One by one, they came up to Linda Woods on Monday at the reception after Bill Guthridge’s funeral and leaned down to give her a hug and a kiss, these tall former basketball players bending their bodies to say hello to the small woman some of them called “Mama Woods.”
In the hour after they’d all gathered to say goodbye to Guthridge, the longtime UNC basketball coach, many gathered to say hello to Woods, who for decades worked as an administrative assistant for Dean Smith and Guthridge in the basketball office at UNC.
She’d come into that job in 1977, not really knowing what to expect. And how could she have envisioned what it might turn into, that the job would become something more – much more – than showing up in the office to answer phones and keep schedules and coordinate appointments.
“I never knew what it was going to turn into,” she said Monday during a brief moment alone, when a former UNC player or manager hadn’t come up to her, beaming, looking for a hug. “But it turned from a job into a life.”
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She looked up in front of her and there on a projection screen played images from Guthridge’s life. With his grandchildren. With his wife. On the UNC bench sitting next to Smith. There Guthridge was in games or in practices or off the court. Young and older and younger again. One image turned to the next, a lifetime going by in pictures on a screen.
Woods sat quietly for a few moments and watched.
“All these pictures,” she said.
All those memories.
“Thirty-eight years,” she said. “I mean, I feel honored. I feel blessed. I feel everything good that can happen because they are special, special people that I would not have found otherwise in my life, if I had not taken this job.”
Office was second home
The “special people” she was talking about included Smith, who died Feb. 7, and Guthridge and all the others she’d met along the way, the players and managers who’d come through the UNC basketball office over the years, through her office, too, on their way to meet with Smith or Guthridge or whomever else.
For decades, Woods was among the first ones to greet a visitor to the offices inside Carmichael Auditorium and, later, the Smith Center. She retired in 2000, in the technical sense, but stayed away for only about a month – just long enough to clean out the closets, she said – and then she was back.
“I retired in 2000,” she said with a laugh. “But I’ve been working ever since.”
Even now, she comes to the Smith Center three times a week – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Same as she has done for about the past 15 years or so. Woods’ desk sits out in front of a small wing of the basketball offices at the Smith Center.
You walk past the main reception desk and go around a corner and down a hall and there it is. Next to her desk are two offices, one for Smith and one for Guthridge, and before their health declined – and even after, just not as regularly – they’d come into the Smith Center often.
Guthridge, she said, “was coming in until he died,” though not as much as he used to.
“It was good” to come into the office, Woods said, “because I could take coach Guthridge’s mail to him. And visit him and see how he’s doing.”
Woods watched Guthridge become sicker and more weakened by a heart condition that caused vascular dementia and caused him, in some instances, not to remember. It was a cruel fate made crueler because of the cognitive disease that Smith endured for years, one that left him without his memories.
In the final years of his life, Smith’s caretakers would lead him into the Smith Center, and they’d walk around the concourse or take the elevator down to the court level in a building named in his honor. In March 2012, when I was reporting a story about the relationship Guthridge and Smith shared in their later years, Smith was there – as much as he could be there – in his office, the one right next to Guthridge’s.
Woods called him “Coach Smith” – then and always – and made conversation she knew couldn’t be returned. She asked if I’d like to meet Smith and then made our introduction.
“Coach, this is a reporter from The News & Observer,” she told him.
Knowing where I graduated from college, Woods told Smith that, too.
“Coach, he went to N.C. State,” she said in a playful way.
“N.C. State?” Smith said with a tone that suggested, deep down, he knew those words had once kindled some kind of emotion.
Fond memories, big smiles
Smith died in February, Guthridge on May 12. And so, for the second time in about three months, Woods came to mourn but also celebrate the lives of men she’d worked alongside for most of her adult life. After Guthridge’s funeral service on Monday at Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church, Woods couldn’t walk very far without being surrounded.
It didn’t matter if it was a star player or a role player, an end-of-the-bench player or a manager. Usually they greeted her with a kiss on the cheek and a hug. And every time Woods responded enthusiastically, like a mom welcoming back a child after a long absence.
“I feel like I lost my dad,” Chuck Duckett, a UNC Board of Trustees member who was a basketball team manager during his time at UNC, told Woods in one moment. “Two of them now.”
They talked for a bit about The Bill Guthridge Distinguished Professorship in Mathematics that Duckett helped establish at UNC. Woods thanked Duckett for what he does, and Duckett asked Woods how often she’s still coming by the office these days.
“Call the front desk if you need to know ahead of time,” she told him.
At one point Brian Reese, a member of UNC’s 1993 national championship team, walked up. He’d been searching around the reception for Woods and found her sitting down, finally, taking the time for a quick bite. About an hour went by before she had a moment to walk to the middle table where they’d set up the food.
“You came, you came,” Woods said after giving Reese a big kiss on the cheek.
Reese was wearing a wide smile, excited at the news he had to share that he’d recently been named the head basketball coach at Georgian Court University, a Division II school in Lakewood, N.J.
“I’ve got my own program,” Reese, who’d been coaching at Monmouth with King Rice, another former UNC player, told Woods. “Thirty minutes from my house.”
“I’m so happy for you,” Woods said, sounding proud.
“Brand new school,” Reese said.
“Brand new school?” Woods said. “You can set the records – you can make the records there.”
They parted with another hug.
“How about this head coach here?” Woods said. “This is so much fun, to see them.”
Mama Woods, even now
Reunions like these don’t happen often, and they tend to happen only at funerals, when people gather to remember, to say goodbye. Woods came on Monday to do that – to honor and remember Guthridge – but then there was another side of it, too.
When old players and managers came up to Woods, she saw the men standing before her but also the kids they were when she met them. They were grown now, a lot of them husbands and fathers, some of them coaches.
Some had gray hair, or less hair than they used to. Some looked as if it’d been a long time since they played basketball. Yet to Woods they still looked the same as ever. She’d watched them grow up in some ways.
“All the women in the office, we had them like they were our children,” Woods said. “If they were upset, we’d hear from them. If a girlfriend broke up with them. We knew if grandma died, because a lot of times grandma raised the kids, you know.
“And we met mom and daddy and brothers and sisters. And so – it was just so wonderful. And so when I see them I’ve got all these memories of who they were with us. It’s hard to believe. Every one of them is so special.”
The reception was winding down now, nearly three hours after Guthridge’s funeral service had began. Michael Jordan, surrounded by a crowd at the start of the reception, had long made his way out. Sam Perkins and a lot of the other players had left, too.
Woods, meanwhile, was still holding court at her table, telling stories and talking with old colleagues and people she might not have run into in a while, if not for Smith’s funeral a little more than three months ago. More than once someone came up and said, “Next time, let’s do this in happier times.”
It had been a difficult three months for the UNC basketball family – and especially for the older part of that family, the part that worked alongside Smith and Guthridge or played for them. It was like something of the end of an era – first losing Smith and then Guthridge.
Woods and others knew these days were coming, and likely sooner rather than later, but still. And besides, it wasn’t too long ago, she said, that she spent time with Guthridge in the office. It turned out to be the last time.
He wasn’t well, but he still played a trick on her, she said, while he sat in his wheelchair – one last wry joke from a man known for his dry wit. She was trying to put a jacket on him and had difficulty with one of his shirt sleeves, until she realized that Guthridge had it tightly grasped in his fingers.
“I looked up at him, he had the biggest smile on his face you’ve ever seen,” Woods said. “He had a sense of humor to him. I have such great memories. They’ll live on in my heart. They’re not gone. They’re not gone.”