Why? Why, people asked, would Bill Guthridge not want to be a head basketball coach at a major university? Certainly the opportunity presented itself on more than one occasion during his tenure as the top assistant at UNC-Chapel Hill to the legendary Dean Smith. But Guthridge, who died Tuesday night at 77 – a little more than three months after Smith died – was if anything defined by his loyalty.
That major college chance came in 1997, when Smith retired shortly before the start of practice for the upcoming season, timing that made Guthridge certain to be elevated to the head coaching spot. Smith proved out his own judgment that Guthridge was the one when his former assistant took two of his three teams to the Final Four. Guthridge even got himself a national coach of the year honor.
And then he was done, spending the next years with an office next to Smith’s in the basketball complex in Chapel Hill. Some days, it was painful, because Guthridge could see his old friend’s memory slipping away. Guthridge himself had been in declining health for the last few years.
But his legacy is sterling. He sat at Smith’s right hand all those years and graciously allowed his loyalty to “Carolina” to dominate the ego and ambition that understandably catch hold of many in the coaching profession, who move around. But that wasn’t Guthridge, and he was respected by Smith. While the head coach was celebrated, he never failed to celebrate Guthridge.
Guthridge helped Smith in victory and in crisis, and when his long-awaited turn came, he proved in short order that those who had long said, “Bill Guthridge ought to be a head coach,” were exactly right.