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So long to the ‘Perfect Sidekick’

There was a transition worth noting this week: former North Carolina basketball coach Bill Guthridge passed away.  He had been in ill health for some time.

As I remember him, one word springs to mind: loyalty.

“Coach Gut”, as the players and Carolina family liked to call him, spent 33 years with the Tar Heel basketball program; 30 of those years as an assistant to Dean Smith, and three more as Smith successor.  That’s loyalty.

In three years, a man known as the “Invisible Assistant” won an ACC championship, amassed a record of 80-and-24, and took two different teams to the Final Four. Twice in three years.  Think about that one a while.

I was in Wilmington at the end of the seventies when Guthridge came to E.A. Laney High School to see a then-unpolished, but somehow brilliant, athletically gifted kid named Jordan play basketball.   Not many people knew about that kid, but Guthridge’s dogged pursuit of him landed a player in Tar Heel blue that had been a lifelong N.C. State and David Thompson fan. So much so that many folks probably don’t know that it was Thompson who introduced Jordan at the latter’s Hall-of-Fame induction back in 2010. Hmmm, that’s loyalty.

One of my favorite Guthridge stories is when Jordan recalled about the days after the Heels won the 1982 national championship and returned to Chapel Hill.  The team figured that since they’d succeeded in a monumental accomplishment, they’d “chill out” as only champions could.  Instead, on the Wednesday morning following the game, there was Guthridge banging on dorm room doors, shouting out, “Time to go to class!” That’s loyalty.

“He said it’s great to be a champion, but you’ve still got to go to class,” player Jimmy Black said years later. “That accentuates who he was.”

Awash in so much success, Guthridge had opportunities to go elsewhere and become a head coach before landing the UNC job. In 1988, the late Joe Paterno put on a massive recruiting effort to try to get Guthridge to go up to Penn State and lead the Nittany Lions’ basketball team. Guthridge left the Heels’ after the NCAA Regionals loss to Arizona and boarded a plane to Pennsylvania. In Chicago for a layover he changed his ticket to return to Raleigh-Durham. He never made it to State College, but went back to Chapel Hill and asked Smith if he could have his old job back.  Ten years later he would get his chance to sit at the first seat on the bench. That’s loyalty.

“Basically he stayed because he was enjoying what he was doing,” current UNC coach Roy Williams said this week. “Why leave something you know is good for the unknown?”

Williams himself had to make such a call in ’97 when Smith stepped down, and Williams opted to remain at Kansas.  Yep, that’s loyalty.

Kansas was where Smith and Guthridge cut their coaching teeth; Smith at K.U. and Guthridge at KansasState. Guthridge began as a K-State assistant in 1962 and five years later, Smith called him to Chapel Hill as a shooting coach.

“He understood that you could be important without being the main focus of an institution,” former player Shammond Williams told the Durham Herald-Sun. “He sacrificed himself for that.”

Williams was co-captain of Guthridge’s first Carolina team back in 1998. I think that says something about loyalty, too.

There’s a strange irony that Guthridge passed away just a scant three months after Smith.  More than an irony, maybe it says something about the bond the two forged, both in life and beyond.

They say it takes a tall person to walk in someone else’s shadow.  I think it takes a taller person to walk beside them.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer with Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.