Guthridge, again, reluctantly takes spotlight
Bill Guthridge walked over to a bookshelf in his office at the Smith Center last week and pulled out a newspaper from Oct. 10, 1997 — the day after Dean Smith resigned and Guthridge took over the North Carolina men’s basketball program.
The picture and article about Smith took up three-fourths of the front page. In the bottom corner was a headshot of Guthridge.
It had been that way for 30 years — Smith front and center, Guthridge to the side. But the longtime assistant never minded. Even in the days before he would finally take over, Guthridge tried to convince Smith to change his mind.
“I wanted him to coach forever and be acknowledged as the best,” Guthridge said. “I’d like right now for Dean Smith to be coaching, except Roy Williams is doing a great job.”
Guthridge’s tenure at UNC is a portrait of loyalty and dedication, without concern for accolades or credit. But there will be no avoiding the spotlight Thursday, when the 75-year-old is inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
“I think his talent and his ability and his contribution to our program is finally being recognized, and I couldn’t be happier for another person,” said Phil Ford, the former UNC All-American who was inducted in 1991.
Guthridge already is a member of the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame — the Kansas native played for Kansas State and spent five years there as an assistant under Tex Winter before heading to Chapel Hill.
When Guthridge retired after the 2000 season, his 960 combined wins as an assistant and head coach were the most in Division I history. He has been a part of 14 Final Fours — one as a player, 11 as an assistant and two in just three seasons when he finally took over the Tar Heels.
“If Coach Guthridge said, ‘Buzz, you run through this tree and try to knock it down,’ I’d do it, because that’s how much I believed in him,” said former Tar Heel Buzz Peterson, who now is the coach at UNC Wilmington.
Guthridge did have opportunities to be a head coach elsewhere. In 1978, he personally was recruited by Joe Paterno to go to Penn State. He was about to get on a flight to Pennsylvania when he decided to go back to Chapel Hill, and it would be the last time he considered leaving.
It meant another 20 years as an assistant, but he doesn’t regret that decision.
“I told Joe Paterno that I was never going to go anyplace else,” Guthridge said. “I was thrilled to be at North Carolina for 33 years and to be able to be retire here, and my family’s enjoyed it.”
But Guthridge’s contentment with being in the background at UNC didn’t mean he wasn’t competitive, or tough.
“Coach Smith very seldom missed practice,” Ford said. “But when he did and Coach Guthridge ran practice, we knew it was going to be a hard, hard practice.”
For 10 years before he finally stepped down, Smith would tell Guthridge to be ready because he was worn out. But it wasn’t until 1997 that he really meant it.
“When he told me he wanted me to be the head coach, it was fine with me but it wasn’t my goal,” Guthridge said. “My goal was for Dean to do whatever he wanted to do.”
Guthridge excelled in the top spot, going 34-4 in his first season and earning national coach of the year honors.
But he also saw why Smith was worn down. In the six weeks after his Final Four appearance, he was only home one or two nights because of clinics and recruiting.
Guthridge made another Final Four in 2000, then joined Smith in retirement. He became the second coach to advance to the national semifinals twice in three seasons, joining Ohio State’s Fred Taylor (1960-61), and his 80 wins tied N.C. State’s Everett Case for the most ever after three years.
“He’s not the type of guy that demands the limelight,” Ford said. “But he worked as hard as anyone at our university, and the people that were close to him and had day-to-day contact with him knew how good he was at his job.”