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News Behind Rumors: Big, Bigger, Biggest

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

March 10, 2003

CHAPEL HILL — The big news is that the North Carolina basketball team, followed all season by persistent rumors of another wave of player discontent, somehow kept the overwhelming majority of its dirty laundry out of the mainstream media for the last four months. That was, and remains, nothing short of amazing. The bigger news is that numerous sources close to the Carolina program, including parents and ex-coaches of current and former players, shared details of the Tar Heels' internal problems with the ACC Sports Journal in recent weeks and months. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, each painted their version of third-year UNC coach Matt Doherty and his behind-the-scenes handling of the Tar Heels.

The biggest news — whether or not Doherty will be retained, and who will be the driving force behind that decision — is still to come.

All year long, some attempted to spin the persistent water-cooler talk as just a bunch of baseless rumors, just another media-created work of fiction. Hardly. Any UNC fans who bought into those convenient explanations, often personally attacking various mainstream writers for their rather benign articles along the way, have needed a reality check for a long time. Well, it's time.

“There are still people who think this is just a bunch of rumors? Are you kidding me?” one parent of a current UNC player said. “If you believe the (player) quotes and (positive) things you've seen in the paper, you're crazy. Out of respect for the program, out of respect for their teammates, those kids have kept most of this to themselves and their families and close friends. Most (family members) have, too, but this is getting ridiculous.

“I could fill a book — not with what I think or what I heard, but what I saw with my own two eyes, what my son and I have experienced, what other players have said in my presence, what their parents have said. What (Doherty) has said, and how he has repeatedly failed to live up to what he said, time after time after time — his (verbally) abusive behavior toward the players, his failure to live up to his promises over and over again. I don't trust him, and I know (many of the players) don't trust him.

“Things have been terribly wrong between the players and the coaches for (too long) now. What does it say about a coach when even his best players are unhappy? They play 35 minutes a game, eat at five-star restaurants, travel first-class, stay at the nicest hotels, represent a great university with great basketball tradition ... and they're not happy? That's all I keep hearing from my son and the other players: Nobody's happy. They can't stand the coach. How are these kids not happy?

“What my son has been through is unbelievable. It's been hell — absolute hell. It hurts me to say this, because my son and I have great respect for Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge and Phil Ford and everything else Carolina basketball has represented, but we're at the point where we're counting the days until it's over (with Doherty), and that's really, really sad.”

There's more — much more — and, depending on how things unfold during the remainder of the season, a number of parents and ex-coaches may be sharing their eye-opening comments about the state of UNC basketball with the mainstream media.

“I'll tell you the same thing I've told a half-dozen other writers: Call me back after the end of the season,” another parent said. “If things aren't handled properly by then, I'll speak to you on the record, you'll be able to use my name, and I'll tell you everything you want to know. Out of respect for the program, I want to give them one more opportunity to straighten this out behind closed doors.”

Relationship Issues Most Important

Meanwhile, several sources in and around the North Carolina athletic department confirmed the most popular speculation of fans and media in recent weeks: Although Doherty's three years include a late-season collapse (2000-01), the worst season (8-20) in school history (2001-02), the third-longest Big Four losing streak (14) in history and this year's largely disappointing performance, the decision to dismiss or retain the coach will rest largely on a review of his relationships with his players.

On the surface, at least, that doesn't bode well for Doherty. The coach deserves credit for a lot of positive things since his return to his alma mater: an intense, unquestioned work ethic; a polished, professional style of public interaction with fans and media; a youthful charm that connects with many youngsters and parents on the recruiting trail; an impressive ability to identify top talent; and one star-studded (Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants) recruiting class. However, taken as a whole, close personal relationships clearly have not been his strong point.

Even during his one year at Notre Dame, where Doherty got his first head coaching position, the coach alienated several players. One, point guard Martin Inglesby, said the best thing that happened to him during his career with the Fighting Irish came when Kansas coach Roy Williams turned down the UNC job three years ago, ultimately leading to Doherty's hiring in Chapel Hill and Mike Brey's arrival in South Bend. According to sources close to the Notre Dame program, guard Matt Carroll also bristled at Doherty's style. Irish star Troy Murphy generally had very positive things to say about Doherty, although Murphy said the coach's “emotional roller-coaster” often left him exhausted.

Two seasons ago, after Doherty was named national coach of the year in his UNC debut, senior center Brendan Haywood had good things to say about the coach. But star guard Joseph Forte called Doherty “a factor” in his decision to turn pro after his sophomore year, saying he experienced “quite an adjustment” from the more grandfatherly styles of Guthridge and prep coach Morgan Wootten. (Urban legend alert: The “Doh threw a ball at Joseph's head in practice” story never happened.) According to several sources, football players Ronald Curry and Julius Peppers also told friends and teammates that the coach was a key factor in their decisions not to return to the basketball team the following season.

“(Doherty is) a big guy, a loud guy, and some people don't like the idea of a 6-7 coach yelling in your face all the time and calling you this and that,” Forte told the Sports Journal last year. “I try to focus on the positives about it — he helped make me a better player in some ways, and I guess he got me prepared for just about anything another coach might try to do — but that doesn't mean I liked it. I didn't.”

“(Forte and Peppers) had pretty big egos, so maybe they would have clashed with a lot of younger coaches,” one parent said. “Ronald is the nicest, easiest guy in the world, wouldn't say a bad word about anyone, and he told my son: ‘There's no way I'll play for (Doherty) again.' What does that tell you?”

Over the course of the following year, three more players transferred — center Neil Fingleton and guards Adam Boone and Brian Morrison — and at least two others, Jackie Manuel and Jawad Williams, had to be talked into staying. Later, Manuel and Williams publicly stated that they would transfer if things didn't change during the 2002-03 season. Stories still conflict about Morrison's reasons for leaving, but Fingleton told teammates and friends of his intense personality clash with Doherty, and Boone's father described with frustration and disgust the “lack of respect” present in the UNC program under Doherty.

This season, numerous sources confirmed an incident first reported in the ACC Sports Journal months ago, in which former UNC assistant Phil Ford (still a broadcaster and fund-raiser at the university) intervened when players' frustrations reached a point where they were considering a practice walk-out — “it was a cry for help,” one parent said — as a sign of protest against Doherty. Subsequent mainstream newspaper articles touched upon Ford's role as a frequent intermediary between the players and coaches, as well as parents' somewhat critical observations about their sons' experiences at Carolina.

“What you've seen (in the newspapers) is only the tip of the iceberg,” a source close to the team said. “You're probably going to see a lot more (unpleasant articles) in the next few weeks, and even then it's only going to be a small part of the iceberg.”

Parents of team members report serious complaints from almost every scholarship player on this year's team. As of late February, nobody was aware of any transfer ultimatums, although they usually come after a season is over. Sources said May, in particular, was happy with most things at UNC (especially his teammates) but nevertheless is a leading candidate to transfer — possibilities include Indiana, Louisville, Purdue and Texas Tech — unless his father hears what he wants to hear after the season.

Perhaps the strangest aspect of this story is Doherty's view of the universe around him. According to sources close to UNC, the coach is aware of many mistakes he has made over the last three years, and he's aware of many of the people he has affected. But many said they believe he'll be surprised to learn the extent of the unhappiness around him. When the coach made his famous “ask the players” comment to the media earlier this season in an attempt to defend himself, perhaps he wasn't grandstanding. Maybe he truly believes that their uninhibited comments wouldn't be damaging. If that's the case, he may be in for a disappointment.

“All of these kids are going to Phil Ford and Bill Guthridge and Dean Smith to voice their complaints, and that means they're not going to Matt Doherty for some reason,” a parent said. “He knows people are unhappy, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if he's downplaying it or misinterpreting it. His ego is so big that he's changed North Carolina from a family situation to a ‘me' situation. He just doesn't get it.”

Decision Time: Analysis Paralysis?

In late February and early March, several sources close to UNC confirmed that no final decision had been made regarding Doherty's future. At the same time, a source familiar with the process confirmed that attorneys had drawn up buyout papers — with three years remaining on his contract, the coach would be due $510,000 under the terms of the deal — just in case university decision-makers decide to take that road.

Here, again, things are hairy. Chancellor James Moeser is not the most powerful or decisive leader UNC has had, and until recently (when forced to address the Doherty situation) he has had his hands full with non-sports matters. Athletic director Dick Baddour, a UNC lifer whose intentions have never been in question but whose job security now is, also lacks wide-ranging support in the university community and has not proven himself as a strong decision-maker (see Doherty, Carl Torbush, Roy Williams, Larry Brown, Frank Beamer, etc.) in the two revenue sports. Baddour again is under heavy pressure from fans and alumni who see him (fairly or not) mainly as the man who took over a near-perfect (Dean Smith's historic consistency and Mack Brown's 10-win seasons) football-basketball combination in 1997 and has since overseen a number of major disappointments on the field and some embarrassing moments off it.

Smith, the widely loved and respected godfather of Carolina basketball, is in an extremely awkward position. He went on the record with some controversial statements three years ago, saying it was time to look outside the family when Williams, Brown and George Karl didn't work out as Guthridge's replacement, but he (like Ford) has been extremely supportive of Doherty since his hiring. Smith and Doherty said they have met regularly, often discussing tactics and opponents, but Smith specified that they never addressed the hot-button issue of the day: Doherty's relationships with his players. Smith essentially said that, as someone who wasn't in the locker room, he didn't feel comfortable commenting on such matters.

Some interpreted Smith's recent public statements as a huge vote of confidence for Doherty, and some headlines even said as much, but absolutely nobody who knows Smith well went that far with their interpretations. Smith, who's famous for choosing his words as carefully as anyone in ACC history, said little more than this on the subject: He supports the UNC coach (assumedly whomever that might be at any given time) and always will. During a pleasant Q-and-A session, Smith also repeated versions of a specific phrase — “as long as you have your players with you” — that rang true in many ears, and he generally avoided language specifically directed toward Doherty.

According to sources familiar with the situation, Moeser and Baddour went back and forth in late February and early March with their views on the Doherty decision. Apparently, only recently did the administrators hear more detailed versions — from Ford, another key figure who has been working hard to help Doherty, and others — of the complaints behind the scenes. Meanwhile, nobody claimed to know what was going through the mind of Smith, who may be torn between his intense love for Carolina basketball and his famous loyalty to former players.

“(Moeser and Baddour) are paralyzed by this decision right now,” one source said. “It seems like they can talk themselves into firing (Doherty) one day, then talk themselves out of it the next day. (Smith) is the wild card here. If he speaks forcefully, everyone will listen. If he defers, as he often does, anything can happen.”

Almost everyone agrees that Doherty made some positive strides this season, in response to previous criticisms, as he showed improvement in handling his apparently significant anger-management issues. There weren't as many emotional eruptions. There were fewer profanity-laced tirades in practice, at halftime and after games. There were fewer destructive personal confrontations, although he had his battles with McCants in particular. There was less demeaning language and more constructive criticism. According to players, after losses this season, the coach sometimes told them how much he loved them, how much he appreciated their effort. Sometimes, he wept.

Moeser, Baddour and/or Smith are staring right in the eye at what some see as a difficult decision. They have on their hands a young coach who is in only his fourth year as a head coach, his third at UNC. He obviously loves Carolina basketball, and he works extremely hard. He's an alum, a former Smith player, part of the family. In his area of greatest weakness, he has made at least some improvement.

At the same time, Doherty has shown an obvious pattern of alienating players, their parents and even former Carolina players, and he continued to do so to some level this season. Some observers with extensive basketball backgrounds have questioned his coaching ability. Nobody is absolutely certain if key players will transfer or, like last year with Manuel and Williams, somehow be convinced to give it one more try. On the recruiting trail, high school seniors (see David Padgett) and juniors already are mentioning his job security as a reason to look elsewhere. Under Doherty's watch, the second-winningest program in the nation has become the fourth-place program in its own state. If he stays, it undoubtedly will be under a cloud of uncertainty.

Therein lies UNC's Doherty decision.

And that's no rumor.

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