Bill Guthridge, who made his college basketball reputation as Dean Smith’s trusted right-hand man — then took Carolina to two Final Fours in three years as head coach after his mentor retired — has died after a long illness. He was 77.
Guthridge was the consensus National Coach of the Year in 1998. He won more games than any college head coach in history after just two seasons and tied N.C. State’s Everett Case for most coaching victories after three years. He played or coached in 14 Final Fours, more than any person in NCAA history. That includes two as a head coach at Carolina, 10 as a Tar Heel assistant coach and one each as a player and assistant coach at his alma mater, Kansas State.
“Bill Guthridge was a gentleman coach, but a fierce competitor, and an incredibly loyal member of Dean Smith’s staff for three decades,” said UNC Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham. “When it was his turn as head coach, he immediately won an ACC championship and took two teams to the Final Four. His loss is deeply felt by our university and the basketball world. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.”
Guthridge was Smith’s assistant for 30 years. He joined the UNC staff in 1967 after five years as assistant to Tex Winter at Kansas State. In his 33 seasons at Carolina, the Tar Heels won two NCAA championships, in 1982 and 1993; played in 12 Final Fours; won the ACC Tournament championship 13 times; and played in the ACC Tournament championship game a total of 22 times. The Tar Heels finished first or tied for first in the ACC regular season 16 times, finished second or tied for second in the ACC regular season 11 times and finished third or tied for third in the ACC regular season six times.
He was a part of 867 wins in 33 seasons at Carolina and 960 college coaching victories overall, including 93 wins on the staff at Kansas State. He was on the sidelines for a record 73 NCAA Tournament victories, including 71 at Carolina and two at Kansas State.
The Parsons, Kan., native posted an 80-28 record in three seasons as Carolina’s head coach, leading the 1998 and 2000 teams to the Final Four. He joined Ohio State’s Fred Taylor as just the second man in history to lead teams to two Final Fours in his first three seasons as a head coach. He was named National Coach of the Year in 1997-98 by the National Association of Basketball Coaches, the Atlanta Tipoff Club (Naismith Award), CBS/Chevrolet, the Columbus (Ohio) Touchdown Club and The Sporting News. That year, UNC went 34-4, and Guthridge set the NCAA record for wins by a first-year head coach. He directed UNC to the 1998 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship and was named the ACC Coach of the Year.
He was inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.
He coached 1997-98 National Player of the Year Antawn Jamison ’99 and 1998-99 NBA Rookie of the Year Vince Carter ’99, both of whom entered the NBA draft after their junior seasons. In his tenure at UNC, Guthridge coached five National Players of the Year, six ACC Players of the Year, five ACC Rookies of the Year and 28 first-team All-ACC players. He also coached 66 players who were selected in the NBA and/or ABA drafts.
Guthridge was an assistant coach along with Hall of Famer John Thompson under Smith in 1976 when the U.S. won the Olympic gold medal in Montreal.
Guthridge had ample opportunities to leave Chapel Hill and become the head coach of his own program. He once told a newspaper he never left the program because the other 300 Division I head coaching jobs weren’t better than his job as an assistant.
He spurned offers to interview for head coaching vacancies, preferring to remain out of the spotlight and continuing to team with Smith. Once, in 1978, he did nearly take the head coaching job at Penn State but he changed his mind at the airport and never thought about leaving Chapel Hill again.
Guthridge also gave to the University away from basketball. In 1993, he and his wife, Leesie, created the William W. and Elise P. Guthridge Library Fund, which helped with purchasing materials and renovation of the House Undergraduate Library. In 1998, the Bill Guthridge Distinguished Professorship in mathematics was established.
For 30 of his 33 years at Carolina, Guthridge was the behind-the-scenes guy — scouting opponents, making sure players got to class on time, disciplining players, getting the players on the bus or airplane and into the hotel, working with office staff on the smallest of details, and recruiting — the latter, unlike many coaches, he said he enjoyed immensely.
Guthridge did it all with a dry wit and style.
He was known to answer a question such as “Coach, do you know what time it is?” with a “Yes” as he walked away. Once he asked a manager, whose arms were full of equipment, if he had change for a quarter. The manager put down his stuff and rifled through his pockets. Guthridge didn’t need the change, just wanted to know if he had it.
“Coach Guthridge is the best I have ever seen in selecting potential in high school players,” Smith once said, according to the team’s website. “He has a keen sense of which ones will be very good players and which ones may be overrated. He has saved many scholarships when he has suggested backing off certain players, and of course, has selected some great ones who matriculated at Chapel Hill.”