The voice was a little weak but the eyes were bright and his wit as sharp as ever that May day in 2013.
Bill Guthridge was about to be inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in Raleigh. For a Kansas native who spent much of his adult life in North Carolina, for a man who helped Dean Smith make UNC basketball a perennial national power and win two national championships, it was an honor and one he appreciated.
But as Guthridge said in an interview that day, “I never particularly liked being in the spotlight.”
Guthridge, who died Tuesday night at 77, spent nearly all of his coaching life as Smith’s top assistant. Only after Smith abruptly retired in October 1997 did he fully move into that spotlight, winning 80 games and twice leading the Tar Heels into the Final Four before stepping down in 2000.
As Guthridge put it, “I wanted Dean to keep coaching forever.”
Smith died in February at 83, his health in decline for several years. Guthridge, while ailing, was able to attend a memorial service for Smith at the Smith Center, receiving a warm ovation when recognized.
Guthridge liked to say that he and Smith made the perfect coaching team. Smith, he said, went to bed about 2 a.m. and Guthridge always was up by 6 a.m.
“For about 20 hours we always had everything covered,” Guthridge said, smiling.
A lot of UNC’s opponents said the same. With Smith and Guthridge together on the bench for 30 years, the Tar Heels were prepared, losing from time to time but rarely outcoached. Both were intense during games, although Guthridge always was easy-going and genial away from the court, always quick with a quip.
“A lot of people only saw a quiet guy on the bench and probably didn’t know much about him,” said Woody Durham, the longtime radio voice of the Tar Heels. “The people who didn’t get to know him missed a real treat.”
Durham, who retired in 2011, said the players had the ultimate respect for “Coach Gut” and recalled former point guard King Rice once being asked by Guthridge at the Smith Center about his classes that day.
“King was tired and had missed his classes, but also knew you’re never going to try and lie to Coach Guthridge,” Durham said. “He said he stopped and said, ‘Coach, I didn’t go to class today.’ He said Coach Guthridge turned and looked over his shoulder and said, ‘Yeah, I know.’
“That was the kind of thing the players expected from him and the thing they liked about him. There was an admiration for him.”
Guthridge, in turn, had much admiration for Smith and the responsibility handed him by the head coach. There never were any significant disagreements, Guthridge said, over game strategy, practices, recruiting.
“I don’t remember ever having an argument with Dean Smith,” he said.
Guthridge, like others, tried to convince Smith not to retire in 1997 but already had sensed it was about to happen.
“For about the last 10 years, every year it was really tough on Coach Smith with all the clinics he had to do and all-star games and everything,” Guthridge said. “He’d say ‘Bill, you better get ready because I’m tired.’ I would say, ‘Oh, no, you’ll be OK.’ Each year he would say that but he didn’t (retire).
“In ’97 he said he was tired and it was time for me to take over. I wanted him to keep coaching. We had a real good team. But it was time.”
The Tar Heels, led by Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, reached the 1998 Final Four but were beaten by Utah in the semifinals to finish 34-4. Guthridge would say it was easy coaching that team. Two years later, with a different team, came a different challenge.
Durham said after the Tar Heels lost in the 2000 ACC tournament, Guthridge kept the team in Charlotte an extra day to practice.
“He lined the players up on the baseline and kind of challenged them, saying, ‘How much do you want it?’” Durham said. “That team went to the Final Four.”
The Tar Heels again were beaten in the semifinals, losing to Florida. And Guthridge, like Smith, was feeling the effects of the stress, the demands, the wear and tear of being the head coach.
“That last year after we went to the Final Four, for six weeks I didn’t have time to do anything,” he said. “We had the clinics and so much going on and I was just worn out. My wife told me I better quit.”
And so he did, giving his players hand-written letters explaining his decision. Many expected Roy Williams to succeed Guthridge, but Williams made a last-second decision to stay at Kansas and Matt Doherty was hired.
Guthridge, on that May day in 2013, didn’t second-guess anyone or any decisions made. It was a long run at Carolina, he said, and a good one.
“I really wanted Dean Smith to coach until he was 100, if he wanted to,” he said. “But I enjoyed coaching, both as an assistant and a head coach.
“I just loved coaching basketball. I loved the University of North Carolina. It couldn’t have been any better.”