ESPN The Magazine college basketball writer Curry Kirkpatrick will be a regular contributor to ESPNMAG.com. This is his first column.
The last vestiges of North Carolina's oft-maligned "wine and cheese crowd" faded into oblivion on Saturday as the No. 1 Tar Heels punked Maryland. The week before, Chapel Hill's tranquil downtown was fairly Bed-Stuyed with bonfires and car-maulings by overjoyed locals after their heroes had upset Duke.
Now even the Dean Smith Center seems perpetually inflamed. Football transients Ron Curry and Julius Peppers -- eight assists and 18 points, respectively, against the Terps, both career highs -- snarled and pounded their way around the place, stirring the fans into a gridiron mindset. After some questionable early calls, the refs were unmercifully booed. One official seemed so unnerved that when Carolina's mascot, Rameses, feigned kicking dirt on him as he stalked off the court at halftime, the ref expelled Rameses from the premises. That's right, the ram got rammed right out of the barn. (Ewe had to see it to believe it.) Leading by one at intermission, the natives were not only restless but now ram-less; the Tar Heels won going away anyway.
Credit all of this, of course, to the maniacal commitment, passion, energy and charisma of 38-year-old coach Matt Doherty. Forget that the surprise heir to the Smith family jewels was the best choice all along; that he expunged the driftwood in the coaching halls by bringing in his entire, vibrant Notre Dame staff; that he berates and praises in equal measure a squad, some of whom play so much harder than they did for either their famous Godfather (Smith) or their avuncular Grandfather (Bill Guthridge), it's practically an embarrassing smudge on the coaching legacy. Coach-player? Naw. He's one of them. He not only battles them in pickup games, he wades into their locker room mosh-pit celebrations. In off-the-record moments, the players even call him "Doherty," for godsakes. If the Heels wind up winning it all, his doting followers might re-name the Dean Dome the Matt Pad.
Nobody seems quite sure when the Carolina coaching persona switched from Lawrence Welk to Ricky Martin. But now Doherty, Chapel Hill's silver-haired heartthrob, swaggers into games winking, waving and throwing T-shirts into the student section. He conducts a weekly live radio show from Michael Jordan's restaurant, "23", before packed audiences consisting of both rowdy dorm rats and panting secretaries. "They ought to stock smelling salts for the ladies in there," one wag laughed.
Even before Doherty iconized himself with that coaching mano-a-mano masterpiece against Mike Krzyzewski, Carolina's Joseph Forte warned: "There's a new sheriff in town." And for all those Matt-come-latelys who had held back the love for the Irish kid who helped Jordan win Smith's first NCAA championship in '82, there was this: late in Carolina's monumental upset at Duke -- where Doherty was returning for the first time as an adult and none of the current team had ever won -- as the Tar Heels broke a nerve-rattling timeout huddle, their coach cut the tension into confetti.
"Oh by the way," he said. "Duke still has the ugliest cheerleaders in the ACC."
Smacking Duke and smacking at Duke will create a Tar Heel legend real fast.
Curry Kirkpatrick is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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