Not that long ago, a ten-year-old boy answered the phone at 9 p.m. on a Monday night. The voice on the other end announced himself, and asked if the boy’s father was available. When the boy explained he was not, the voice then asked “Thad, have you finished your homework?”
The ten-year old boy was me, 35 years ago. The voice on the other end was the lead assistant for the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team, Bill Guthridge. By that point, I of course as a young Tar Heel fanatic knew exactly who he was. What that phone call made clear was a meaningful fact that shaped a significant part of my youth and a surprisingly large part of my young adulthood as well: Bill Guthridge knew who I was, he was paying attention, and he expected me to do what I was supposed to do.
My interactions with him as a kid came about through our shared membership in Holy Family Episcopal Church and shared family friendships. He knew I was obsessed with Carolina basketball, and probably recognized that gave him a certain influence over me.
Our intermittent conversations were not overwhelmingly frequent, but frequent enough that he certainly could keep tabs on me as the 10-year-old turned 12, then 15, then 18. A particularly fond memory is during a church weekend retreat when we paired together as teammates for a game of Trivial Pursuit. (We picked the sports category every time we could.)
During the winter I also saw him quite a lot in passing during the games at Carmichael Auditorium and the Smith Center as I helped operate the manual scoreboard located courtside over some six seasons, but that was strictly business. He was there to help Coach Smith coach the team to win, and I was there to do my job and otherwise stay out of the way. There was quite a bit more conversation during the two summers I spent at Carolina Basketball School in the mid-1980s. Guthridge never asked or commented on my own individual ability (not that there was much worth commenting on), but asked how my team was doing and if I was having a good time. Simple questions, and yet like the homework question when I was ten, they meant a lot.
The common thread in all those interactions is the fact that I saw from the very beginning in Bill Guthridge a supremely accomplished, principled and kind person who I respected, and whose respect I wanted to earn and keep.
My senior year in high school, my dad passed on to Guthridge a copy of an essay I had written for English class on my love of Carolina basketball. Guthridge read it, and not only relayed that he liked it but sent it to a writer at Sports Illustrated to review. The SI writer then sent detailed comments on back to me, via Guthridge. With all due apologies to my English teachers over the years, those comments were the first genuinely professional feedback I had ever received on a piece of writing. That was an extraordinarily kind gesture, and a true confidence-booster. In a subtle way, too, Guthridge was letting me know that I should aim a little higher with my work.
Fast forward eight years, and one of the pivotal moments of my young adult life came back in Carmichael Auditorium, in November 1995. My first assignment for this publication was to cover an exhibition game, ostensibly to be able to tell readers what kinds of contributions freshmen Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison might make in the upcoming season. Bill Guthridge spotted me in the locker conducting interviews and said, “Thad, what brings you here?” I explained that I was writing for this start-up magazine and he smiled, probably repressing a chuckle, and asked about my family and how everyone was doing. Then he said, “When will we see you again?”
That small indication that I would be welcome opened a door that I walked through over those next five seasons of covering the team on a frequent basis. Following the team around took me to Chapel Hill, to most of the arenas in the ACC, to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, and Alaska. As an assistant coach and later as head coach, Guthridge always said hello, even if only briefly. I have great memories of him sharing a few private comments after some of the better wins in his head coaching career, such as the famous Maryland snow game of 2000.
But I learned just as much from his composure in the aftermath of some of the tougher losses. After one such difficult day, a loss to a strong Maryland team in 1999 in College Park, Guthridge (violating all the usual protocol) offered me a ride all the way into DC on his way to the airport. We said little about the game just completed, but instead talked about how my graduate studies were going and what I might do next. (Another version of the homework question.)
I would learn two things from those experiences. The first was the value of attending to relationships. And the second was the value of attending to details in one’s work. As has been well-documented, Guthridge was an extraordinarily organized (down to the minute), “if you’re on time you’re late,” a type-A personality, and always on top of everything going on. I did not come out of the chute that way, and certainly wasn’t at the time I was traveling all over the U.S. to watch games and talk to players and coaches. But I gradually absorbed the importance of trying to become more and more that way over time, and recognizing that to get meaningful things done, you have to have your act together. It’s not only basketball players who can benefit from lifting their aspirations a little higher and paying a little more attention to detail.
It’s stories and relationships like these that explain why the loss of Bill Guthridge, too soon at 77, is being felt as such a profound loss by the Tar Heel family, especially among his former players and those who worked beside him. Guthridge’s association with Dean Smith defined his professional life, and made for one of the most effective and successful partnerships in sports history.
But the fact of the matter is that Bill Guthridge would have been successful and a profound blessing to his community even if he never had come to Chapel Hill. He stood on his own as a good and great man. The extraordinary thing is that he did in fact land in Chapel Hill, and choose to stay, for decades, because he loved his work, loved working with Coach Smith, and realized he was part of something exceptionally rare and special.
Guthridge and I conversed numerous times before, during and after the production of my book “More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many.” As anyone who has read the book knows, a significant chunk of it is devoted to discussing Guthridge’s role in the program and how my connection with him offered a window inside Carolina basketball. It also contained an admittedly partisan defense of Guthridge’s record as head coach.
I saw Guthridge shortly after the book was published. The part he was most interested in talking about was the book’s conclusion, reflecting on that fine line between sports fandom playing a healthy and unhealthy role in one’s life. He said it was a thoughtful and balanced discussion. As to the parts mentioning him, he simply said “you were nice to me—too nice.” He was much more comfortable with the parts of the book emphasizing the centrality of Dean Smith.
Apart from the book process, I was fortunate to spend quality time on multiple occasions with Guthridge and his family in his retirement. Throughout the 2000s he was as vigorous and sharp-minded as ever and certainly under different circumstances (i.e., alongside Dean Smith) he would have been capable of coaching at least another five years. During his retirement, he was a fixture in the Dean Dome as a keen observer at Tar Heel games. He also traveled, played loads of golf, enjoyed his dog and even better yet his grandkids, and paid close attention to national politics.
Unfortunately, a chronic heart condition led to worsening health in the last several years, though not to a loss of wit and good cheer. In a visit a couple of years ago, I was touched beyond words that, after first saying “Thad, I got old” he added, deliberately and meaningfully, “Thad, I wanted to let you know that you did a good job on that book.”
A year later, my dad and I paid a visit to Guthridge in his care facility, joining former Tar Heel player Woody Coley for a chat. I had brought a copy of the new Michael Jordan biography and he thumbed through the pictures, making comments about various players pictured. The photos touched off a wide-ranging set of memories, some dating back fifty years or more to his youth in Kansas, some to more recent times. He turned to me with a smile and said, “Of course you know all this, you’ve been writing about it since you were 14!”
Despite the health difficulties, my overwhelming takeaway from that visit was that this was a man who was surpassingly happy with the life he had lived, the experiences he had had, and the people he had been around.
Coach Guthridge’s spirit remained strong till the end. In my last proper visit this past Christmastime, he sat up on his bed and we went over the Tar Heels’ 2014-15 schedule, reading from a printed schedule located on his table. He beamed as I called out the names of the opponents in the upcoming games.
Then he said with a smile, “I hope the Cardinals have a good year. I know that will make you happy.” I immediately understood what he was saying—the remark was and was not a slip. Obviously, Guthridge meant to say “Tar Heels.” But the Cardinals—the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team—were Coach Guthridge’s boyhood team and lifelong love.
In that moment I finally understood after all these years something essential. The unspoken basis for our bond over all this time was the simple fact that he absolutely understood and could relate to my childlike devotion for the Tar Heels. He understood that the Tar Heels had the same place in my heart that the Cardinals had in his.
Sadly, just a few weeks later we spoke for the final time, at the Dean Smith public memorial service. Wearing as ever his trademark serene smile, Guthridge welcomed a long list of well-wishers. I leaned over and said I was sorry for his loss, and that he and Coach Smith were a great team.
For once, Guthridge did not let any modesty get in the way. He nodded and said with conviction: “The best team ever.”
Somewhere this week in the bluer quarters of heaven, that team is reuniting.
Thad Williamson is a long-time contributor to Inside Carolina and author of the book "More Than A Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many."
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