williams rejection fiasco and then the negotiations in the middle of Kansas's season in 2003, which gravely injured strong ties between the two universities.

Given a second chance at the universally-admired Roy Williams, Carolina could not say no, and Doherty was thrown on the trash heap and possibly treated unfairly in terms of severence.

He has bounced around a bit and is now at SMU, his second job since leaving UNC. The SMU team is horrible this year, but apparently has mostly freshmen and sophmores and Doherty still appears to have his recruiting touch, so I am hopeful for his future there, as the univesity attempt to recharge its sports program which was at the very top in both football and basketball in the early 1980's, by bringing in Doherty and the football coach from the successful Hawaii program.

Transitioning from the impersonal journalistic attempt to describe in an unbiased way what led to Doherty's leaving Chapel Hill, I would like to end on a more personal note.

Matt Doherty was a couple of years ahead of me at UNC and truly was a key cog when Carolina made the transition from being merely one of many excellent basketball programs to being at the very top with the UCLA's and the Kentucky's. I will never forget his big shot on Senior Day back in 1984 that led to our comeback against Duke and preserved our second perfect season in conference. I know he is a fighter and I will be rooting for him at SMU and expect that one day he will be back on college basketball's big stage. Many of us take a few tries before we find our dream job or perfect fit at a job. He is a Carolina guy and hopefully knows that many of us still admire him and want to see him back in Chapel Hill for all of his accomplishments.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a great and accurate piece of writing on the treatment of Doherty at Carolina. Finally someone told the whole story and a balanced one at that.