Before he agreed to become the third UNC head coach in the last four decades, Matt Doherty asked athletic director Dick Baddour for three things:
- He wanted to bring his assistant coaches with him. Doherty had played for Dean Smith and learned the value of loyalty from his Hall of Fame coach. He didn’t want to leave his staff unemployed at a time late in the offseason when it was unlikely they’d be able to find new jobs.
- He wanted a commitment that the administration would stand by him through thick and thin. Looking at the team’s roster and the options available late in the recruiting cycle, he saw an uneven future on the horizon. “I recall telling Dick, ‘Our first year, we will be good. The second year, we won’t, and our third year, we will be rebuilding,’” Doherty said. “I then asked, ‘Are you tough enough to get through that with me?’”
- Working in a building named after Smith, with the legendary coach maintaining an office in the basement, he wanted to know he would be able to run the program as he saw fit.
Baddour assured Doherty that he was on board with all three requests. Over the next three tumultuous years in Chapel Hill, however, all three would be denied to him.
“I think that’s right,” Doherty said. “I was told I could bring my staff, and that was really a sore point. I was told it was my program to run as I saw fit and that was not … that did not come to fruition. And I told them (about the next three years) and all that happened. You know, there’s a lot of politics involved, not just in college basketball jobs, but in all jobs.”
Doherty, who replaced longtime Smith assistant Bill Guthridge, won national coach of the year in his first season, then endured an 8-20 season. After recruiting what would become the core of the 2005 national champions, Doherty was let go following the 2003 season, paving the way for Roy Williams.
Doherty’s new book, “Rebound: From Pain to Passion — Leadership Lessons Learned,” tells the story of those three years in Chapel Hill. Far from being a “my side of the story” tell-all, however, Doherty opens up on mistakes he made and what he could have done differently. It was a lesson that took years of pain and soul searching for him to learn, which is what inspired him to write the book.
“Not a lot of people talk about failure,” he said. “They want to talk about success, but I really wanted to share with people the lessons I’ve learned and maybe help people avoid the landmines I stepped on.”
Now a successful corporate speaker, Doherty’s book is equal parts sports history and a motivational how-to lesson.
It required Doherty to relive the low point of his coaching career, including an emotional moment when a UNC official arrived at his house to take back the university-provided car. As his friend and former co-worker stood by, Doherty removed his personal belongings from the vehicle, then watched as the car drove up the driveway of the house that he would also be giving up soon.
“That’s one of the hardest parts was going back and reliving some of those moments again and again and again,” he said. “There were a lot of triggers, and emotionally, it was hard to do.”
Some of the toughest moments to write about involved his former coach.
“Some of the stories about Coach Smith,” he said, “because he’s so revered and rightfully so. I think a couple of those stories were probably the most challenging.”
Bringing his own assistants meant dismissing Guthridge’s old staff, most of whom were hired by Smith himself. It began a cycle of criticism and second-guessing from fans and insiders that Doherty was never able to escape.
When Doherty was dismissed, he received a call from Smith, who told him, “If you only won 20 games. It is hard to fire a coach with 20 wins.”
“I remember holding the phone away from my face in dismay,” Doherty wrote. “We finished the year with 19 wins, had great young talent and the most powerful man in the state of North Carolina was telling me he couldn’t save me over one win!”
Doherty also wrote of a dinner with Smith and Guthridge early in his tenure at Carolina.
“I remember the pride I felt as we walked to our table,” he wrote. “Here I am as the head coach of UNC, getting ready to dine with the two legends who filled that role before me! We were the only living head coaches.”
As they sat down, Smith looked at Doherty and said, “You know you were our fifth choice, don’t you?”
“That was really kind of a slap in the face,” Doherty said. “I think it was kind of his way of controlling you. It’s like when I was a freshman and wearing my McDonald’s All-American jersey into the gym in summer, and he’d say, ‘That’s a good jersey for your brother to wear.’ It’s his way of keeping you in check. But I was 38 years old, and he’d recruited me to take the job. To say I was fifth choice was hurtful.”
Doherty had the chance to clear the air with Williams, who had hired him as an assistant at Kansas. Due to Smith’s declining health, however, he was never able to do so with his former mentor, and the pain and emotion over that strained relationship provided some of the more poignant moments in the book.
As the Roy Williams era at UNC eventually approaches its conclusion, Doherty’s “Rebound: From Pain to Passion—Leadership Lessons Learned,” serves as a cautionary tale and roadmap to success for the Hall of Famer’s eventual successor.