|Tuesday, January 22
Doherty endures as UNC dips to historic lows
By Andy Katz
The hair was already gray, so there is no reason to think losing is having any noticeable effect on Matt Doherty's appearance. He still appears to be fit. He hasn't lost his appetite. Depression hasn't set in, although the pounding North Carolina has received at least over the past three games has been tough to swallow.|
His demeanor during games would suggest post-game tantrums. But there haven't been any, at least not publicly, and according to those close to him, not even privately. He hasn't put his fist through a wall or tried any psychological games like those played by Mike Krzyzewski following Duke's lone loss of the season.
No, Matt Doherty is doing just fine during arguably the most difficult season in North Carolina's stellar history, and easily the toughest in his brief three-year head coaching career.
But, losing simply doesn't happen at North Carolina, at least to this degree. In 91 seasons of basketball on Tobacco Road, only nine seasons have ended with sub-.500 marks. And since the 1961-62 season, when a coach by the name of Dean Smith arrived in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels have had just one losing season. Oddly enough, it came in Smith's rookie season in charge of UNC when the Heels finished 8-9.
In the modern era, the Tar Heels have been to a remarkable 27 consecutive NCAA Tournaments and have had 31 consecutive seasons with 20 or more wins. Those streaks, however, will likely end as the Tar Heels stumble into Wednesday's game against N.C. State with a 5-10 record, 1-4 in the ACC and fresh off a 32-point loss at Connecticut -- the Tar Heels' fifth-straight loss. Earlier this month, North Carolina lost by 22 to Wake Forest and by 33 at Maryland.
"Losing in general is tough," Doherty told ESPN.com in a sitdown interview earlier this week. "The toughest stretch for me was right after Thanksgiving. That's when we lost to Hampton and Davidson (to open the season). The Wake Forest and Maryland games were tough because we didn't throw a counter punch. We just took it. I didn't like that at all. I can deal with a lot of things but I want our guys to fight."
Doherty is trying to carry on UNC's winning ways without the talent -- at least refined talent -- usually found wearing Carolina blue on the court. The reality is the Tar Heels are playing without a true point guard. Adam Boone, Brian Morrison and freshmen Melvin Scott and Jackie Manuel are all wings, who at times, try to help bring the ball up court. Doherty didn't want to convert Scott into a point guard, instead hoping UNC quarterback and last year's point Ronald Curry would come back to the court to guide his young team.
Curry, however, was too spent after a demanding season playing for the Peach Bowl champion Tar Heels, and decided to pass on hoops. Curry, a senior, intends on trying to make a go in some capacity in the NFL, maybe at another position, and made a commitment to football instead of playing with the Tar Heels for a semester. The Tar Heels do have highly-touted point guard Raymond Felton coming in next season, but Curry could have been a bridge until then, possibly keeping the Heels from suffering some of the ugly losses they've endured the past few weeks and figure to face during the ACC's upcoming slate.
The team's emotional leader and best scorer, even if he used to be a third to fifth option, is senior wing Jason Capel. But he's missed two straight games with a concussion and could either be back as early as Wednesday, or be out indefinitely because of the uncertainty with the injury. Senior forward Kris Lang has been constantly banged up and double-teamed in the lane. He missed 15 shots within the shadow of the basket against Connecticut. Freshman forward Jawad Williams has the most promise of any of the newcomers, but is still trying to find his role as a consistent scorer. Everyone else who gets on the floor is strictly a role player in a season unlike any in UNC history.
But, this wasn't supposed to happen, at least this fast. Doherty thought he would have DeSagna Diop, the big man from Oak Hill Academy (Va.) who opted for the NBA draft. When he took the job in the summer of 2000, he thought he would be arriving with another prep star -- Jason Parker. But an eligibility flap cost Carolina a shot at Parker before a correction was found by Kentucky and Wake Forest. Parker ended up at Kentucky and played one season for the Wildcats before his sophomore season was scratched with a torn ACL.
Doherty had an inkling sophomore guard Joseph Forte would bolt for the NBA after last season, a year that saw the Tar Heels win 18 straight games and rise to No. 1 when Curry and defensive lineman/forward Julius Peppers joined the team. Doherty wound up winning AP coach of the year honors before the Heels were shocked by Penn State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"I knew this would be a tough year," Doherty said. "I knew Joe could go and Brendan (Haywood as a senior) would be gone. I didn't know Jason Parker wouldn't be playing for me. That blew up on us. That was tough and then Ronald Curry. He only played one half of one season for us. When he and Julius joined our team last year we were more mature, better defensively and more athletic and rebounded better and controlled the ball better."
Doherty said the Tar Heels miss both players this season as Peppers, like Curry, chose to focus on football. Peppers could be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft and was never really a serious candidate to play basketball.
"But did I know what our record would be right now? No," Doherty said. "We don't have the guy who when times are tough can go get us the big basket or get 30 in a big game. But we've got a good group of guys. We just have to take care of the ball, get good shots and get offensive boards and have defensive balance, sprint back, pick up and contain and contest and box out and do it all over again.
"We haven't done a good job of taking care of the ball and haven't taken good shots," adds Doherty, who turns 40 next month. "You can't set your defense with a bad shot or turnover. Joe could go one-on-one on someone last year. And Brandon could get us an offensive rebound and dunk the ball. This year we have to rely on each other and we need to execute."
Doherty said he doesn't think teams are trying to pound on Carolina this season, just getting in their licks when they can. He said he respects Skip Prosser (Wake Forest) and Gary Williams (Maryland) and doesn't believe they tried to run up the score. He doesn't anticipate that happening when top-ranked Duke plays North Carolina in the first of two meetings Jan. 31.
"They want to beat us, but not embarrass anyone because that can come back and bite you in the tail," Doherty said.
Doherty isn't hiding from any of the criticism or attention, either. The local media who cover Doherty all said he continues to be accessible and that's true nationally, as well. Doherty isn't running from his predecessors, either, trying to lap up all the knowledge and advice he can from Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge on a daily basis. He said he also touches base almost weekly with Kansas' Roy Williams and was delighted when the 76ers coach, and former UNC assistant coach, Larry Brown called him to voice his support. Doherty played for Smith, Guthridge and Williams when they were on the Tar Heels' staff and then coached under Williams at Kansas. He never played for or coached with Brown.
"I have the best resource in the world at my fingertips in Dean Smith," Doherty said. "I'm so lucky to have him to call up because he loves basketball so much. If it weren't for recruiting and stuff, that would take him away from his family, then he would still be coaching today.
"It's a tough situation, but in a weird way this season will make me a better coach. It has taught me a lot about patience and how to nurture young kids and coach them and really teach. That's really good for me and will make me a better coach next year, five years and 10 years from now."
Doherty said the support from the fans the last few weeks has been "unbelievable", with the crowds at the Virginia game giving the Tar Heels a resounding ovation. He said his radio show, which is held in Michael Jordan's "23" restaurant in front of a group of UNC faithful, isn't filled with complaints. In fact, he said he still gets standing ovations. He simply doesn't read the negative Internet comments.
"No offense to these programs, but when you lose at home to Hampton and my good friend Bob McKillop at Davidson (Doherty worked for him) then you wonder, 'Oh my God, how are the fans going to react.' But it has been unbelievable," Doherty said. "Maybe the fans realize that we need them more now than when Carolina was 30-2 and going to the Final Four."
Doherty talked to ESPN.com over the summer about the covert criticism he received from other coaches who thought he was too aggressive in his recruiting. He took some criticism within Carolina for not keeping any of the longtime Carolina assistants, but was praised in the coaching circles for keeping his Notre Dame assistants employed when he left the Irish after one season and took the job that Williams turned down at Doherty's alma mater.
But he might be changing his mind on one veteran Carolina assistant, Phil Ford, at least whenever he has an opening. Doherty is looking for a bridge to the past and bringing back Ford to the bench could be an option. Ford, who is an associate vice president in North Carolina's Educational Foundation, is still close to the program.
"His support has been unbelievable," Doherty said. "If something happened on my staff, and one of my guys got a head coaching job, then Phil would be the first guy I would call. He's one of the most popular players ever to play at North Carolina, he loves the school, he's a caring person and he's a great coach. I got to see a side of Phil recently that I didn't know. I didn't know him on a personal basis and now I see him on a daily basis and he's a class act."
Regardless of whether Ford makes an appearance on the bench in the near future, Doherty does need to get back to players of Ford's caliber. He should have one coming in next season with the 6-foot-1 playmaker Felton (Latta, S.C.), although there will be immense pressure on him to be a savior. Wing 6-4 Rashad McCants (New Hampton Prep, N.H.) and 6-9 forward Sean May (Bloomington North, Ind.) could end up bringing instant credibility to the offense if they meet expectations (late frontcourt pickups 7-1 Damion Grant of Brewster Academy, N.H., and 6-9 Byron Sanders of Gulfport, Miss., are expected to be role players).
But all of them will still be freshmen meaning, "we're going to be very young next year with eight freshmen and sophomores," Doherty said.
Doherty said he isn't fretting about the program's streaks of success ending. If they do, he simply says he'll start his own and get the program back to the elite level. But he's not naive into thinking he won't be under scrutiny, in what he terms the highest-profile job in the sport, similar to being the Notre Dame football coach.
"Year and year out it's the most visible coaching position in the country," Doherty said. "I knew that when I took the job. No one held a gun to my head and said you have to take this job. I took it because it's the best job in all of basketball. I'm going to be excited about getting it back to be where it's expected to be."
But the pressures and the criticism this season have taken a toll on his family. He said his father called once and got very emotional on the phone. He said they read criticisms on the Internet, but Doherty assured his family he wasn't struggling with the job.
"This is an easy year to put things in perspective with what happened on September 11," Doherty said. "I lost two buddies in the World Trade Center: Andrew King and Tim O'Brien. There are constant reminders to put things in perspective. You can drive down the street and see a homeless person begging at a traffic light. So I've got it pretty darn good.
"My wife asked me just the other night, 'So how are you doing, seriously. Are you OK?' I said, 'I'm doing fine.' That doesn't mean I'm accepting losing," Doherty adds. "But I believe I'm handling this pretty well. I was depressed after we lost the Maryland game. I thought we didn't fight back. The biggest thing with me is toughness and that you've got to bring it every day. If you bring that passion and toughness and lose then I can live with that."
What's good enough for Doherty from his players is what he brings to North Carolina. But Doherty's stamina to survive six more weeks of what could be the program's worst losing season will be tested. So too will the state's incredibly loyal fan base.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.