Roy Williams called Bill Guthridge the “perfect sidekick” for Dean Smith. “The book on loyalty and friendship was written by Coach Guthridge,” Phil Ford said.
That’s unavoidably how Guthridge, the former North Carolina basketball coach who died Tuesday night at age 77 after a lengthy illness, will be remembered: for his loyalty, his decency, his quirky sense of humor and the fierce competitive spirit it often hid.
Perhaps above all else, he’ll be remembered as Smith’s deputy for 30 years, a partnership that had tremendous success.
Nevertheless, do not overlook this: Guthridge was a pretty good basketball coach all on his own.
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“What’s lost, particularly in these times, is not only was he a passionate, loyal friend, but he was a terrific basketball coach,” said former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom. “It’s too bad coach Smith’s not alive to attest to that right now. Nobody would know it better than him.”
As an assistant to Smith, Guthridge was an invaluable part of the operation, the detail man whose desk was impeccably clean when Smith’s was in disarray. All those years, through 12 Final Fours and two national titles, Guthridge rode shotgun for Smith, in Chapel Hill and on the road.
“I think he thought his job was to make coach Smith’s job as easy as it can possibly be,” said Ford, who played point guard for Smith and served as an assistant coach on Guthridge’s staff. “Coach Guthridge did a lot. I think it kind of downplays his ability as a coach sometimes when we talk about the good job that he did with the big men. Coach Guthridge coached me, too.”
Then, on his own, Guthridge found no less success.
Smith gave Guthridge every advantage by choosing to walk away when the Tar Heels were absolutely loaded, at at a time that guaranteed Guthridge would be his successor, in October 1997. He left Guthridge the keys to a talented machine that won 34 games and the ACC tournament, advancing to a second straight Final Four.
Those broad strokes wash over just how difficult that assignment was. Guthridge had to juggle egos and playing time, rotating six different starters in a delicate balance – and while he was a longtime assistant, he was still a novice head coach.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit,” said Dick Baddour, North Carolina’s athletic director at the time. “Coach Smith did leave him a lot of talent, but he had to coach that talent. They had to compete. They had to play, and in a really, really tough league. Bill pulled that team together.”
His 1999 team was upset by Harold Arceneaux and Weber State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but in 2000, with a team composed almost entirely of Guthridge’s own players, he retooled on the fly to make it back to the Final Four as a No. 8 seed.
After that season, Guthridge, then 62, walked away. For good.
“Just what he did, in three years, is certainly underappreciated,” said North Carolina director of basketball operations Brad Frederick, who played for both Smith and Guthridge. “Think about a guy now if he’d gone to two Final Fours and did all that he’d be the hottest name in coaching. It was such a difficult standard to live up to. Everyone wanted him to be coach Smith, and he wasn’t coach Smith.”
Just as Smith turned things over to Guthridge, the grand plan was for Guthridge to hand things over to Williams. But Williams wasn’t ready to leave Kansas, not yet anyway, and Matt Doherty was hired from Notre Dame instead. His uncomfortable tenure only highlighted just how deftly Guthridge successfully managed the transition from Smith.
That probably won’t be how Guthridge is remembered. He’s too inextricably linked with Smith for that. Their legacies are impossible to untangle, and no one wanted it that way more than Guthridge. When Smith retired and Guthridge was promoted, he stayed in his assistant coach’s office until he retired.
Unquestionably loyal, Guthridge was so much more.
“We should be talking about that,” Odom said. “But we would be remiss, and we would miss the mark, if we didn’t say he was equally a tremendous basketball coach.”
Guthridge was most comfortable in Smith’s shadow. He did just fine on his own.