By Dave Glenn, ACC Sports Journal
May 14, 2002 CHAPEL HILL Once upon a time, there was an ACC basketball coach whose players regularly complained about him, sometimes angrily, behind his back. They made fun of his practices, his team rules, even his voice and other physical features. At times, while talking among themselves in private, they questioned some of his basketball tactics. They moaned about playing time, about playing out of position, about not getting enough shots, about being forced to do extra running after practice. Occasionally, they were bold enough to take their most serious grievances to one or more of the assistant coaches, who did their best to serve as helpful liaisons and discourage a mutiny. Almost every single year, more than one player gave significant thought to the idea of transferring.
Meet Dean Smith of North Carolina, one of the best coaches in college basketball history.
Once upon another time, there was another ACC basketball coach whose players regularly complained about him, sometimes angrily, behind his back.
They made fun of his practices, his team rules, even his glasses and other physical features. At times, while talking amongst themselves in private, they questioned whether or not his coaching ability was good enough to give their team a chance to win. They moaned about playing time, about playing out of position, about not getting enough shots, about being forced to do extra running after practice. Occasionally, they were bold enough to take their most serious grievances to one or more of the assistant coaches, who did their best to serve as helpful liaisons and discourage a mutiny. Almost every single year, more than one player gave significant thought to the idea of transferring.
Meet Bob Wade of Maryland, one of the worst coaches in college basketball history.
So what of North Carolina's Matt Doherty? Where exactly does he fit in this wide-ranging spectrum of coaches? When are behind-the-scenes problems mere growing pains, the kinds of every-day things that happen everywhere but rarely make the newspaper, and when are they signs of looming disaster? Does anyone really know?
"The truth is nobody knows (about Doherty) yet," one former coach, a regular advisor to the ACC Sports Journal, said in May. "There are coaches who encountered some resistance early in their careers, didn't change a thing despite everyone telling him to do so, and became extremely successful by sticking to their original plan. There are other coaches who tried to change, didn't have their heart in it, and fell apart. Others changed, embraced the new and better way, and became successful that way. There's no magic formula here, no book to read, no one right way.
"One thing every coach will tell you is this: When you're winning, most of the negatives work themselves out or just go away. The fans and alumni are happy. Your assistants worry more about the team and less about their next job. Your selfish players find it easier to be unselfish because they're winning. It's easier for them to buy into whatever you're selling because you're winning. Maybe the young man who was thinking about transferring starts focusing more on how he can get better and be a bigger part of a successful team. Your athletic director, who's a little bit concerned about A, B and C, makes polite requests instead of impatient demands. You go to work every day and everyone is smiling, because they're spending their time thinking about the good things instead of the bad.
"When you're losing, the opposite can be true. Your mistakes are magnified 1,000 times instead of being forgotten. Your system is questioned, often by people who don't know a thing about basketball. Your future is in doubt, so their future is in doubt. Nobody wants to give you a break, and you're not human if at some point you don't question and evaluate everything you do. I think that's probably where Matt Doherty is right now."
After only three years as a head coach, two at UNC, Doherty certainly has had far more than his share of bumps in the road, and the worst season in school history barely scratches the surface of the matter. He clearly has alienated many of his own players for at least two years running, apparently in a way that goes far beyond the normal coach-player problems. He has been out-coached, sometimes painfully so, by opponents who had equal or lesser talent at their disposal. He even has angered several prominent UNC basketball alumni with some of his off-the-court decisions.
There are members of the Anybody But Carolina crowd who already have nominated Doherty for inclusion in the Bob Wade wing of the ACC Hall of Shame. It's never easy to detect whether they really believe all of the terrible things they say about Doherty, or whether they're simply trying to get as many rises as possible out of protective UNC fans, but they're pretty relentless with their blanket statements.
The ABC mantra, which often goes overboard but nevertheless includes some valid points, goes something like this: Doherty, with only one year of head coaching experience before taking over in Chapel Hill, is simply in over his head in the Xs-and-Os department. Even better, he's also an arrogant, mean-spirited, profane jerk behind closed doors. His players at Notre Dame disliked him, Bill Guthridge's now-departed players disliked him and now even his own players dislike him. Given enough time in Chapel Hill, so will recruits Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May. Even the administration in South Bend was happy to see him leave, and that will be the case in Chapel Hill sometime soon, too. The only reason he's getting some good recruits is because of some combination of Phil Ford, Michael Jordan, Nike and a media-inspired exaggeration of the UNC name. On a particularly nasty day, Doherty also is somehow responsible for Melvin Scott's assault accusation, Makhtar Ndiaye, the Smith Center's operating debt, Rasheed Wallace, the struggling economy, Carl Torbush and global warming.
Those with light-blue glasses offer plenty of counter-arguments, many of them reasonable. If he's such a bad coach, for example, how in the world did he manage to be the national coach of the year just two seasons ago? He won at Notre Dame, no easy task. When he had some quality players at UNC, he went 13-3 in the ACC, sharing first place in the conference. When Joseph Forte and Brendan Haywood departed, and Doherty was forced to utilize a Guthridge-generated roster that resembled something from the Island Of Misfit Toys, the new coach paid the price for having moderately talented players who were a horrible fit for his preferred style of play. Remember, even the great Mike Krzyzewski had a difficult adjustment period at Duke, and his arrogant, profane style makes the guy in Chapel Hill look like Mother Theresa. Doherty is young, energetic and passionate, and he loves UNC. He already has proven to be an excellent recruiter. As he works his own talented signees into the program and can incorporate his desired brand of hoops, he will be extremely successful. Pretty soon, it will be easy to forget about 2001-02.
So, coach, who's right?
"You can forget about the recruiting, and you can forget about the coaching," the former coach said. "Every coach I know says (Doherty) is an outstanding recruiter, and it's hard to get coaches to agree on anything. He actually has some coaches mad is not the right word, but not happy about how much he recruits, how visible he is everywhere. He's like (Florida's) Billy Donovan out there, how hard he works it. Coaches are people, too. They like to golf, have dinner, rub elbows, relax a bit. He seems to be all work all the time (on the recruiting trail), and they don't necessarily want the bar to be raised that high. If I'm a UNC fan, I'm not at all worried about Matt Doherty's ability to get players.
"Everyone I know also says he's a good young coach. He'll get better, as all coaches do with experience. He's made some mistakes, but whoever said he's in over his head was probably not a basketball person, because that's simply not true to anyone who's watching. He's learned from some great coaches, he's a very smart guy, and he knows what he's doing. He teaches his own version of a rock-solid and time-tested system. It wins, and he's won with it. I don't think that's a problem.
"What I've been told by (UNC) people is that his biggest challenge is being more careful with some of his decisions and some of his habits and the effect they have on the people around him. I'm talking about with the players themselves, and away from the court with others. He certainly has alienated some people who matter, and that's never a good thing. From what I've been told, Matt has admitted that he needs to make some important changes, and he's already made a number of changes in these first two years. But I'm not there, so I can't tell you exactly what went wrong or what exactly needs to change."
Indeed, according to numerous Sports Journal sources, the most unavoidable aspect of the Doherty criticism rests with the stories of personal alienation.
Current UNC players, former UNC players and other sources, most of whom requested anonymity for this article, said they believe in Doherty's coaching ability. Repeatedly, they complimented his obvious love for the program, his high energy level, his teaching ability, his passion for winning, even his pleasant personality away from basketball.
"It's not like he's some horrible person he's basically a good guy," former UNC forward Jason Capel said. "He's young, so he could talk to us on our level about a lot of things. He played here, so he understands a lot of things we deal with. Away from the court, away from basketball, he can be a lot of fun."
"No matter who the coach is, there are going to be times when you don't exactly love him," former UNC center Brendan Haywood said. "That's true for all coaches. I love Dean Smith, but I didn't love him every second of every day. The important thing is respect. I respected Coach Smith, I respected Coach Guthridge and I respected Coach Doherty. I still respect all of them.
"Coach Doherty made me a better player, and I think he made us a better team. He helped me preparation-wise and conditioning-wise. Our team was never in better shape than we were my senior year. I have a lot of respect for Coach Doherty. I like him, too."
At the same time, the same sources also were near-unanimous in their conclusion that Doherty needs to change the way he approaches player-coach relationships. In particular, several sources mentioned incidents that occurred at practice, during halftime of games and after games away from the TV cameras, essentially, but still in the heat of battle. In most cases, they declined to offer specific details.
Former UNC guard Joseph Forte, who turned pro as a sophomore in 2001 after only one season under Doherty, even called the coach "a factor" in his decision to leave early for the NBA. The first-team All-American, who missed most of the 2001-02 season with the Boston Celtics and certainly would have helped the Tar Heels had he stayed in school, said the coach's in-your-face style was a difficult change for him.
"Coach Doherty was quite an adjustment from Coach Guthridge," Forte said. "One of the things that attracted me to UNC was the way Coach Guthridge approached coaching and teaching the game, because it was very similar to what I had in high school. All coaches get mad sometimes, but I was used to a certain kind of communication, whether it was in the locker room or at practice or whatever.
"Coach Doherty was a very big adjustment for me. He was a lot more aggressive, like 1,000 times more aggressive. He's 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. 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."
Nobody at UNC was happy when Doherty's promising first season in Chapel Hill swirled down the drain amidst obvious chemistry problems among the coach, Capel and Forte. Concern for the program grew a bit when guard Ronald Curry and forward Julius Peppers, two players who had eligibility remaining and loomed as major factors in the Tar Heels' projected 2001-02 lineup, followed Forte's lead and decided not to return.
"I don't know for sure about Ronald, but I'm absolutely sure that (Doherty) was a factor in Julius' decision not to come back," one former UNC player said. "Julius was one guy who was very obvious about the fact that he didn't like some things about coach's style. Some guys would say (critical) things behind coach's back, but Julius would say it right to his face. I'm sure the NFL draft was the biggest factor in his decision, but I also know that the basketball team wasn't going to get the benefit of the doubt because of what Julius saw the year before. He wasn't going to put up with that again."
Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise, then, when three more team members later decided to transfer out of the program and UNC's student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, broke a story about players' frustration and concern regarding Doherty and his coaching methods.
Most fans' immediate reaction was to lump everything into one tidy pile of bad news, but actually there were two separate stories.
The first was relatively innocuous. The departures of redshirt freshman center Neil Fingleton (left for Holy Cross in December) and sophomore guard Brian Morrison (will leave for UCLA this summer) were run-of-the-mill 21st century transfers that had little or nothing to do with the ongoing Doherty saga.
Fingleton, the 7-5 kid recruited by Guthridge, simply got caught in the coaching transition. Guthridge is one of the best big man coaches in the history of college basketball, and his philosophy called for a continuation of UNC's preference for a balanced offense that offered several quality low-post options. Doherty, who actually recruited Fingleton for Notre Dame, had a much faster pace in mind for the Tar Heels and never would have recruited the slow-footed project to Chapel Hill. Fingleton, in search of playing time, left on good terms.
Morrison, believe it or not, actually became closer to Doherty than most of his teammates and as recently as February spoke about his respect for the coach, his love for the program and his desire to make a big impact in 2002-03. In the end, though, playing style became the biggest factor in his decision. Morrison has more than enough athleticism for any up-tempo approach, and the Tar Heels are expected to pick up the pace next season with more suitable personnel, but it just didn't work out.
"I've had a lot of conversations with Brian through all of this, and I can assure you that this was a difficult decision and a painful one," said Corey Sheppard, Morrison's coach at Lake Washington High School in Washington. "He likes Matt Doherty as a person and respects him as a coach, and he loves the North Carolina program more than anyone can imagine. He's even planning his summer so he can spend as much time in Chapel Hill as possible.
"It just came down to style. I don't think Brian's style is conducive to the way North Carolina plays right now. He's a player who needs to be able to get up and down the floor, to be allowed to get enough time to play through his mistakes, and I don't think he was sure he'd get either of those things next year if he stayed. There are absolutely no hard feelings on either side, though. It's just one of those things that's best for both sides."
The contrast of those stories to that of Boone, and the public comments of Capel and freshman forward Jawad Williams (who said he'd leave if things didn't change), was striking. Capel, a brooding malcontent even on sunny days, was easily dismissed. But Williams was one of Doherty's guys, hand-picked from the prep ranks after assumedly getting to know his future coach in more than a superficial way. And Boone, while a Guthridge recruit and a mediocre talent, seemed the ultimate program player: outstanding student, wonderful kid, hard worker, smart player, etc.
Aside from the intangibles, Boone had more than enough skills (three-point shooting, secondary ball-handler, etc.) to be able to help the depth-shy Heels next season. He was in good academic standing. He certainly wasn't run off, as some suggested, because at least one UNC assistant literally spent days trying to talk him out of leaving.
In the end, according to sources close to Boone, he left because he just didn't like the atmosphere Doherty's coaching style engendered in the program. He left because he didn't like many of the same things mentioned anonymously by others.
"When the (Boone to transfer) articles came out, everyone started saying that Adam couldn't take the yelling and screaming," one source said. "That's completely untrue. That's only the tip of the iceberg. Nobody enjoys being yelled at, but you can take it if it's constructive in some way. Adam and every other player there has been yelled at at some point in his career. That's no big deal. That, in itself, isn't the problem at all.
"(Doherty's) style isn't constructive. Far too often, it's disrespectful and it's demeaning. If you tell me I'm dogging it and throw me out of the gym and make me look bad in front of my teammates, that's fine. You got to send your message, and I got to keep my dignity, even if you made me look bad a little bit.
"But if you question my manhood, and tell me I'm a (expletive), and tell me I should (expletive) myself or why don't you just (expletive) leave for the (expletive) NBA right (expletive) now?' in front of my teammates, then we have a problem. Now your anger at the situation or at something I did is spilling over into anger at me, and that's unacceptable. That's crossing the line. Remember the old saying, Hate the sin but still love the sinner? I think (Doherty) could learn a little something from that."
Perhaps Doherty is learning.
According to several former UNC players, Doherty recently apologized to them for "making mistakes" during his first two seasons as the Tar Heels' head coach. He knew people were upset when he didn't retain Ford, Dave Hanners and Pat Sullivan from the Guthridge staff, but perhaps he didn't completely understand the depth of their feelings at the time. Doherty became aware that many were angered at the departure of popular secretary Angela Lee, but he didn't completely understand at the time. There are dozen of other, smaller examples of unrest within the family. Now this.
"He has a chance to redeem himself, and it would surprise me if he didn't learn something from this adversity," the former coach said. "But the bottom line is the same. If he starts winning big, he'll be OK whether or not he changes, and all of this will be forgotten in time. If he doesn't win, it won't matter if he changes or not. The biggest question for him is whether changing will give him a better chance of winning."
A big question, indeed.