Guthridge, reluctant head coach, follows his friend Dean Smith in death

Bill Guthridge.
Bill Guthridge.

(Editor’s Note: Parts of this column were used in articles for the UNC General Alumni Association and WNCN TV)

Bill Guthridge, who reluctantly became head coach of the Carolina men’s basketball team after serving as a loyal assistant to Dean Smith for 30 years, died Tuesday night. He was 77.

During his career, Guthridge spurned offers to interview for head coaching vacancies, preferring to remain out of the spotlight and continuing to team with Smith, who died on Feb. 7. Once, in 1978, Guthridge nearly accepted the head coaching job at Penn State, but he changed his mind at the airport and reportedly never again thought about leaving Chapel Hill.

“If you have something you really enjoy, why go someplace else?” Guthridge said.

His kinship and relationship with Smith was a big part of that enjoyment.

Like Smith, Guthridge was the son of Kansas schoolteachers. He became a reserve guard in college at Kansas State, graduating with a math major.

Guthridge was known as a bit of a micromanager with superb organization skills. He went by the adage that if you take care of the little things, you’ll never have big problems.

Guthridge was generally mild-mannered and subtle, but when angered, he could be fierce and straightforward, coming to the aid of Smith and to the Carolina basketball program.

Once, following a particularly heated 72-71 victory over Maryland in 1983, Terp coach Lefty Driesell refused to shake Smith’s hand. Immediately, Guthridge yelled and charged after Driesell; he was restrained before making any contact.

Guthridge famously had to be restrained another time when a referee ejected Smith from a 1991 Final Four game against Kansas, with 35 seconds left and the Heels trailing by five. The explanation was that Smith left the coach’s box.

In the walkway after the game, Guthridge briskly and angrily approached the officials but was pushed away by a police officer and grabbed by then-sports information director Rick Brewer ’71.

Ironically, Guthridge was known more for his calm, professorial demeanor. In fact, Smith referred to just that when Guthridge retired after three years as the head coach.

“Bill’s basketball savvy, ability to remain composed and his genuine affection for his players are just some of the reasons for his success as a head coach,” Smith said at the time, adding that Guthridge never received enough credit as an assistant coach.

When Guthridge retired after the 2000 season, his 960 combined wins as an assistant at Kansas State and UNC (880) and head coach (80) were the most in Division I history. He was a part of 14 Final Fours — one as a player, 11 as an assistant and two in his three seasons as head coach.

Guthridge also was noted for what he did for the University away from basketball. In 1993, he and his wife, Leesie, created the William W. and Elise P. Guthridge Library Fund, which has helped with purchasing materials and renovation of the House Undergraduate Library. In 1998, the Bill Guthridge Distinguished Professorship in mathematics was established.

For 30 of his 33 years at Carolina, Guthridge was the behind-the-scenes guy — scouting opponents, making sure players got to class on time, disciplining players, getting the players on the bus or airplane and into the hotel, working with office staff on the smallest of details and recruiting (something, unlike many coaches, he said he enjoyed very much).

And he did it all with a dry wit and style.

He was known to answer a question such as “Coach, do you know what time it is?” with a “Yes” as he walked away. Once he asked a manager, whose arms were full of equipment, if he had change for a quarter. The manager put down his items and rifled through his pockets. Guthridge didn’t need the change — he just wanted to know if he had it.

At the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame museum, Guthridge pretended not to recognize a photo of Michael Jordan ’86, instead moving on to the photo of former Virginia coach Terry Holland.

On the practice court, he was all business, working with Carolina’s big men on posting up as well as working with all the players on their shooting skills.

But once he took over as head coach, he had to switch gears to leave the smaller details to his assistants and “tackle the big things,” as he said.

It wasn’t a transition Guthridge wanted to make, but some have speculated it was one orchestrated by Smith, who retired just before the start of the 1997-98 season, giving officials little time to find someone to succeed him.

In accepting the head coaching position, Guthridge said: “This isn’t quite the way that I have envisioned this whole scenario through the years. I had hoped that Dean and I could go out together and ride into the sunset in about five or six years.”

While Guthridge hinted he might stay as head coach for as long as 10 years, he retired in 2000 after three seasons as head coach. Despite running every morning, Guthridge, then 62, said he simply lacked the energy to go on.

He remained close to the University, the players and the basketball program after retirement, often going into the office to help. In 2007, the Carolina locker room was dedicated by the basketball lettermen in Guthridge’s honor.

In recent years, Guthridge often stood in for an ailing Smith at various events, many of them honoring Smith, who by then had lost his legendary memory. Guthridge’s memory itself started to fail in 2014.

Among his accomplishments:

National Coach of the Year in 1998;
He won more games than any college coach after one and two seasons and tied the NCAA record for most victories after three years;
Assistant coach for two UNC national championships (’82 and ’93);
Assistant coach for the 1976 U.S. gold-medal winning Olympic team;
Induction into the NC Sports Hall of Fame;
Recipient of the UNC General Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Medal; and
Induction into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame.

UNC Alumni Association article on Guthridge’s death

WNCN article on Guthridge’s death

What they’re saying about the death of Bill Guthridge:

ACC Commissioner John Swofford:
“Bill was uniquely special. He was a kind soul with a strong, competitive spirit. A relatively quiet man with a wonderful and dry sense of humor. A tremendously loyal person with an ego that was seemingly non-existent. I don’t think I have ever heard of anyone that didn’t like and respect Bill Guthridge. Just a really good man who made Carolina, the ACC and college basketball better.”

Former UNC Director of Athletics Dick Baddour:
“Bill was one of the most respected and admired people I have known. If you played for him you loved him; working with him was a joy. The University of North Carolina has lost a dear friend, as have I, and I know that we will all miss him greatly.”

Carolina head coach Roy Williams:
“It’s another tremendous loss for our University, our basketball program and our entire community. He was extremely special, important to every player, every coach who ever worked here. He was even more important to me.

Not only did he coach me on the freshman team, he was my coach, another mentor, a friend, a father figure, a big brother for me just like he was for so many players.

He was an unbelievable assistant to Coach Smith. Coach Smith had so many strengths and very few weaknesses, and the weaknesses that he did have Coach Guthridge tried to fill. He tried to do every one of those little things that drove Coach Smith crazy. He was a perfect sidekick for Coach Smith.

He stayed (rather than leave for a head coaching job at another university) because he was enjoying what he was doing and why leave something you know is good for the unknown. At one point he thought he wanted to be a head coach, but he also decided that he really enjoyed Coach Smith and the program here and why should he leave when he has what he thought was the perfect job.”

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski:

“It has been a trying time for the University of North Carolina basketball program over the past four months and our thoughts and prayers are with them again today after the passing of Bill Guthridge. Coach Guthridge played an instrumental role in the program’s success as an assistant under Dean Smith for three decades before making his own name as a head coach in leading North Carolina to a pair of Final Four appearances in three seasons. Though he was a head coach for a short time, he gracefully carried ona culture and legacy that many thought could not be perpetuated. We offer our deepest sympathies to his Bill’s family, friends and the entire North Carolina basketball community.”

Statement from Linnea Smith (wife of Dean Smith) and the Smith family:
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of Coach Guthridge. He was a fellow teacher and colleague to Dean for more than thirty years and a friend and confidant for even longer. He’ll be missed by our family and the entire UNC community. We offer our condolences and our prayers to the Guthridge and UNC basketball families.”

Statement from Antawn Jamison, who earned consensus National Collegiate Player of the Year honors in 1998, Bill Guthridge’s first season as UNC’s head coach.
“I’m extremely saddened by the passing of Coach Guthridge, aka “Coach Gut,” especially coming so close to the loss of Coach Smith. He, like Coach Smith, was more of a mentor and father figure than anything else. His legacy and contributions to my life and to our University will live on and he’ll be much more remembered for his sense of humor and class just as much as his coaching.”

Statement from Chancellor Carol L. Folt:

“The Carolina community mourns the passing of Bill Guthridge, a great coach, devoted friend and loyal Tar Heel. For more than three decades, Coach Guthridge served this University he loved so much with a deep commitment to academic and athletic excellence. Like his lifelong friend and mentor, Coach Dean Smith, he led by example instilling values of kindness, discipline and a strong work ethic. His legacy lives on in each of the players who were privileged to call him Coach and countless Tar Heels and people across the nation who admired him. We offer our deepest condolences to the Guthridge family as they grieve the loss of a wonderful husband and father.”

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