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Alexander Wolff
October 20, 1997
A coach for the ages, Dean Smith retired, as he did all else, on his own terms
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October 20, 1997

Dean Emeritus

A coach for the ages, Dean Smith retired, as he did all else, on his own terms

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From afar, the promotion of Guthridge may seem baffling—as it NBC hadn't considered signing Jay Leno and had just given The Tonight Show to Ed McMahon. College basketball is full of cautionary tales about replacing a legend with a longtime assistant, from Hank Raymonds for Al McGuire at Marquette in 1977 to Brian Mahoney for Lou Carnesecca at St. John's five years ago. But when he took over from Frank McGuire, in '61, Smith himself had been a Guthridge of sorts—a nondescript and loyal aide suddenly elevated to the top job, albeit at half the age Guthridge is now. And everyone in the Carolina family, from Brown, Williams and Fogler down to the players Guthridge inherits, applauded the choice. "It's like losing your father," said junior forward Antawn Jamison, the best of the current Tar Heels, "and having him replaced by your uncle."

Guthridge played for and later coached under Tex Winter at Kansas State, where he was a roommate of current Purdue coach Gene Keady. In 1967 Smith hired him to replace Brown, who left Chapel Hill for a chance to play in the pros. Arkansas made a run at Guthridge seven years later before hiring Eddie Sutton as its coach, and Penn State actually got him to say yes in '78. But while watching Tar Heels star Phil Ford tearfully peel off his uniform following North Carolina's NCAA tournament loss to San Francisco in Tempe, Ariz., Guthridge began to have doubts. The next day he was scheduled to fly to State College, Pa., for a press conference at which he was to be introduced as the Nittany Lions' new man, but he checked his luggage only as far as Chicago. Then, before boarding his connecting flight at O'Hare, he phoned Smith to tell him: His bags were bound for Chapel Hill, and he would be with them. He vowed never to interview for another job again. "And he didn't interview for this one," Smith said last Thursday, with evident satisfaction.

The two first met in 1953 when Guthridge, a sophomore at Parsons (Kans.) High, visited his sister Joan, a Kansas student who was then dating Smith, a reserve guard for the Jayhawks. The two owlish math majors from eastern Kansas, each with a Dust Bowl-dry sense of humor, have been inseparable even as they've had their differences over the years. "Dean has appreciated that I wasn't a yes-man," Guthridge said.

"Plenty of times I wondered if they were getting along and said to myself, Please, don't make me choose sides," added assistant coach Dave Hanners. "But you don't get that in sports very often—someone who stays that long with you and doesn't want your job. And someone you can dele gate that much to without him thinking he's the boss. They had a perfect marriage.'

Hanners and Ford, who has been a North Carolina assistant since 1987, normally share scouting duties. But Smith always entrusted Guthridge with prepping the Tar Heels for Duke. Like so many assistants, Coach Gut, as the North Caroline players call him, had a light touch with the troops, partaking in ritual pregame good luck handshakes and laying a little drollery on them. (A Tar Heel approaching Guthridge with the query "Coach?" might gel "Player?" in response.) But when it came time to mete out discipline, Guthridge was more likely to play the bad cop than the good because, Hanners said, "Coach Smith was so compassionate."

Guthridge is expected to be offered a five-year contract, an imperative for recruiting purposes. Two blue-chip high school seniors who had verbally committed to the Tar Heels, 6'8" Jason Capel of St. John's Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md., and 6'10' Kris Lang of Hunter Huss High in Gastonia, N.C., last week reaffirmed their intentions to sign with North Carolina next month. Guthridge's next test will come in November, when the Tar Heels still hope to land Craig Dawson, a 6'5" guard from Kinston (N.C.) High and a nephew of former North Carolina star Jerry Stackhouse. "This is a long-term commitment," Guthridge said. "But you never know. I might hate it. And I might love it and go till I'm 70. There's no planned scenario."

Smith himself has no planned scenario, and that worries his wife, Linnea, a Chapel Hill psychiatrist who once did a study on postretirement depression. She found that the more precipitous the retirement, the harder the transition. But her husband at least has a notion of what he wants to do: exercise more, catch up on his correspondence and continue to appear at clinics. He would also like to teach a phys-ed class on basketball. And he and the chancellor have spoken about some sort of consulting arrangement with the university. "He can do anything he wants to do," said Hooker.

Guthridge hopes Smith will make himself available to the Tar Heels. "As his assistant I could make just about every decision I wanted to," he said. "And if I didn't want to make one, I could say, 'Better go see Dean.' So this year, if you see me get out my little portable phone with two minutes to go in a game, you'll know who I'm calling."

The challenge for Guthridge and so many others in Chapel Hill will be to no longer depend on a man whose judgment has been so unerring for so long. North Carolina was a Jim Crow state when Smith arrived there in 1958, but things soon began to change, thanks in part to Smith's efforts both in integrating Chapel Hill restaurants and recruiting such pioneering black players as Charlie Scott. Smith's attention to the university's academic mission, particularly its school of social work, to which he and Linnea have donated $100,000, helped lead Hooker, with no great hyperbole, to declare last Thursday, "I don't think any person has done as much for his university in the history of American higher education as Dean Smith has done for Carolina." Smith has ensured that millions of dollars in shoe-company money that might have gone exclusively to the basketball program are lavished on the entire athletic department. Part of that sum even went to a former player who couldn't afford the cost of his father's funeral. To an associate who described to him the mob awaiting his announcement last week, Smith said, "Something is wrong with that. Society is completely out of whack."

Last Thursday morning Smith had secreted his BMW in the service tunnel of the building that bears his name. Late that afternoon he gave one of the well-wishers on campus for the day, Georgetown coach John Thompson, a lift to the airport. It was quintessential Smith: Just when the basketball world was celebrating him, all he wanted was to play chauffeur.

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