March 24, 2003
CHAPEL HILL In late March, with the North Carolina basketball team still alive in the NIT, Carolina administrators and fans generally fell into one of three categories on the topic of embattled third-year coach Matt Doherty. The first group was led by UNC athletic director Dick Baddour, the man who hired Doherty in 2000 and a man whose future as the AD in Chapel Hill appears intimately tied to the coach's survival. Members of this group understand the serious tensions that remain between the coach and many of his players and their families, and they realize that the 2002-03 season represents the third year in a row or the fourth, counting Doherty's one year at Notre Dame that behind-the-scenes problems have disrupted his program. They often emphasize that, even according to most players and some parents, the coach has improved his handling of these personal relationships to some degree.
(Administrators) know they have some very serious issues to work through here, one source close to the athletic department said. There has been more communication (among UNC officials) on these issues (in March) alone than there was in the last three years. Even the people who were angry (to learn of the continued problems) everyone realized there were some problems, but some were surprised by the severity of the problems agreed that (the recent controversy) was a good thing. Now that everything is on the table, people can make educated decisions rather than uninformed decisions. In most cases, that's a good thing.
This first group believes other factors demand that Doherty be retained for at least one more season, despite the obvious problems. They see a beloved alum whose public persona young (41), handsome, polished, professional, funny, articulate, friendly is a perfect fit for Carolina basketball. They see an extremely hard-working and well-intentioned former player who, as a fourth-year head coach, should be permitted some significant growing pains. They see the obvious improvement on the court, from a program-worst 8-20 disaster last season to a possible 20-win campaign this year. (UNC was 18-15 at press time, with the possibility of four more victories in the NIT.) They see a youthful roster devoid of top-flight talent in the junior and senior classes, and they see lots of big-time players (Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants, Jawad Williams) who signed with the Tar Heels under Doherty's watch. At the very least, this group thinks the coach should have at least one season with a roster made up entirely of his own signees, and the first time that can happen is next year.
The second group disagrees, and a handful of prominent boosters are particularly extreme (privately, so far) in their vehement criticism of the current state of Carolina hoops. Some in this camp have harsh observations about Doherty from a purely basketball standpoint, but most are primarily concerned about what they see as the persistent unhappiness of the players. They point to the necessity of constant involvement from former UNC player/assistant and current university fundraiser Phil Ford, who has counseled numerous players again this season and even helped talk at least one out of quitting the team earlier this year. Ford also has been in regular damage-control conversations with Scott May, Sean's father, who is known to have reservations about Sean continuing his career under Doherty. Several college coaches confirmed being contacted about a possible May transfer.
I think what a lot of fans are missing is that NCAA rules (requiring a one-year period of ineligibility for transfers to other Division I schools) discourage a lot of unhappy kids from leaving, one former UNC player said. There have been a lot of transfers, but fans shouldn't think that just because a guy stays that he's happy. (Williams and Jackie Manuel) even admitted they were extremely unhappy last year, but they decided to stay anyway. That (2000-01) team was the most unhappy winning team I've ever seen how can you be unhappy when you're winning 18 in a row? but most of those guys stayed. There are a lot of unhappy kids on this year's team, but that doesn't mean they'll leave.
That's the saddest part of this. There's a whole generation of Carolina basketball players who wake up every day knowing that what they experienced was one of the greatest, most positive things in their entire lives not just the basketball, the whole thing. We had some bad days, but lots and lots of great days, with our coaches, our teammates, other students, Franklin Street, everything. For me, the relationship with the coaches was one of the best parts. I don't think these kids can say the same thing.
If, as a coach, one of the best things you have going for you (in your relationship with your players) is the NCAA transfer rule, you have some serious problems on your hands. Every coach has some problems with some players, but this is ridiculous. These kids should want to stay because of their coach, not despite their coach. Playing at Carolina is something you should look forward to, not something you try to survive.
The third group consisted almost entirely of (understandably) out-of-the-loop fans and boosters, because every single UNC administrator, coach, ex-coach and player knew better by March, even those who previously were in the dark or in denial. This third group defied all logic and numerous published reports all involving critical quotes, some anonymous, from angry or unhappy parents and continued to insist that the entire Doherty controversy was some kind of media-generated conspiracy. These folks clung tightly to the generally positive or evasive comments of the UNC players and coaches this season, in the apparent (and historically ridiculous) belief that players and coaches are more than happy to share controversial behind-the-scenes details with the general public during the season. This group will be in an absolute state of shock from both the severity of the remarks and the sources of them if the many unpublished anti-Doherty comments offered by Carolina players, parents, ex-players and ex-coaches reach the public forum.
We aired our dirty laundry once before (last summer), and that didn't work out too well, Williams said in February. We're just trying to think about basketball. That's what we love to do, and that's what we're focusing on right now.
(The players) consider ourselves a family, and we like to keep things in the family, senior guard Jonathan Holmes said earlier this season. During the season, everything we do is about the team, and it doesn't help the team to create distractions.
Moeser Steps Under Microscope
This third group of Carolina fans generally held the same naÔve beliefs in 2001 and 2002, often viciously attacking media members and fans who dared to suggest that Doherty's first two UNC teams also had significant problems behind the scenes. In the end, of course, those in-season whispers proved absolutely true, although it was only after those seasons that multiple players (Jason Capel, Joseph Forte, Manuel, Williams) and parents (of Adam Boone, Williams) publicly confirmed what had been denied by some of those same individuals all season long. Several other former UNC players, including Ronald Curry, Neil Fingleton and Julius Peppers, also have told friends that Doherty was a significant factor in their decisions to leave the team with eligibility remaining.
(Doherty) drove those kids insane last year, Gail Hillman-Williams, Jawad's mother, told the Wilmington (N.C.) Star in March. He drove them nuts.
If I can't say anything good about a person, I won't say anything at all, one anonymous parent told WRAL-TV of Raleigh in March. I'm not saying anything about Matt Doherty.
What my son has been through has been unbelievable, one parent told the ACC Sports Journal in March. 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.
In the WRAL story, one long-time booster called this year's situation a crisis, and a former player said he'd be shocked if every UNC underclassman returned next season. Another former player suggested as many as three or four players might transfer. In their public comments this season, the Carolina players routinely have denied transfer plans.
At this point, more than a dozen parents have been contacted by various media outlets, including the ACC Sports Journal, and only one has been quoted with specific, on-the-record comments about the positive nature of the relationship between the player (freshman forward David Noel) and Doherty. Numerous media sources said there has been absolutely no attempt to withhold pro-Doherty information on this matter, and that every parent who has been willing to address the issue has admitted that significant player-coach tensions remain at UNC.
Just as public reports of the UNC turmoil gained momentum, so did the pressure mounting on UNC chancellor James Moeser. With Baddour firmly entrenched in Doherty's camp and apparently unwilling to budge, many influential Carolina supporters and at least one key player's father went directly to Moeser with their complaints immediately before and after the ACC Tournament. Other players' parents also spoke of hoping to meet or speak directly with the chancellor.
Moeser, who arrived at Carolina in August 2000, ideally prefers to defer to his AD as much as possible on most sports matters but certainly is well-educated on the world of big-time athletics. He arrived at UNC after serving as the chancellor at football powerhouse Nebraska for four years, and he holds degrees from college superpowers Texas (undergraduate, master's) and Michigan (doctorate). Prior to his stint at Nebraska, he served as a professor and/or administrator at Kansas, Penn State and South Carolina.
Just two months ago, Moeser was effusive with his praise for Baddour, the AD at UNC since June 1997. Since then, the chancellor has been bombarded with extremely strong opinions (pro and con) about Doherty, and Moeser may have wondered why problems in the basketball program were reaching his office for the third year in a row, or why Baddour seems to have such a one-sided view of the situation, or why some recent media reports came as a surprise to so many important people at Carolina. Generally speaking, influential people don't like surprises, especially those of a negative nature.
Meanwhile, contrary to persistent rumors, no decision had been made on Doherty's future as the Tar Heels' season continued. Internet reports that insisted upon some sort of done deal, in which the coach was either retained or bought out in a big meeting prior to the ACC Tournament, ultimately proved false. Baddour was quoted before, during and after the tournament in support of Doherty, and several sources close to the program confirmed that no decision will be made until after the season.
In the most recent events during UNC's own version of March Madness, Moeser asked at least one parent to delay a decision on his son's future until after the season and reassured the parent that the chancellor had the situation under control. Ford and Dean Smith still out of the spotlight, and still nobody claims to know what he's thinking again met with Scott May, as did Doherty on a separate occasion. All must have been interesting conversations, but nobody was talking publicly in the immediate aftermath.