Ex-Tar Heel Matt Doherty moves from coach to TV analyst

dscott@charlotteobserver.comNovember 7, 2012 

— Instead of running basketball practices these days, Matt Doherty watches and takes copious notes from them. Instead of coaching basketball games this season, he’ll talk about them from the sidelines or a television studio.

In other words, Doherty’s relationship with the game that has blessed and cursed him over the years is much more manageable now, thank you.

After 11 seasons of coaching at Notre Dame, North Carolina, Florida Atlantic and Southern Methodist, Doherty and his family have returned to the Charlotte area, where he is working for Ballantyne-based ESPNU as an analyst and commentator for SEC and Big 12 games.

It’s his third time living in Mooresville: He chose the town in southern Iredell County when he worked as an assistant at Davidson in 1989-92, then moved back in 2003 for two years after he was fired at his alma mater, North Carolina.

He then left for seven more years – one at Florida Atlantic, six at SMU, where he was fired last spring.

And it’s good to be back, he says, not only to be living in the Charlotte area again, but without the burden of running a Division I program.

“I can just go enjoy a bowl of pasta after the game now,” says Doherty. “The best thing will be not having to worry about winning or losing, or dealing with parents over playing time. I’d love to make a career in TV. We’ll see where it goes.”

At age 50, Doherty looks back on his 11 seasons as a head coach with the view of someone who wishes he knew then what he knows now.

He also takes what he says is his share of the responsibility for what happened in the three seasons he spent as coach at North Carolina – where he was a starting forward on the Tar Heels’ 1982 national championship team, but then oversaw a brief and turbulent era for the program.

Although Doherty was the national coach of the year in 2000-01 after the Tar Heels went 26-7, the 8-20 season of 2001-02 was the worst in program history. He was forced out after the following season when reports surfaced of players’ unhappiness and a threat of transfers.

“I had my role in all of that,” says Doherty, whose fiery, confrontational style was in sharp contrast with the demeanors of former coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge. “I managed change poorly. But I didn’t have the support (from the administration) that I thought I would have through all of it.”

Coach without training

Doherty doesn’t want to dwell on what happened at North Carolina. But he admits he wasn’t ready for the Tar Heels job.

After working for Bob McKillop as an assistant at Davidson for three seasons and seven at Kansas under Roy Williams, Doherty was hired as Notre Dame’s head coach in 1999 at age 37.

He says he didn’t seek the job the following year at North Carolina when Guthridge retired. After Williams turned the Tar Heels down, Doherty says he took it at the urging of Michael Jordan, who told him Smith didn’t want the new coach to be someone from outside North Carolina’s basketball family.

But one season at football-focused Notre Dame didn’t prepare him for North Carolina, a college basketball program with all the trappings of a Fortune 500 company.

“I think my situation has the makings of a case study in a leadership book,” says Doherty, who had taken the Irish to the final of the National Invitation Tournament. “There is no formal training to be a college basketball coach. If you’re at Bank of America or General Electric and you’re on track to be in upper management, they’re going to put you through that training.

“Here I was, an assistant for Roy Williams at Kansas who had played for coach Smith at North Carolina. At Notre Dame, they say, ‘He’s got a good pedigree, let’s give him the job.’

“But I’d never managed people. I’d just done scouting reports and recruited. I’d never organized a practice, never had to hire and fire coaches, never had to orchestrate a staff of 25 people or write 50 reports. I never had to look at a budget or talk in front of a camera too much.

“All of a sudden, you’re given the keys to a big-time job because you were an assistant to a big-time coach.”

The nature of coaching at the Division I level has changed, says Davidson’s McKillop, who also coached Doherty at Holy Trinity High on Long Island and remains close with him.

“The old environment was that the basketball coach was usually a teacher first and foremost,” says McKillop, who has been Davidson’s coach since 1989. “And if you had an assistant you wanted to groom to be a head coach, you could make him the coach of the freshman team. Those days are gone.

“The opportunities to learn every aspect of what it takes to be a coach – not just the X’s and O’s, but the fundraising, the time-management, relationships around campus and all the other things – that’s all been left by the wayside.”

That might be changing. A Richmond, Va.-based program called Villa 7 was founded in 2004 to help young assistants develop skills that will help them become head coaches. Among Villa 7’s products are Charlotte’s Alan Major, Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart, Elon’s Mike Matheny and Marquette’s Buzz Williams.

Studies in leadership

After Doherty left Chapel Hill in 2003, he moved back to Mooresville, where he worked for two years as an NBA scout and did some broadcast work.

He watched on television as North Carolina won the 2005 national championship, coached by Williams and with many players Doherty recruited.

“That was hard, watching them cut down the nets,” says Doherty.

He also took classes in management and leadership at Virginia’s Darden School of Business and Penn’s Wharton School of Business.

Doherty says he learned how to better manage his emotions as a coach, and how to more effectively develop and nurture a team’s personality and dynamics through a season.

“When I got done with those courses, I thought, ‘If I had taken these courses before I got the (North Carolina) job, I might never have gotten fired!’ ” he says.

Doherty was able to implement those lessons during much smoother times at Florida Atlantic and SMU. His six-year tenure at SMU ended in March, when he was fired after his fifth losing season. He was replaced by Larry Brown, another former Tar Heels player.

“At SMU, I didn’t win enough games; I can deal with that,” says Doherty.

He has been traveling the country watching teams practice as part of his preseason duties for ESPNU. He returned to North Carolina’s Smith Center recently for just the second time since 2003 to watch the Tar Heels practice. He says he felt welcomed and was happy to be back.

But he also says he isn’t interested in returning to college coaching.

“It’s very stressful,” he says. “Most coaches I know, if you did a poll and they were honest, they’d say they’re miserable. They do it for two reasons: money and ego. You like to say you’re the head coach at North Carolina or SMU or Kansas and that feels good. But day to day, it’s stressful.”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14

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