For the second time in three months, Roy Williams on Wednesday spoke with tears in his eyes about the loss of a mentor and friend – the loss, more than anything, perhaps, of a father figure.
First it was Dean Smith, who died on Feb. 7. And now Bill Guthridge, whose death begins another period of mourning at UNC.
Known for his basketball mind and his quick wit, and known, most of all, for his service and loyalty as a longtime assistant coach at UNC to Smith, Guthridge died Tuesday night in Chapel Hill. He was 77.
Guthridge’s death was announced Wednesday by UNC, where he coached for 33 years – the final three as the Tar Heels’ head coach. He had been in declining health in recent years and died while surrounded by his family.
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Smith is considered the architect of UNC’s basketball program, and Williams built his coaching philosophy largely on what he learned from Smith. Guthridge, though, helped Smith define that philosophy, and helped him execute it during their three decades working together.
“The word assistant means to really help someone,” Williams said. “And I can’t imagine anybody … really helping someone as much as coach Guthridge did coach Smith.”
Smith died in early February after suffering for years from a neurological disorder that robbed him of his memories. Guthridge suffered a similarly cruel fate during the final year of his life.
Williams played for Guthridge on UNC’s freshman basketball team during the 1968-69 season. Later, while coaching at Owen High in Asheville, Williams met with Guthridge and told him about his desire to enter college coaching. Smith called Williams soon after with an invitation to join UNC’s staff.
“He was my coach,” Williams said. “He was another mentor. He was a friend. He was a father figure, he was a big brother for me just like he was so many players.
“He was an unbelievable assistant to coach Smith.”
The ultimate assistant
That’s how Guthridge will best be remembered – as the consummate right hand to Smith. For 30 years, from 1967 through 1997, they were fixtures together on the Tar Heels’ bench.
“Coach Smith had so many strengths and very few weaknesses,” Williams said, “and the weaknesses that he did have, coach Guthridge tried to fill.”
Guthridge was known as the disciplinarian on the coaching staff, and the unofficial timekeeper – the man who kept the clock while players sprinted or completed drills. He was known, too, for his impeccable organizational skills – always with a clean desk – and his punctuality.
Guthridge operated by his own time – Guthridge Standard Time, some of UNC’s players called it – and that meant that being on time was late, and that being 10 minutes early was on time. Phil Ford, who played point guard at UNC in the 1970s and then served as an assistant coach for both Smith and Guthridge, laughed on Wednesday and said with a smile that Guthridge Standard Time had scarred him.
“It was like two pieces of a puzzle that fit together,” Ford said. “I think coach Smith was perfect for coach Guthridge, and I think coach Guthridge was perfect for coach Smith.
“I just don’t think he probably got all the credit that he deserved, but I think that’s how he wanted it.”
Kind man, fiery competitor
Though Guthridge was Smith’s disciplinarian, he was remembered Wednesday for what John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, described in a statement as a “wonderful and dry sense of humor.” Swofford was UNC’s athletic director for more than half of Guthridge’s coaching tenure there.
Guthridge often greeted colleagues and players with a unique handshake – Williams tried to imitate it Wednesday – and Guthridge, Williams said with a smile, found humor in doing little, silly things “just to agitate people.”
When a player greeted him with, “Hey, coach,” it wasn’t uncommon for Guthridge to respond with, “Hey, player.” The dry sense of humor and calm exterior, though, belied a competitive fire that burned hot and long.
“When I think of coach Guthridge, I think of a fiery competitor,” Ford said.
Lifelong bond with Smith
The near-lifelong relationship that Guthridge and Smith shared began before Smith hired Guthridge in 1967. It began while they were both growing up in Kansas, in hometowns separated by about 90 miles.
Guthridge, who was born in Parsons, Kan., had known Smith, a native of Emporia, Kan., nearly his entire life. Guthridge briefly dated Smith’s sister in the early 1950s, and in 1967, after Guthridge had played basketball at Kansas State and began his coaching career there, Smith called with a job offer.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of coach Guthridge,” Linnea Smith, Dean Smith’s wife, said in a statement. “He was a fellow teacher and colleague to Dean for more than thirty years, and a friend and confidant for even longer.”
Guthridge had opportunities to leave – Penn State and Arkansas made him offers to be a head coach – but Guthridge remained loyal to UNC, and to Smith. He was content, Williams said Wednesday, to remain in Smith’s shadow because that “didn’t bother him.”
“He didn’t need the adulation,” Williams said. “He didn’t need to sit up here in front of the microphone and talk. He really enjoyed what he was doing.”
Passing the torch
During his years as an assistant to Smith, the Tar Heels went to the Final Four 10 times and won the national championship in 1982 and 1993. Smith retired in October 1997, just before the season.
Guthridge would have been a leading candidate to succeed Smith regardless, but Smith’s timing assured that Guthridge would get his chance to become the head coach.
He led UNC to the Final Four in 1998, earning National Coach of the Year honors along the way. Two years later, in 2000, Guthridge guided the Tar Heels back to the Final Four. He retired after that season, after telling his wife that he was “worn out.”
After retiring, Guthridge remained in Chapel Hill and, like Smith, kept an office at the Smith Center. Their offices were next to each other, and until the past two years, Guthridge continued to come in regularly.
It was difficult on Guthridge, his wife, Leesie, said in February, for him to watch Smith’s health decline. Guthridge’s did, too, and during Smith’s funeral and memorial services, Williams, knowing the end could be near, told former players and current ones to spend time with Guthridge.
Guthridge was a part of 867 victories at UNC. He was on the bench for 73 NCAA tournament victories – including two at Kansas State – more than any coach in history.
Guthridge, whose 34 victories during the 1997-98 season set a record for victories by a first-year head coach, was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 2013. Never one for much attention, Guthridge said then that it was “a nice honor.”
Bill Guthridge Timeline
July 27, 1937: Born in Parsons, Kan.
1958: Played guard on Kansas State team that reached the Final Four.
1967-68: Joins Dean Smith’s UNC staff as an assistant.
October 1997: Named UNC’s head coach.
1997-98: Tar Heels finish 34-4, won ACC tournament, lost to Utah in Final Four.
1998-99: Tar Heels finish 24-10, were upset in first round of NCAA tournament.
1999-2000: Tar Heels finish 22-14, returned to the Final Four for second time in three years.
Summer 2000: Retires with an 80-28 record, tying Everett Case’s NCAA record for most wins in first three years (since broken).
2013: Inducted into N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
May 12, 2015: Dies at age 77 in Chapel Hill.