Who'll coach the Tar Heels?

The three most prominent candidates have all turned down the men's basketball job at North Carolina, leaving a field of little knowns.

Published July 11, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Hang in there, bide your time, play your cards right, and you just might have a chance to be the next men's basketball coach at the University of North Carolina. It's considered by many to be the top college basketball coaching job in the country -- and nobody seems to want it.

Bill Guthridge retired June 30, three years after replacing his old boss, Dean Smith, who spent 36 years on the Tar Heels bench and won more games than any coach in NCAA history. The pro and college coaching ranks are riddled with Smith's former players and assistants. But so far they haven't been chomping at the bit to succeed Guthridge.

North Carolina's first choice was Roy Williams, an assistant of Smith's for 10 years before he took over as head coach at Kansas in 1988. Williams, who played on the freshman team at UNC in the '60s, has the highest winning percentage among active coaches with at least five years' experience, and he has led the Jayhawks to 11 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. He'd always said coaching at his alma mater was his dream, but when the job was offered, he agonized. Thursday night he sent a crowd at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence into a frenzy with the simple words "I'm staying."

The next two obvious choices were George Karl and Larry Brown, big names in the NBA who both played for Smith at Chapel Hill. But both would likely have to accept big pay cuts to coach at their alma mater, and they removed themselves from consideration Monday.

"I have a loyalty to an organization that has treated me very well, an owner who has shown a great deal of faith in me and a team that's on the verge of something special," said Karl, who coaches the Milwaukee Bucks.

Brown, who has also called it a lifelong dream to coach at North Carolina, decided to stay with the Philadelphia 76ers, despite the fact that he reportedly has a troubled relationship with the team's superstar, Allen Iverson.

Brown, a star player at North Carolina and in the ABA, was a Smith assistant before becoming the very definition of a peripatetic head coach, going from the Carolina Cougars to the Denver Nuggets, UCLA, the New Jersey Nets, Kansas (where he won a national championship), the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Indiana Pacers and the 76ers. It's not so much surprising that he stayed in Philadelphia despite clashing with the star player as it is surprising that he stayed anywhere.

So the Tar Heels will have to lower their sights a bit. The best-known candidate now is Matt Doherty, who played on North Carolina's 1982 national champs and was a longtime assistant to Williams at Kansas. Doherty took over as the coach at Notre Dame last year and led a revival, taking the Fighting Irish to the National Invitation Tournament. At 38, he's a rising star, but with only one year as a head coach, he's awfully green to be taking over the most prestigious program in the country. But he met with UNC officials over the weekend, and as the Charlotte Observer put it, "it was not merely a courtesy call the Tar Heels made when they invited Doherty to talk."

The most interesting candidate is Randy Wiel, now the coach at Middle Tennessee State. Wiel, 49, represented the Netherlands Antilles as a swimmer in the 1967 Pan-American Games and as a sprinter in the 1968 Olympics. Then he played basketball for Smith at UNC, then played professionally in Europe for six years, mostly for the Dutch National Team. He coached the 1992 Dutch team that narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics, and at UNC-Asheville before moving over to Middle Tennessee State. And for what it's worth, he plays guitar and trumpet and speaks six languages. If he gets the job, at least the traditional coach's pre-game radio show figures to be more listenable than usual.

Tennesee Tech coach Jeff Lebo is the other major candidate, although North Carolina officials haven't been able to secure permission to talk to him thus far, thanks to what a Tech spokesman termed "telephone tag." Lebo, a star point guard for Smith in the late '80s, is only 33 and has been the Golden Eagles' coach for three years.

If you're wondering about coach Smith's most famous pupil, he's not interested. Michael Jordan is busy running the NBA's Washington Wizards.

By Gary Kaufman

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