Chasing Ghosts: North Carolina and how to move on from an icon


Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way.

This week, the "Chasing Ghosts" series continues with the North Carolina Tar Heels, a program that (unique to our series so far) has managed to carve out a new identity in the years since the departure of its Hall of Fame icon, Dean Smith.

History | Roundtable: How UNC maintained, but moved on
Previously in Chasing Ghosts: UCLA | UMass | UNLV | Indiana | St. John's

North Carolina Tar Heels

Icon: Dean Smith

Seasons coached: 1961-1997
Key accomplishments: 879-254 (.776) record, 27 NCAA tournaments, 11 Final Fours, 2 NCAA championships (1982, 1993)

"If somebody came in and tried to say, 'We're going to do it my way' and it wasn't like Dean Smith, then I think there would be problems." -- then-North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge, in 1998

"It's a very political job, and that I was naive toward. Not that it was political, but to the degree that it was. In a way, that's a compliment to Coach Smith and Coach Guthridge because they've built this place up to be the best program in the country. But I feel I led my staff into a very difficult position that I foolishly underestimated." -- Matt Doherty to The Associated Press in 2003

"Everything that I've done as a basketball coach, that's the thought process, that I wanted to make Coach Smith proud. When I came back [to North Carolina] 12 years ago, there were some problems and I told him one night, I said, 'I really do want to do this the right way. I want you to be proud of what I do.' He said, 'I'm already proud.'" -- Roy Williams in 2015

Ranking the Smith chasers

3. Matt Doherty (2000-03), 53-43 (.552), 1 NCAA tournament -- This really seemed like it might work for a minute. Doherty, who played on some of the storied UNC teams of the 1980s, returned to Chapel Hill as head coach off of one NIT season at Notre Dame. (Roy Williams was the top choice for the role but opted to remain at Kansas.) A talented Tar Heels team including future pros Joseph Forte and Brendan Haywood started 21-2 and was No. 1 in the country in mid-February, but little went right for Doherty's program over the next two calendar years.

The 2000-01 Heels limped to the finish and were routed by Penn State in the NCAA round of 32. The 2001-02 team went an unthinkable 8-20, the worst season in school history. A freshman-laden 2002-03 group showed promise but could not overcome a broken foot suffered by forward Sean May in December and missed the NCAA tournament (the core of that group would win the NCAA title two seasons later). Meanwhile, Doherty turned off players and parents with an intense coaching style, and alienated some in the UNC community by falling out with Smith, who was reportedly displeased when Doherty did not retain Bill Guthridge's assistants. Doherty was fired after the 2002-03 season, and subsequently went 95-122 in seven seasons at Florida Atlantic and SMU.

2. Bill Guthridge (1997-2000), 80-28 (.741), 2 Final Fours (1998, 2000) -- Guthridge was 60 years old, and had worked at Smith's side for 30 years, when he was elevated to his first head-coaching job in the summer of 1997. The longtime aide didn't win a title but acquitted himself well over a brief three-year tenure. His most talented team, the 1997-98 group featuring Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, was a top-five squad for the entire season before being upset by Utah in the Final Four. Guthridge's second team was upset by Harold Arceneaux and Weber State in the first round, but his final team made an unlikely run as a No. 8 seed to Guthridge's second Final Four. He retired from coaching following the 1999-2000 season, and passed away in 2015 at the age of 77.

1. Roy Williams (2003-present), 453-133 (.773), 5 Final Fours, 3 NCAA championships (2005, 2009, 2017) -- Williams famously turned down an offer to return to his alma mater three years prior, but one week after coaching Kansas to a national championship appearance, announced that he'd return to the program where he'd spent a decade as an assistant under Smith. It took Williams little time to turn the page on the Doherty era, guiding the Heels to a national title (the first of Williams' career) in his second year, and another four years later.

UNC has not been without hiccups during Williams' 15-year tenure -- an academic scandal involving Tar Heels players cast a pall over the program from 2011 until its conclusion in 2017; the P.J. Hairston and Rashad McCants episodes cast the program in an unflattering light; and most notable to a certain cross-section of fans, Williams endured a six-season drought without reaching the Final Four (2010-15). But Williams ultimately withstood all of those trials -- the Heels made back-to-back title games and won it all in 2017 -- and continues to shepherd a program whose name is arguably more synonymous with college basketball than that of any other university.

Roundtable: How North Carolina maintained, but moved on

This series is about moving on from a singular coaching icon, and the Tar Heels have seemingly done it better than any other program in college basketball history. In your view, what has been the most critical element in Roy Williams' ability to meet the lofty standard set by Dean Smith over his four-decade reign?

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think it's the fact he had coached both inside and outside the Carolina bubble prior to taking over as the head coach. He was an assistant under Dean Smith, of course, but also coached at another blue-blood program for 15 years before going back to Chapel Hill. Coaching at Kansas is no cakewalk. The expectations in Lawrence aren't far off -- if at all -- from the expectations for the Tar Heels. Williams knew exactly what he was getting into when he replaced Matt Doherty in 2003, but he already had plenty of experience handling high expectations. Doherty had been a head coach for one season. Guthridge had never been a head coach before, and hadn't coached outside Chapel Hill in 30 years. Williams simply had the right mix of experience -- and he's a hell of a coach.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: Players. In his 16 seasons as the head man in Chapel Hill, Williams has coached 18 first-round draft picks. And that's not counting the likes of Coby White, Nassir Little and Cameron Johnson, each of whom could add to that total later this month at the 2019 NBA draft. To collect repeated No. 1 seeds and Final Four appearances in this day and age requires future pros on the roster, and UNC has continued its longstanding tradition of paying the NBA forward with the best of the best.

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think both Jeff and Joe got it right. Talent and experience were key factors in Williams' success. But I think this matters too: He told Dean Smith "no." By rejecting UNC's first offer back in 2000 and, by all accounts, also rejecting Smith's plea for his former assistant to return, Williams made it clear he would accept the job only when he was ready. That was a bold move by Williams. But it also established that yes, he'd always be Smith's guy, but he would be his own man, too. Smith and Williams are forever connected, but Williams has also established his own chapter at North Carolina.

Williams is likely to win 500-plus games just at North Carolina before all is said and done, and he already has more national titles than his mentor. Williams probably doesn't want us to have this conversation, but are we allowed to talk about them in the same breath? Is it sacrilege to argue that Roy has surpassed Dean in terms of UNC legacy?

Medcalf: If you're over the age of 30 and you understand Dean Smith's role in shaping the modern college basketball scene, then you probably can't envision anyone surpassing Smith just because he's so much more than a coach. But the next generation? Williams is North Carolina basketball to them, and he should be. He's the program's modern force. But Williams hasn't produced many NBA stars. Smith had Michael Jordan and other household names. That's probably a factor in how their respective tenures are viewed, too. But it's not crazy to have the conversation.

Borzello: On paper, it's probably fair. Williams has won three national titles; Smith won two. Williams has been to five Final Fours in 16 years; Smith went to 11 in 36 years. You can make the case either way if you really wanted. And in 20 years, we might be writing a "Chasing Ghosts" entry with Williams as the guy instead of Dean Smith, depending on how things go whenever Williams is replaced (he just signed an eight-year contract extension through the 2028 season).

But Dean Smith was North Carolina basketball. It's the only place he was ever a head coach. He coached 25 first-round picks. He coached Michael Jordan. He forced the NCAA to implement a shot clock due to his four corners offense. Thirty-six years, guys. That's a legacy in itself.

Lunardi: Roy Williams won't be around long enough to surpass Dean Smith at UNC or any broader pantheon of the sport. Williams is a terrific college basketball coach; Smith is among a very small handful of individuals who are foundational figures in the game. A legacy is more than titles or winning percentage; it's largely about impact. Williams is Chuck Noll, a great, great coach with multiple championships. Smith is Don Shula, an undisputed member of the Mount Rushmore of his profession.

Reasonable college basketball observers view Bill Guthridge as a credible "bridge" hire. History has not been nearly as kind to Matt Doherty, whose tenure is generally regarded as a disaster. What can future schools that are looking to replace icons learn from either of these experiences?

Borzello: We've seen a lot of schools go down the former player alley in recent years. The jury is still out on many of them, including Memphis hiring Penny Hardaway and Michigan going for Juwan Howard, but moves like St. John's bringing back Chris Mullin clearly didn't work out. Granted, Doherty had plenty of assistant coaching experience when Carolina hired him as head coach, but he had just one season as a head coach under his belt and he produced an NIT appearance. It wasn't just his time with the Tar Heels, either; he went to just one NCAA tournament in 11 years as a head coach -- and it came the year after Guthridge led UNC to a Final Four.

As for Guthridge, I think it shows that the culture of a program needs to remain in place in some circumstances. When someone like Smith, who was there for 36 years, steps down, you can't just have a sudden culture shock and go in a different direction. Guthridge had been there forever under Smith; he wasn't going to change the entire program. And the program wasn't in need of a makeover -- in Smith's last five seasons, the Tar Heels went to three Final Fours and won a national championship. Sometimes, sticking with what worked is the best move.

Lunardi: Every situation is different. Guthridge was really the only choice at the time because Dean Smith craftily announced his retirement barely a month prior to the 1997-98 season. We'll never know what might have happened at UCLA had John Wooden followed a similar path with Denny Crum still on staff. Sometimes a "bridge" hire is appropriate -- Guthridge, for example, or Mike Davis taking Indiana to the NCAA championship game in his second season succeeding Bobby Knight -- but it has never been a long-term answer. It seems to only postpone the inevitable "moving on" or "moving away," which must take place.

Medcalf: The best lesson from Doherty's run is probably that if you're going to take a job, even if it's with your alma mater, and the program you're coaching has been to the Final Four in every decade since the 1940s, an 8-20 season in your second year is probably a bad idea. Overall, I don't think other schools can learn any lessons from either situation just because North Carolina is such a juggernaut. UNC fans had never gone through a significant stretch where they weren't competing for championships. At that school, you won't last if that becomes the norm. At a different institution, winning a slice of the ACC title and reaching the NCAA tournament in Year 1 might have bought Doherty more time.

You are the president/AD at North Carolina, and Roy Williams has just walked into your office and retired. In light of everything we learned above, what's your move -- are you elevating a current assistant? Picking more fruit from the Dean/Roy coaching tree? Or would it be better to go with an outsider?

Borzello: This is North Carolina. They're going to make some calls to the biggest names in the sport. Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens from the NBA, the Mark Fews and Jay Wrights of the world in college. The Tar Heels should reach out to all of them.

Now, if they decide to keep it in the family, two names stand out -- even though neither coached under Dean or Roy. One is Jerry Stackhouse, and his time at Vanderbilt is going to be the perfect chance for the Tar Heels to see how he handles college coaching. He would check a lot of boxes for Carolina if he can win at Vandy. Another is Wes Miller. Miller is going to be the favorite to take over at Wake Forest if that job opens up next spring, and that could be the logical next step to Chapel Hill. He has won 81 games the past three seasons at UNC Greensboro, winning at least a share of two conference titles and going to the NCAA tournament in 2018 before being the first team left out this past March.

Lunardi: The next coach at North Carolina may already be on staff. I believe Hubert Davis has been groomed for the position and will be ready when the time comes. That scenario seems much more likely than a public dance with celebrity-type, non-Carolina "family" members who will almost certainly decline. Davis has played for Smith, coached for Williams and is the nephew of underrated Tar Heels legend Walter Davis. His UNC bloodlines are as good as they come. Plus, Larry Brown figures to be in his 80s when the job next comes open. Wink, wink ...

Medcalf: I'd call Mark Few and tell him about the best fishing spots in North Carolina. He's had other offers, clearly. But a North Carolina offer would be difficult for any coach to reject. I like the Hubert Davis possibility, too. But, per Jeff's point, if Jerry Stackhouse exceeds expectations at Vandy in the coming years, that's his job. North Carolina has a great problem. The Tar Heels will have an incredible pool of coaches to consider whenever Williams does retire.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: Arkansas