For all the great names in basketball coaching from America’s Heartland — Phog Allen, Henry Iba, Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith to name a few — Bill Guthridge doesn’t immediately come to mind.
Not only because he guided two North Carolina teams to Final Fours in his three years as the program’s head coach, but as somebody who spent nearly his entire life as an assistant, Guthridge, who died Tuesday night in Chapel Hill, N.C., at age 77, was the essence of a coach.
For all but a fraction of his career, the players and the game received his devotion. Not, for the most part, the fan glad-handing and media obligations. He was known inside the basketball offices as “Uncle Bill.”
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Guthridge spent his entire college career at two schools — Kansas State and North Carolina — serving as another coaching connection between the hoop-loving states, and Guthridge seemed destined to a life in hoops from his days growing up in Parsons, Kan.
His coach at Parsons High was Harold Johnson, whose brother Gene was an assistant coach on the first Olympic basketball team in 1936. Guthridge attended Kansas State and played on three conference championship teams for Tex Winter and in the 1958 Final Four.
After college, Guthridge became the coach at Scott City High, served as a graduate assistant for the Wildcats’ 1964 Final Four team, and became a full-time K-State assistant until 1967.
That’s when Dean Smith called. North Carolina had lost an assistant coach — Larry Brown — and Guthridge took the job with the idea of eventually becoming a college head coach.
But he found happiness in his assistant’s role. By the late 1970s, after he passed up opportunities to become a head coach at programs like Arkansas (which hired Eddie Sutton), Guthridge made the career decision to remain in Chapel Hill as long as Smith was the head coach.
The Tar Heels enjoyed remarkable success under Smith and Guthridge and other assistants like Roy Williams. Guthridge was part of 14 Final Fours in his career, and the 1982 and 1993 NCAA championships.
Two months before the 1997-98 season commenced, Smith stepped down, giving the school no option but to elevate Guthridge. During an interview at the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony in 2012, Guthridge said Smith “stepped down before I expected him to.”
Guthridge’s first team, with Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, reached the Final Four. So did his third North Carolina squad, unexpectedly.
The Tar Heels stood 18-13 and were seeded eighth. But they rolled through the bracket, opening with a victory over Quin Snyder’s first Missouri team and qualifying for the Final Four by defeating a Tulsa team coached for the final time by Bill Self.
Guthridge retired after that season — his 960 total victories in Chapel Hill and Manhattan were the most in the game’s history by a head and assistant coach at the time — and speculation ran wild about his successor. Williams, who had just completed his 12th season at Kansas, was the obvious choice. But he stunned his alma mater by remaining with the Jayhawks.
Matt Doherty got the call, and after a successful first season, he missed the NCAA Tournament the next two years and was fired. This time, Williams couldn’t resist the call and returned to North Carolina. Kansas hired Self, and it’s worked out well for both programs.
For years, Smith and Guthridge retained offices at the Smith Center, and the coaches died about three months apart. Tributes poured in upon Smith’s death. Had he heard his eulogy Smith would have nodded at Guthridge, the most loyal and perhaps the greatest assistant basketball coach ever.