by Rick Brewer, Sports Information Director Emeritus
CHAPEL HILL - When Bill Guthridge was named to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame recently, many pointed to the way he took Carolina to two Final Fours in three years on the job.
But, it was his 30 years as a Tar Heel assistant that may have played an even bigger role in his selection.
Guthridge spent 33 years at Carolina, 30 of them as the top assistant to Dean Smith. No assistant in college basketball history has ever worked for the same head coach as long as Guthridge did. When Smith stepped down in the fall of 1998 he handpicked Guthridge to succeed him.
It was a surprise move to some because years earlier Guthridge decided not to pursue a head coaching job. He had turned down opportunities at other schools to remain at Carolina. But, Smith wanted the program in good hands and he knew that would be the case with Guthridge. Plus, he wanted Guthridge to have the opportunity to run a team. Smith felt people should see the type of coach Guthridge was. He didn't think Guthridge had ever gotten the credit he really deserved.
Guthridge made it immediately clear he only would take the job for a couple of years. But, he made his time memorable and showed Smith's plan was the correct one.
His 1998 team posted a 34-4 record, won the ACC Tournament and finished first in the nation, before falling to Utah in the national semifinals.
Carolina was 24-10 in 1999. Then in 2000, the Tar Heels finished 22-14, but played their best basketball in the post-season and again reached the Final Four.
Guthridge took two quite different teams to the national semifinals. The 1998 team was built around Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, a pair of first-team All-Americas. In 2000 Carolina only had a pair of second-team All-ACC players, senior Ed Cota and freshman Joseph Forte.
Guthridge was the consensus national coach of the year after his initial season. His total of 58 wins were the most ever by any coach in his first two seasons on the job.
He played or coached in 14 Final Fours, more than anyone in NCAA history. That included his two as Carolina's head coach, 10 as Smith's assistant and one each as a player and assistant coach at Kansas State.
As Smith's assistant Guthridge helped develop and recruit some of the best players in college basketball. He worked with great post players like Mitch Kupchak, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, J.R. Reid, Scott Williams, Eric Montross, Rasheed Wallace and Jamison
But, in fact, he knew the intricacies of every position on the court. He was also a great game strategist. Smith, probably the best game coach in basketball history, always would listen to Guthridge if he had an observation during play.
When Smith was chosen as the 1976 U.S. Olympic coach, he quickly chose Guthridge and Georgetown's John Thompson as his two assistants.
If anyone could match Smith at organization, it was Guthridge. He was the guy who handled so many of the team's details for Smith. With a program as successful as Carolina's, Smith couldn't be completely hands-on in every facet of the operation.
When it came to practice and games, Smith was in charge. But, he also would listen to Guthridge if he had a suggestion.
No, Guthridge was much more than a simple "detail" man. He had one of the best basketball minds in the business.
He had a great sense of humor, although his inside jokes often went over the head of listeners. But, former players from Dick Grubar to Mike O'Koren to George Lynch still find themselves the target of his one-liners when they return to Chapel Hill.
While he can still brighten up any room, he knew discipline was an integral part of success on the college level.
Players talk about "Coach Guthridge's time" when they're anywhere around him. His watch was known to run a little fast.
That began when he was Smith's assistant. If a player had an appointment with Guthridge, he knew he probably ought to be five minutes early to be on the safe side. If the team was taking a bus anywhere, to the airport or from a hotel to an arena, players had better be on board a couple of minutes early. When it was time to go, Guthridge didn't keep everyone else waiting on anyone. That went from a reserve to an All-America.
And Guthridge knew an All-America when he saw one. Smith has always called him one of the greatest judges of talent he had ever known.
During the 1969-70 season the biggest name in high school basketball was Tom McMillen. In the western part of this state 7-4 Tommy Burleson was attracting tremendous attention from college recruiters. Carolina, in fact, wanted both.
Meanwhile, Guthridge was becoming very interested in Bobby Jones, a 6-8 frontcourt player in Charlotte. Guthridge liked his quickness and great hands.
Jones won All-America honors as a senior. He went on to have a sensational career in the NBA, being selected to the league's All-Defensive Team nine times and having his jersey retired by the Philadelphia 76ers.
"The first time Bill saw Bobby he liked him," Smith once said. "I think he felt Bobby was the best prospect we were recruiting all along that year."
A few years later Guthridge was the first coach to see Michael Jordan early in his high school career. The ability was already there, but no one else knew anything about him. Guthridge told Smith they needed to start the recruiting process because pretty soon everyone in the country would be after him.
It seems funny now that some people wondered if Guthridge could handle Carolina's head coaching job. The man didn't sit beside Tex Winter at Kansas State and then Smith without learning anything.
That work as a head coach will get the attention this spring at the NCSHOF inductions. But, it was his time as an assistant that was just as important to Carolina's amazing basketball success.