long CBS SportsLine piece on Doherty
long CBS SportsLine piece on Doherty
"I remember doing a lot of research and reading up on him, and one interesting thing I read is that one coach in the ACC said that had Sean May not broken his foot, Coach Doherty would probably still be at North Carolina," Killen said. "It's interesting that things happened the way they did."
You miss a flight, end up in an airport bar and meet your future wife. You run to the store to get a gallon of milk, somebody blows through a red light and you're paralyzed forever. It's all completely random and unpredictable, and often you have absolutely no control over the best and worst things that happen to yourself, the best and worst things that shape your direction, legacy and place in this world.
Some folks are lucky.
Simplified, that's how it breaks down. And who could possibly understand this better in college basketball today than one Matt Doherty, the man who recruited national championship talent to North Carolina only to watch Roy Williams coach it to a national championship?
After suffering through an 8-20 second season that was at least in part a result of the previous staff's lack of recruiting, Doherty had the Tar Heels off to a 7-2 start – featuring victories over Kansas and Stanford – in 2002-03. But in the 10th game, May broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot, which limited the big-bodied center to just one more appearance during his freshman season and forced North Carolina to manage through the ACC without its primary inside presence.
The result was a 19-12 finish, a trip to the NIT. And while Doherty had the Tar Heels ranked No. 1 in the nation just two years earlier and clearly had the talent in place to return to such a level going forward, the administration opted to move him, bidding adieu to the 2001 Associated Press National Coach of the Year in favor of the guy they really wanted all along.
Broken contract, bought out and thrown away.
"The Man upstairs drives this train," Doherty said. "If Sean May doesn't break his foot, yeah, I'm probably still at North Carolina. But he did."
In fairness, many argue there was more to Doherty's ouster at North Carolina than the broken foot and subsequent win-loss record. He reportedly had strained relationships with certain people, including multiple players, and some contend that stuff played as large a role in his forced resignation as anything else.
And maybe it did. But it's reasonable to assume that had May stayed healthy and North Carolina stayed the course and advanced to the Sweet 16 with a group of talented freshmen, any soured relationship could've been overcome, right? I mean, in sports, winning trumps everything. That's why Bob Knight's difficult persona is tolerated, why Charlie Weis will forever stay employed despite his reputation as a control freak. So long as you meet expectations on the court or field, pretty much everything else is passable. It's when you go to NITs that yelling too much and bucking tradition become fireable offenses.
Bottom line – and for whatever reason – Doherty went from one of the premier jobs in America to Florida Atlantic, and in musical terms that's like selling out Madison Square Garden one night and playing a casino in Indiana the next. Now – after one year in Boca Raton – the native New Yorker finds himself in Conference USA, a league where big name coaches come to rejuvenate careers, specifically guys like Larry Eustachy (Southern Miss), Mike Davis (UAB) and Tom Penders (Houston).
"Expectations are high because of Coach Doherty, because of the name Coach Doherty," said SMU senior Ike Ofoegbu. "We're all excited because we're getting a chance to learn from the best."
Late Friday night, the SMU players convened in a gym just off campus, spent two hours learning from the best. Mostly, it was all about defense, about dealing with high screens, just fundamental stuff Doherty is forced to teach a group that to a man admits it needs teaching and seems to yearn for exactly that.
When he said pass, they passed.
When he said sprint, they sprinted.
And though Doherty's reputation at North Carolina was of a coach who yelled and yelled and yelled until his players ultimately turned on him, it's worth noting that any and all frustration on this night was channeled through a calm voice, including the time point guard Dez Willingham led a transition opportunity, then pulled up in traffic for a 22-foot jumper.
It went in.
But it was wrong.
"Good shot, Dez," said one teammate. Then Doherty interrupted.
"I don't know if that's a good shot," he said. "It was a contested 3-pointer. You made it. But I think the other coach is happy you took that shot."
Seconds later, Doherty blew his whistle and continued the drill. It was all harmonious, and a sign that this coach is not the same coach who – and he'll tell you this himself – was probably handed too much too soon when he landed the North Carolina job after just one year as a head coach, a 22-15 season at Notre Dame.
"As a coach, I'm 50 times better now than I was then," Doherty said. "I'm more experienced, and experience is something I didn't place a great deal of value in when I got to North Carolina. I thought, 'Hey, I've coached, I've been around the game. I've played it. I know.' But there's so much more to it than just X's and O's. Basketball is the easy part. It's more of the leadership side that's hard. There's the science of coaching, which is the X's and O's, and then there's the art of coaching. And the art of coaching, you get better at with experience. And I'm 50 times better at that now."
It's doubtful Doherty will ever land a job as high-profile as the one he landed six years ago, if only because those jobs are limited to a select few, and there are Hall of Famers who never entertain such offers. But on the flip side, it might be a blessing that Doherty will never land a job as high-profile as the one he landed six years ago. As crazy as that sounds, it's true.
At North Carolina, everything is scrutinized, from recruiting decisions to the type of coat worn on the sideline. If you're the coach there and you visit a prospect in California, it's a legitimate news story in the state. At SMU, Doherty already has three commitments for the Class of 2007, and unless you're on his staff, you probably don't know their names.
In other words, this situation is more relaxing, might just make for a better life. Granted, the ceiling is lower at SMU. But there's not a trap door below, and sometimes that's a nice tradeoff.
"If I had that situation at North Carolina again now, I'd be better at managing it," Doherty said. "It's a hard nut to crack anyway, but having been a head coach for only one year made it very difficult. But now I delegate better and define roles better on staff. And now I understand that I need some breaks mentally, and I don't feel as guilty about taking those breaks."
For example, Doherty spent much of last week on the road and had 4 a.m. wakeup calls three different times. Friday, he flew back to Dallas, arrived in the morning and … went home and went to sleep.
No big deal, you say?
But it should be viewed as an indication that Doherty now understands his limitations, understands how to manage his time and emotions a bit better. Consequently, what might have combined with May's broken foot to doom him at his alma mater isn't going to cost him again. And that's proof he's learning as he goes just as much as the SMU players who describe themselves as "lucky" to be benefiting from Doherty's climb back up the professional ladder.
"I knew I was going to be practicing at 9 at night, and I didn't want to go off on a kid because of a lack of sleep," Doherty explained as the midnight hour approached. "Seven years ago, I would've probably said, 'I can't go back to my house and relax. I've got to be in the office working, working, working.' And by 9, I'd be tired and worn out, and then I'd lose it on a kid because I'm tired.
"But now I'm not going to do that," Doherty concluded. "That's experience."
The kind that usually comes with adversity.