Eleven miles. Seventeen minutes. That's it. The trip from Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium to North Carolina's Dean Smith Center is one of the shortest rides home in college basketball. What a pity. If only there were more than 15 stoplights along the way. If only a few more of them could have been red. The Tar Heels' first-year coach, Matt Doherty, reclined in the front seat of the team bus after a validating 85-83 win over the Blue Devils last Thursday night and wished he could savor the biggest victory of his short career a bit longer.
The North Carolina players, none of whom had ever won at Cameron, gleefully listened on their cell phones to the raucous celebration in Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, the supposedly overmatched Doherty, the only coach ever to win his first eight ACC games, leaned over to his assistants and said, "Guess we fooled 'em again."
Alas, the clock struck midnight during that bus trip, and arrival at the Smith Center meant the fun was over. Doherty went right to work, watching tape in preparation for a game two days hence against Georgia Tech. He finally drove home at 2:30 and woke up for work again four hours later. On Friday evening he fell asleep in his office chair at 8:30 with a Yellow Jackets tape still running. The next afternoon the Tar Heels defeated Georgia Tech 82-69 to improve to 19-2, extend the nation's longest winning streak to 16 and vault to No. 1 in this week's AP poll. "It's unbelievable how far Coach Doherty has come in six months," North Carolina assistant Doug Wojcik says. "These players needed a leader, and they've eagerly hopped into the foxhole with Matt."
Ever since he was hired on July 11, Doherty has spoken candidly about being motivated by an acute fear of failure. It's the anxiety of a man who previously coached only one season, at Notre Dame, and is taking over from Bill Guthridge, who led the Tar Heels to two Final Fours in the three seasons after he took over from Dean Smith, the winningest coach in college basketball history. It's the apprehension of a man who landed the job only after the heir apparent, Kansas coach Roy Williams, turned it down and who didn't even get an interview until a Who's Who of North Carolina alumni was publicly weeded out.
There have since been countless reminders of the disparity between Doherty's r�sum� and the results that are now demanded of him. Shortly after his hiring, Matt and his wife, Kelly, were eating lunch together at the campus cafeteria in Chapel Hill when a student across the table asked him, "So, what do you do for a living?"
The next morning Doherty was walking into the Smith Center when he was stopped by a maintenance man who asked, "Coach, how many games do the Tar Heels play this season?"
"I guess about 35 if we go deep into the NCAAs," Doherty responded.
"O.K.," the man said. "We expect you to win 36."
Doherty, who's 38, decided from the start not to hide from his youthfulness. He played in a three-on-three game against North Carolina's intramural champions at Midnight Madness, and as he lumbered around the court that October night, onlookers could not help harking back to his predecessor, the genial sexagenarian Guthridge, who regularly joked that he disliked games that began at nine o'clock because they kept him awake past his bedtime. Instead of high fives, Doherty gives his players fist pounds. He leaps recklessly into the locker-room mosh pits that the Tar Heels have instituted this season to punctuate big victories. After years of Smith's discipline by sarcasm and Guthridge's velvet diplomacy, Doherty has arrived with a temper, a passion that has reinvigorated a program long considered among the stodgiest in the nation.
At one benchmark early-season practice, a North Carolina player dived on the floor and most of his teammates rushed over to help him up, as mandated by Doherty, but All-America guard Joseph Forte stood still. Doherty dressed down Forte, who has been among the first players to pick up teammates ever since. Later that same day, Doherty booted starting center Brendan Haywood out of practice for sneaking in a water break. "At first I thought that stuff was petty, but I realized he was bonding us as a team," Forte says. "We've all come to accept that there's a new sheriff in town."