April 4 was Sean May’s 21st birthday, but it was Roy Williams who received the greatest gift in North Carolina’s 75-70 win over Illinois in Monday’s national championship game. Most Carolina fans failed to realize the benefactor of Roy’s present, and surely no one thanked him.
That is because the gift came from Matt Doherty, the hated, “he’s not good enough for us” former Tar Heel head coach who was fired two Aprils ago. His presents to the North Carolina program were Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, Sean May, Jackie Manuel and Jawad Williams, UNC’s starting lineup that returned the title to Chapel Hill.
In fact, only one player—Marvin Williams—in the Tar Heels’ eight-man rotation knew Williams would be his coach when he signed with North Carolina. Doesn’t this mean Doherty should receive at least some of the credit for reviving UNC after the retirement of Dean Smith?
So why is Doherty such a hated man in Chapel Hill? Doherty won the 2001 AP National Coach of the Year in his first season at North Carolina after leading UNC to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But the next year was disastrous for everyone in the program.
Joe Forte—who shared ACC Player of the Year honors with Duke’s Shane Battier as a sophomore—left for the NBA and football players Julius Peppers and Ronald Curry, starters in the 2000 Final Four, decided to quit hoops before the beginning of the season. The result was an eight win, 20 loss debacle that first called into question Doherty’s credentials as a head coach.
Doherty did manage to recruit McCants, Felton and May during this “lost” year and the team showed early signs of greatness by winning the 2002-2003 Preseason NIT. In a late December game against Iona, however, May broke his left foot and missed the entire ACC regular season.
Despite late-season wins over Duke and Maryland, the Tar Heels failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season. This, coupled with player unrest with Doherty, led the North Carolina athletic department to fire Doherty before the start of the 2003 Final Four.
Since then, Doherty’s legacy has unsurprisingly been tainted in Chapel Hill, and he has surprisingly been unable to find a new head coaching position. In general, most discredit Doherty’s first-season success because he did not recruit any of the players. Almost the same can be said of Williams this year, but he is regarded as a hero. Carolina fans cannot have it both ways. If Doherty’s 2001 record can be discounted by this logic, he should also receive some credit for this year’s national championship.
Even North Carolina fans who do appreciate Doherty’s recruiting will tell you he was a terrible strategist and could not do much with the talent he had accumulated. This is just not true. May missed all but 11 games in his only season under Doherty, and Williams’ first season with the rambunctious group found only mild success. After compiling a 19-11 record and a No. 6 seed, the Tar Heels were eliminated in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
The final argument used to slam Doherty’s tenure at Carolina was that all his players hated him. I rarely buy this argument about any coach because anyone who has ever been on a team knows that it is not unusual for players to hate their coach. For North Carolina’s athletic director to base a firing of a young, third-year head coach on the complaints of cranky freshmen Felton and McCants is ridiculous.
The fact of the matter is that UNC railroaded Doherty. North Carolina has its national championship and its trophy coach, but the classless and selfish way it went about it will affect how historians of college basketball view Williams’ first championship.
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