Scott Fowler

Longtime UNC coach Bill Guthridge will be remembered for loyalty, decency

Bill Guthridge (right), for 30 years the top assistant to former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, died Tuesday night. He was 77.
Bill Guthridge (right), for 30 years the top assistant to former North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, died Tuesday night. He was 77. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

As always, Bill Guthridge has followed Dean Smith.

Guthridge, the beloved former assistant coach to Smith for 30 years at North Carolina, died Tuesday night surrounded by his family. He was 77.

Rarely has one man ever been more loyal to another than Guthridge was to Smith. He was Smith's closest friend and right-hand man for three decades on the UNC bench, turning down multiple chances to go run his own program elsewhere. Guthridge then followed Smith as UNC's head coach from 1998 to 2000, directing the team to two Final Fours in his three seasons.

Now, this good and gentle man has followed Smith in death. Smith died on Feb. 7. Guthridge, whose health and memory had both declined significantly over the past year, died a little more than three months later.

“I loved my jobs at Carolina,” Guthridge told me once, “both as an assistant and as a head coach. There were several reasons why, and a big one was Dean Smith. But mainly the people I associated with – the secretaries, the managers, the players – it was just something where you looked forward to going to work every day.”

Guthridge was honest, patient and approachable. Players often felt more comfortable going to him than directly to Smith when they had a problem. He was sometimes known inside the UNC athletic offices as “Uncle Bill,” with his quirky sense of humor and a love of his university and all that it encompassed. Many others knew him as “Coach Gut.”

Said Antawn Jamison, the Charlottean who was the consensus national player of the year in 1998 under Guthridge, in a statement Wednesday: “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.... He'll be much more remembered for his sense of humor and class just as much as his coaching.”

Guthridge was one of the least egocentric coaches you have ever met. Once, when complimented on his tie, he turned it around to see the brand name and then proclaimed in a terrible French accent: “Thank you! It's a J.C. Penn-ay!”

A dedicated jogger for much of his time at UNC, Guthridge often ran at 6 a.m. to start his day. If a player had gotten in some sort of trouble, he sometimes was ordered to meet Guthridge outside Carmichael Auditorium and go on a fast 3-mile jog with the coach while most of the rest of campus was asleep.

“Once they did it with me once,” Guthridge chuckled once, “they really didn't want to ever do it again.”

Guthridge's gentle manner did not mask his basketball acumen. When he retired, he had participated in 14 NCAA Final Fours as a player or coach, more than any other man in history. He played in one Final Four at Kansas State, his alma mater; was an assistant coach in 11 (one at Kansas State, then 10 at UNC) and then was a head coach for his final two (at UNC in 1998 and 2000). He was 80-28 in three seasons as UNC’s head coach before retiring in June 2000.

“I really thought even at the 2000 Final Four there that I’d probably coach until I was 70,” Guthridge told me once. “But for the next six weeks, I was only home two nights, and like Dean I kind of hit the wall.”

Smith and Guthridge were linked for decades. Both native Kansans, Smith once briefly dated Guthridge's sister. Smith hired Guthridge in 1967 to be an assistant coach, and Guthridge never left Chapel Hill. In 1978, he accepted the head coaching job at Penn State, then changed his mind while flying to Pennsylvania to be introduced at a news conference. During a layover in Chicago, Guthridge changed his ticket and went home.

It was Guthridge who had the first official UNC contact with Michael Jordan. As he recalled in one of our interviews: “A friend of mine called me from Wilmington and said there’s a good player at Laney you ought to come down and look at. That was the first time we’d heard of him.”

Guthridge went down and came away impressed with Jordan's raw athleticism. “I went to Coach Smith and said we ought to offer him a scholarship,” he said. “I said he was an ACC player, but I don’t know how good he’s going to be. Then he was just a good athlete.... Anyone who said for sure Michael was going to be a great, great player then – or even after his freshman year at UNC – would be wrong or lying.”

Guthridge retired from coaching at age 62, but he kept a small office near Smith's for years in the Smith Center. He will be missed by several generations of Tar Heels for his basketball successes and his sense of humor, but mostly for his unerring sense of decency.

Everyone's favorite uncle is gone. But somewhere up in heaven, Guthridge and Smith are having themselves quite a reunion.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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