Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Replacing a Legend Routinely Deflates

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Replacing a Legend Routinely Deflates

Article excerpt

For the most part, it's not a problem agreeing on who is a collegiate coaching legend and who isn't since it's usually obvious.

The real problem is replacing one of these legends. And being the replacement for a legend routinely is a troublesome move at best and career-threatening at worst.

The woods are littered with saplings that envisioned growing into tall timber, but didn't. We're reminded of all this by the North Carolina basketball situation. When Dean Smith retired just before the 1997 season after 36 almost all-starry seasons (NCAA record 879 wins, 11 Final Fours, two national championships), his loyal and able assistant, Bill Guthridge, was quickly given the keys to the palace. No one doubted that Guthridge would water the plants and dutifully tend to routine maintenance.

But no one thought that Guthridge would be the long-term coach. He would be, went insider thinking, a perfectly serviceable journeyman. Then, after a proper period of time, he'd be replaced by Smith's real successor.

Guthridge continued the march, amassing an adequate albeit not spectacular record - by Carolina standards - of 80-28. He did fine. The roof didn't leak and weeds didn't take over the front yard. Thus, the time became perfect to hire Dean Smith's real successor. That's why Guthridge announced his retirement the other day amid speculation the next hoops coach would be Roy Williams, another Smith protg and the successful Kansas coach.

As things go in the legend-replacing business, this one is transpiring relatively smoothly. Of course, smooth is not very good for a place that measures itself by conference and national championships.

The real problem in Chapel Hill - and everywhere else where a legend has to be replaced - is that the new face isn't the old face. It's often not that the next guy doesn't have the skills and talents but more who he isn't. Bill Guthridge's problem was his name wasn't Dean Smith.

In a world that changes too much and too fast, it's good to find stability anywhere. Dean Smith was Mr. Stability with a 1950s gentility about him.

Graduating his players truly was important to Smith; an amazing 97. …

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