Intelligent people reside on both ends of the Bill Guthridge debate.
On one side is a frustrated group of Carolina fans spoiled rotten by the success of Dean Smith to the degree where common sensibilities have been replaced by an attack-attack mind set when the Tar Heels struggle. Many of these supporters have a fair knowledge of the game and of UNC's program, but sometimes allow their emotions to interfere with better judgement.
On the other side is a frustrated group of Carolina fans spoiled rotten by the success of Dean Smith, and although UNC losses often eat away at them, many keep their emotions in check, and usually remain mentally and emotionally balanced with respect to the Tar Heels.
Criticism of Guthridge, who coached UNC for three years after Smith retired, often reaches a level of mean-spiritedness that makes it difficult to take the critic with more than a grain of salt. While Guthridge made some mistakes, some of which were exposed during the 8-20 season, he also had some amazing accomplishments.
Few will argue that Carolina lacked its usual stockpile of talent this past year. Current coach Matt Doherty's only class were the three freshmen while the rest of the roster was brought in mostly by Guthridge. The team lacked a quality point guard, which is the most crucial position in the college game. The two best players, also seniors, each had serious limitations and were unable to carry the team for significant stretches. The roster included four players that combined for 16 years of college life under their belts and just a few more points. Kind or unkind, the Heels lacked ballplayers, most of which wasn't Doherty's responsibility.
Many will argue the Tar Heels underachieved in each of Guthridge's three seasons.
The 1998 team was the best and most talented in the nation and should have won the national title. Many feel that club would have beaten Utah in the Final Four had Guthridge not stuck to his odd six-man starting rotation that kept senior Shammond Williams, who struggled off the bench at times, out of the starting lineup. UNC couldn't overcome a terrible start and fell to the Utes. Had the Heels advanced, a solid but unspectacular Kentucky team awaited them in the finals.
The youthful 1999 team struggled to a double-digit loss season despite the ACC (only three NCAA bids) being way down. Weber State's first-round win over the Tar Heels was UNC's first opening game defeat since 1980 when it lost to Texas A&M in double overtime.
Guthridge's final team in 2000 barely made the tournament and went 9-7 in conference play, again despite the league earning just three NCAA bids. Carolina reached the Final Four with the school's most improbable NCAA run, but still lost 14 games, the most in nearly 50 years.
Considering UNC's history and expectations, which is how all current and future Carolina coaches will and should be judged, his stint clearly had some rough spots. When supporters insist on zeroing in on Guthridge's two Final Fours they must also endure the realities of 24 losses the last two years, including the embarrassment by Weber State and the 14-loss season.
On the other hand, few people will ever truly understand the immense pressure Guthridge was under.
The job itself is enough to undue most people on their best day, and expectations from the fans and media can become an albatross of sorts. Considering UNC's success, it could become the most difficult job in the nation behind Kentucky. Add the personal need for Guthridge to maintain what his good friend, co-worker and fellow humanitarian Smith had built and one can only imagine how truly difficult handling the post was.
Also, one must understand that Guthridge had decided in 1978 he'd never entertain a head coaching job because of his loyalty to Smith and UNC and desire to keep the program in the national elite. He hadn't been preparing to run his own program, but when asked to take the job a week before practice began in October 1997, Guthridge accepted. Without having total insight to the situation, one can surmise he took one for the team.
Guthridge did the program, its legion of fans, and the next coach, which turned out to be Doherty, a tremendous favor by taking over.
Had Doherty come in and not won a title or even advanced to the Final Four with Carter, Williams, Jamison and company he would have been crucified, possibly more than this year. Those defending Doherty in 2002 wouldn't have had the point guard/lack of talent argument to make in 1998. Roy Williams would have brought his "Can't win the big one" monkey prominently - and wrongfully - on his back. The NBA guys would have been a risky move following Smith's act and the others in the family tree were too young and inexperienced.
Although most of the 8-20 team was recruited by Guthridge, it should also be noted that Joseph Forte left with two years of eligibility remaining. Had he played, UNC likely would not have lost to Hampton, Davidson, The College of Charleston, Virginia twice, and perhaps at Florida State. That would have put the Heels at 14-14 overall and 7-9 in the league and they would have played someone other than Duke in the ACC tournament.
Although Guthridge recruit Ronald Curry officially signed a letter of intent to play football, he clearly was as much a basketball recruit as football. He didn't play hoops this past year for his own personal reasons, many of which made sense. Clearly, his presence as the point and defensive stalwart would have given the Heels needed experience and mental toughness they seriously lacked.
Guthridge brought in Kris Lang and Jason Capel, and not even his most ardent critics would fault him for Lang's constant aches and pains and Capel's reduced athletic ability thanks to chronic back troubles. One could even throw Jason Parker into the mix. That entire situation may have turned out different and he could be an all-ACC power forward for the Heels right now.
Forte, Curry, healthier seniors, Julius Peppers and perhaps Parker would have meant a different climate in Chapel Hill, and the recently-ended streaks may still be in tact. Although one can criticize Guthridge for not handling the Parker situation well or putting too much stock into the starting quarterback, an NCAA tournament bid, third place in the ACC and 20 wins would have been enough to avoid the Gut bashing and Doherty bashing of this past season.
If it's fair to criticize Guthridge for perceived underachieving, one must also recognize what he had no control over and his successes.
Carolina fans need to stop the blame game as it does nobody, especially the program, of which fans are indeed a part of, any good. While Guthridge wasn't perfect or close to it, he proved to be a fine bridge to UNC's future. He must be commended for his loyalty to the school and for his performance as what many experts consider the best assistant coach and one of the top teachers of the game ever.
Recruiting Out Of Control?
High school sophomore DeMarcus Nelson's recent commitment to play college basketball at Duke beginning in the fall of 2004 is a disturbing sign of the times.
Nelson still has two more years of high school basketball to play, and as has been the case with many athletes in the past, may not develop as expected, making this commitment a bit risky for Duke. Furthermore, Nelson must maintain his academic standing.
There was a day not long ago when few juniors were offered scholarships. Now that sophomores are being offered by the top program in the nation, it's a matter of time when freshmen are offered. Is anyone else as disturbed by this trend as me? E-mail me your thoughts.
No 13th Game
With the regular season in Division I-A college football extended to 12 games in the 2002 and 2003 seasons, schools that accept invitations to play in pre-season contests games will play 13 games.
North Carolina could have scheduled a 13th game but head coach John Bunting declined the offer. Bunting felt his team's lack of depth, especially on defense, would wear thin, and the extra game was to much to ask from the youthful Tar Heels.
Andrew Jones is entering his seventh year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He is also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a drive-time radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.