North Carolina

Bill Guthridge a leader who was content to blend in

UNC assistant coach Bill Guthridge  with UNC coach Dean Smith in a 1997 game in the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
UNC assistant coach Bill Guthridge with UNC coach Dean Smith in a 1997 game in the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. 1997 News & Observer file photo

Bill Guthridge admitted upon becoming head coach at North Carolina that Dean Smith’s retirement dashed his hope the pair “could go out together and ride into the sunset.” The other day Guthridge, 77, got his wish, although surely not in the manner he envisioned. The 30-year Smith assistant, long noted as the quintessential “sidekick,” as current UNC coach Roy Williams put it, died three months after the Hall of Famer he served so diligently and so well.

Guthridge and Smith had much in common besides Kansas roots and the timing of their demise. Their mothers were schoolteachers. Their fathers were educators, too. Both sons were math majors in college in their home state, doubtless contributing to the careful calibration that marked North Carolina’s program under Smith. Both were prone to dry humor. Both were avid political progressives. Both were intensely loyal. Both voluntarily stepped down as UNC’s head coach, Smith in 1997 and Guthridge in 2000.

Toward the ends of their lives, both also suffered from forms of dementia, a condition that haunted Guthridge before it overtook him.

Guthridge grew up in Parsons, then a town of about 8,000 in Kansas’ southeastern corner where it meets Missouri and Oklahoma. Guthridge’s father, Wallace, was the superintendent of schools in Parsons. Born in July 1937, Bill Guthridge remembered the town’s population more than doubling during World War II because an ordinance plant was located there. He vividly recalled, too, the way his mother, Betty, suffered with dementia before dying at age 98.

The specter of his own mortality grew once Guthridge learned he had cardiac amyloidosis, a rare, irreversible disorder that makes it increasingly difficult for the heart to function properly. Most patients diagnosed with what is sometimes called “stiff heart syndrome” live less than a year. Guthridge visited the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins and UNC seeking medical relief. He had a pacemaker installed. Stamina reduced, he gave up golf and jogging. “It isn’t good,” he said in early 2013, nearly five years after receiving the initial diagnosis.

“I’m sure it’ll get me sometime,” Guthridge said coolly of the growth affecting his heart. “Maybe I’ll be 90.”

“Couldn’t be any better”

That offcourt equanimity was another trait the assistant known as “Coach Gut” shared with Smith. But their differences were numerous too. Despite his nickname Guthridge was lean, Smith paunchy. Smith went to Kansas to play for eventual Hall of Famer Forrest “Phog” Allen. Guthridge wanted to attend KU, but wound up at Kansas State, where he roomed with Gene Keady, later a 25-year head coach at Purdue. A Phog Allen assistant “saw me play in high school and told Phog that I wasn’t good enough, which was true,” Guthridge reported.

Facing the Jayhawks, the guard did once get the best of 7-foot-1 center Wilt Chamberlain. “One game I drew a charge, but he never touched me,” Guthridge said with amused satisfaction. “I stood there and he went right over me.”

Following his 1960 college graduation, Guthridge served as head coach at a high school in flat western Kansas in a town half Parsons’ size. “I looked south and I saw Mexico, and I looked north and I saw Canada,” he observed. After two years there Guthridge landed a college assistant’s position under Morice “Tex” Winter, his coach at K-State. He served in that capacity for five years until Winter, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame honoree as an “outstanding contributor,” sent him to Puerto Rico to gain head coaching experience in a summer league. While Guthridge was there, Smith offered him a job replacing Larry Brown on UNC’s staff. Guthridge took it and never strayed.

“It just couldn’t have been any better for me – to grow up where I grew up and go to school where I went to school,” he said in his Smith Center office. “Played for Tex Winter. And Dean Smith brought me here. The opportunities, it couldn’t be any better.”

Team disciplinarian

Guthridge had chances to leave over the years – notably to take head coaching jobs at Penn State or Arkansas – but demurred. Eventually he stopped looking or entertaining inquiries, content to pass opportunities to others in the Smith basketball family. He did gain head coaching experience directing the Tar Babies, UNC’s freshman squad. Roy Williams was among his players. “He was good, but not great,” Guthridge said matter-of-factly.

Over the years Guthridge specialized in teaching shooting, working with the big men, and serving as team wrangler. On road trips, Smith departed as soon after a game as possible, leaving him to get everyone moving, and in the proper direction. “Bill Guthridge is the most organized person I’ve ever known,” said Smith, notorious for his messy desk.

The genial, bespectacled Guthridge also served as team disciplinarian. He demanded punctuality, which actually meant arriving early. “Coach Guthridge for years has had to be the tough guy,” UNC assistant coach and former player Dave Hanners said in 1997, “because Coach Smith was so compassionate, and to have a good organization somebody’s got to lay down the law.” Guthridge laid down the law outwardly too – challenging a heckler who hurled racial epithets at Tar Heel Charles Scott or rushing to confront Lefty Driesell when the Maryland coach advanced toward Smith with a raised fist after a heated finish in a close Carolina win at Carmichael Auditorium in 1983.

Generally, however, Guthridge was content to blend into the background. When the team traveled he enjoyed slipping unnoticed into the spectator seats prior to a game, popcorn in one hand and soda in the other, to savor the atmosphere. The night before his introduction as Smith’s successor, he took out Leesie, his wife, to celebrate their anniversary in basketball-besotted Chapel Hill. No one recognized him.

Reluctant leader

That changed when Guthridge became head coach.

The basketball honeymoon was short. Like most coaches who replace a legendary leader, Guthridge encountered considerable turbulence off the court, and occasionally on it. Many Tar Heel fans grew restive as North Carolina repeatedly struggled against Duke, dropped its 1999 NCAA tournament opener to Weber State, lost several in a row, and didn’t recruit particularly well.

The longtime lieutenant took the criticism in stride. He quickly found the shift one seat over on the bench lent a different, less-welcome perspective. “I go into every game thinking there’s no way we can win, so I must have the head-coaching disease,” he said.

Dispassionate observers applauded Guthridge. He took the 1998 and 2000 Heels to the Final Four. UNC’s 34-4 record in 1998 was the best in Division I men’s history by a first-year coach, earning Guthridge national coach of the year honors. His 58 wins after two seasons remain an NCAA benchmark, and his three-year record upon retirement (80-28) tied N.C. State’s Everett Case for fifth-best ever. Each of his teams reached the NCAAs, extending a streak Smith started in 1966-67, the season prior to Guthridge’s arrival.

Yet Guthridge never embraced replacing Smith. “I wanted Dean to coach forever, and he was really set that he was not going to be the head coach and he wanted me to do it,” the veteran aide explained 16 years later. “And I did it. But I wish that Dean would have stayed.”

Now they’re both gone.