In the seminal moments of UNC athletics, where do you place June 30,2000?
Not ringing a bell, you say? It was only the date of the most cataclysmic shift in Tar Heel sports in the modern era - the day Bill Guthridge retired as UNC basketball coach. Who could realize at the time the depths - and heights - and depths again that would follow that fateful day and would define a decade for one of the nation's premier basketball programs?
The timing is of particular significance for me because I was on a family vacation in Europe when the news broke and spent large amounts of time during the remainder of my time overseas trying to get information about where the UNC basketball program would turn for its next leader.
The date is actually far more significant than the one three years earlier when Dean Smith, then college basketball's all-time winningest coach, announced his retirement immediately before the beginning of the 1997-98 season. Smith, in his typical way, had timed his departure and made arrangements so that Guthridge, his long-time second-in-command, would assume the reins in a transitional period. Guthridge coached the team for three years and led the Tar Heels to two Final Fours before abruptly stepping aside in the summer of 2000.
What has happened since is well-known and has been well-documented: Roy Williams decided to stay in Kansas to the delight of thousands who gathered in the football stadium to cheer his return; ultimately, UNC athletic director Dick Baddour offered the job to Carolina alum and former Roy Williams assistant Matt Doherty, who had exactly one year of college head coaching experience at Notre Dame; Doherty won quickly his first season, but despite recruiting well, eventually ran the UNC program onto the rocks, leading to a second plea to Roy Williams to come back and assume his rightful place at the head of the UNC basketball dynasty. And, since Williams' return, the Heels have had the glory of two national titles and the ignominy of an ill-fated 100th season.
What happened before June 30,2000 is something that it not as nearly explored, although Roy Williams gives it some attention in his book, Hard Work. Williams states that for a number of years immediately preceding and following Smith's retirement, the subject of Williams returning to Chapel Hill was broached, but the job was never open. Eventually, Williams tired of this "so are you ready to come back" talk that never became anything more, so he says he told Coach Smith not to bring it up anymore until they were ready to actually make a move, so it was not mentioned again.
Meanwhile, Williams notes that he never thought Guthridge was going to coach more than one year and was surprised when he came back for a second year, and a third. One can read between the lines that Roy was getting a little tired of being set up to return only to have Guthridge not step aside. Finally, according to Williams' book, he had no knowledge that Guthridge was actually going to retire, saying his wife saw it on TV.
It is generally assumed that if Roy Williams comes to UNC in 2000, there is no 8-20 season and no drop-off in the program. But no one ever thought the program would plummet the way it did in 2010, either. It makes for an interesting parlor game to speculate if Roy had come in 2000 - or, as he hints in his book, in 1998 or 1999 when he was really expecting Gut to retire and was expecting to return to Chapel Hill.
There is an old Vulcan proverb that says "Only Nixon could go to China," so it follows that maybe it took the Doherty disaster to truly bring Williams home. He says in typical fashion in his book that the golf course conversations with Coach Smith regarding his return to Carolina prior to 2000, that he asked Smith and Gut, "What will I tell my players?" and that the question was never sufficiently answered. The second time around, with the North Carolina program in trouble, Williams could not refuse again.
Hard to believe that 10 years ago the UNC program was coming off a national title and six Final Fours in ten years and that the next ten years would bring a losing season, two NIT bids, three Final Fours, and two national championships. And the roller coaster ride that was the 2000s began ten years ago today, June 30, 2000.