Doherty makes his peace

Coach rejoins UNC 'family'

Staff WriterDecember 20, 2009 

— Dozens of memories from Matt Doherty's days at North Carolina hang prominently in his office at the Crum Basketball Center - everything from his framed No. 44 jersey, to a note from Dean Smith, to his first box score as the Tar Heels' head coach.

Six years after being forced to resign at his alma mater, the starter on UNC's 1982 national championship team says viewing the artwork is finally more sweet than bitter.

"I felt a little dirty for a little while; I'd see this former [UNC] player, and think, 'Will he shake my hand? How does he really feel about me?' " said Doherty, now in his fourth season at SMU. "...But now, I don't feel like a black sheep anymore."

His tiptoe back into the Carolina basketball family, he said, stems from a long-overdue heart-to-heart last September with Roy Williams - an assistant coach when Doherty was a player in from 1980-84, a mentor when Doherty served as his assistant coach at Kansas from 1992-99, and the man who ultimately replaced him in Chapel Hill when Doherty was given the boot with three years left on his contract.

Williams said Doherty has always been a talented coach and Tar Heel in his eyes. After all, he won 117 games playing alongside the likes of Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins; then went 53-43 as UNC's coach before player complaints, two straight failures to make the NCAA Tournament and questions about his aggressive coaching style led to his resignation.

Doherty said he's wanted to return to the "family" fold for years, but before he could fully do so, he requested something more.

"There needed to be a conversation ... why did this person do this? Why did they say that? What was the timing of this, or did this conversation take place?" Doherty said last week. "We all need to learn how to forgive, and I was struggling with that. I wanted to forgive, but I think in order to forgive, there had to be a conversation first, so I could let go of that."

Meteoric decline

Frankly, there was a lot for Doherty, 47, to let go of.

His rise and fall from national coach of the year at UNC in 2001 to unemployed in 2003 was so fast that it was a class topic at SMU's Cox School of Business in 2006. The lecturer was Doherty himself, who had recently taken over the Mustangs after a year at Florida Atlantic.

"I remember my first day on the job [at FAU]: I pulled my desk drawer out, and it fell in my lap. And I almost started crying, thinking a couple of years ago I was on charter flights and [staying in] Ritz-Carltons, and now I can't get a desk to work," Doherty remembered, laughing. "But what I found was that I loved coaching basketball, and it didn't matter whether there were 20,000 people in the stands or 200. And that was good for me."

Especially after his tumultuous time as head coach in Chapel Hill.

In retrospect, he said, one of the biggest mistakes he made in leaving Notre Dame for UNC in July 2000 was making too many changes too fast in a program that wasn't really ready for it. In that respect, having only one year of head coaching experience after serving as an assistant at Davidson and Kansas hurt.

The New York native saw the stained carpet, ancient wallpaper, outdated pictures and inconsistent computer programs in the Smith Center basketball offices and wanted to update them before recruits arrived - not realizing that the whirlwind upgrades would cause angst for those who liked the "tradition."

He says he made it clear to athletic director Dick Baddour that he would be bringing his own staff - but he knows now he should have asked the question of Smith, as well.

Perhaps, he readily admits, retaining Phil Ford, whom he replaced along with assistants Dave Hanners and Pat Sullivan, might have eased the grumbling. But then again, "maybe they should have told me that, too."

And then there were the changes on the court. Whereas former coach Bill Guthridge was calmer, more laid back and didn't put a huge emphasis on the weight room, Doherty said, "I was very much demanding, I yelled. I was a product of Roy Williams ... [where] you don't accept certain things. You can't just walk off the court because your back bothers you. You can't not dive on a loose ball - and I'm going to let you know it."

Any early balking was quieted by the success of his first season, when UNC finished 26-7. But the rumbles of discontent grew in 2001-02 when, with a team of mostly role players, Carolina finished 8-20, its first losing season since 1962.

Doherty restocked the talent with the likes of Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants in 2002-03, but after May broke his foot and the Tar Heels finished 19-16, some players threatened to transfer if a change wasn't made.

Baddour and then-chancellor James Moeser went though a review process of the entire program - meeting with administrators, parents and players. And that, Doherty said, gave the administration the opportunity to get rid of him.

"One player said I called him a name ... and I think that's overblown," Doherty said. "Coach Williams, I've seen him get on players. As a matter of fact, his first season, he kicked Rashad McCants off the bench against UNC Wilmington in Myrtle Beach. ... He had to tell players that if your parents are quoted in the paper again, you're going to be kicked off the team. He had the stroke to manage that, because he was bigger than me.

"And so I just think that if you give the players an opportunity to voice their opinions, they're kids."

Williams has often said that he believes if May hadn't broken his foot, that team would likely have made the NCAA Tournament, and Doherty would have remained. Players at the time, though, said there was unrest on the squad, although most declined to go into detail.

"We had a lot of misunderstandings throughout the year, not just me and Coach Doherty, but a lot of players," McCants said the day of Doherty's resignation. "You can't win championships with players unhappy, and we're here to win championships."

In the end, all of it - the changes, the player complaints, the failure to win 20 games for two straight seasons - built up. In announcing Doherty's resignation, Moeser said that UNC basketball had a high standard "not just for winning, but for the quality and character of the program and the people in it. The issue here is not basketball, not wins and losses, or the players running the program. It's about leadership."

Unanswered questions

The way he left - amid Moeser's comments, being paid only a fraction of his total contract, and having to watch his recruits win a national championship two years later - hurt and irritated Doherty. And for years, he wondered, sometimes publicly, whether the reason he was forced out was because Williams, who turned down the job in 2000, was finally ready to come back.

It was one of the many unanswered questions that built a pit in his stomach as he penned letters that went unsent and scribbled notes to himself, hoping to one day gain closure.

"I had that in my gut, and there would be nights where I'd go to sleep thinking about certain things, or go to sleep thinking about the conversation I want to have with Coach Smith or Coach Williams," he said. "And I played it over and over in my head, and it needed to happen because there was an animosity building up in me that I needed to let go of, because it wasn't good for me, and it wasn't good for anybody else."

For about three years, he said, he tried to set up a meeting, only to have scheduling conflicts and the possible discomfort of the conversation get in the way.

There was "casual" contact with the Carolina family over the years, but the only time he returned to the Smith Center was to do some awkward interviews for television the first year after he left. Finally, with the 100th anniversary season about to begin, he told Williams he wanted to be a part of the festivities - but first, he wanted to talk.

The hour-long conversation finally occurred on a morning in early September, just before Doherty joined dozens of others from the Carolina coaching tree who annually meet to discuss their craft.

Doherty wouldn't go into specifics about the talk, which occurred in William's current (and Doherty's former) Smith Center office. But he said it was a "healthy" chat and that he felt "comfortable" with Williams' answers - including the one about whether he was hustled out because Williams was ready to return

"I don't think that was the case," Doherty said. "But I also do know - I don't think schools make changes like that without having feelers out there."

Later that afternoon he saw Smith, gave him a hug and thanked him for recruiting him to Carolina. Before he left, he also had friendly chats with several of his former players - including Felton, May and McCants, who were in town to play in the alumni game.

"He sought the players out, and the players sought him out," said Steve Kirschner, an associate athletic director in charge of media relations. "They hugged and laughed, and it was a nice moment."

Lingering scars

Still, there will always be lingering scars. Every once in a while, he finds himself asking his staff if he was too hard on one player or another. He says he's not as trusting. There are members of his family who will never cheer for the Tar Heels again.

But he's also forged new dreams. The biggest right now: bringing SMU, which is playing in Honolulu in the Diamond Head Classic this week, "back to relevance." The Mustangs went 33-58 in his first three seasons and were 4-3 after Saturday's 77-49 win at Occidental.

Said Williams: "They say time heals all wounds, and I hope so, because I do not want Matt Doherty to have the wounds. It was a very unfortunate thing, things did not go well, he was not lucky. I really believe that. ... It's really unfortunate for him, but I do think he's got a much better club at SMU this year, and every night I'm watching the scores and pulling for him."

Smith no longer regularly gives interviews; Baddour said last week he did not see Doherty when he was in town last fall but wishes him the best.

"I hope that the next time he's in town, we have the opportunity to visit," Baddour said.

Doherty - whose 12-year-old son wants to someday play lacrosse and football at Carolina - says that he now feels comfortable enough to return to more alumni events, possibly even to add more memorabilia to the chairs and notes and photos that decorate his SMU office. And he doesn't feel like the black sheep of the family anymore.

"I'm still not sending Christmas cards to everybody," he said, smiling. "... But I have forgiven the people who really matter to me."

robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8944

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