Former UNC coach, assistant Bill Guthridge dies at 77

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Former University of North Carolina head coach Bill Guthridge, who also served 30 years as an assistant to Dean Smith, died Tuesday night at age 77, university officials confirmed on Wednesday.

The family told team spokesman Steve Kirschner that Guthridge died of heart failure and that the coach had lived with a heart condition the past seven years. He had recently been in an assisted living facility in Chapel Hill.

Guthridge took over when Smith retired after 36 seasons in October 1997. He led his first team to the 1998 Final Four and had two players, Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison, selected in the top five picks of the NBA draft. Guthridge also took a less talented team to the Final Four in 2000. Guthridge went 80-28 from 1997 to 2000 before retiring in June 2000.

He is probably best remembered for his loyalty to Smith, who died in February at age 83. Guthridge, who like Smith was a Kansas native, spent 30 years as an assistant coach and had ample opportunities to leave Chapel Hill and become the coach of his own program. He once told a newspaper he never left the program because the other 300 Division I head-coaching jobs weren't better than his job as an assistant.

"He was my coach, he was another mentor. He was my friend, a father figure, a big brother for me just like he was for so many players," current UNC coach Roy Williams said. "He was an unbelievable assistant to Coach Smith. Coach Smith had so many strengths and very few weaknesses. The ones he did have Coach Guthridge tried to fill. He was a perfect sidekick for Coach Smith.

"This is a tremendous loss for our basketball program and entire community."

The careers and lives of the two coaches from Kansas were solidly intertwined. Both played college ball in that state -- Smith at Kansas, Guthridge at Kansas State -- and coached at their alma maters before coming to North Carolina.

Guthridge joined Smith's staff for the 1967-68 season, starting out as the freshman coach and a co-assistant varsity coach and eventually becoming the Hall of Famer's most trusted assistant. He also was an assistant to Smith on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal in Montreal.

"This is another terrible loss for the Carolina basketball family," former North Carolina player and current Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan said in a statement to The Associated Press. "Coach Guthridge was instrumental in recruiting me to UNC and I have so many great memories of him and the lessons he taught me. I will miss his kindness and wisdom.

"My sympathies go out to his wife, Leesie, and their kids and family."

Jordan is among many Tar Heels who had tremendous respect for Guthridge.

"If he told me to run through that wall to make me better, I'd hit that wall," former North Carolina player and well-traveled college coach Buzz Peterson told The Associated Press. "Because I knew Coach Guthridge had the best interest for you and wanted to see you succeed."

Peterson -- who roomed with Jordan on those early 1980s teams -- said Guthridge kept the program going off the court, with the assistant making him run the school's golf course at 6 a.m. as punishment for once being late.

"We'd always say there were so many time zones -- Eastern Standard Time, Central Standard Time -- but the most important was GST: Guthridge Standard Time," Peterson said. "I'd always set my time to GST, 10 minutes ahead."

North Carolina made 29 NCAA tournament appearances in Guthridge's 33 years on the staff and finished no worse than third in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season standings every year -- with 16 first-place finishes and 10 more in second. The Tar Heels either won the ACC tournament or finished atop the league standings -- or did both -- in 23 of those seasons.

After Smith retired in October 1997, then-athletic director Dick Baddour elevated Guthridge to the top job. That season, he led the Tar Heels to a 34-4 record and the final No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25, earned the ACC Coach of the Year award and guided North Carolina to the Final Four before losing to Utah.

The Tar Heels then went 24-10 in 1998-99 but were upset by Weber State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In Guthridge's final season, he went 18-13 -- at the time, the program's worst finish in decades -- but bounced back in the postseason to reach North Carolina's 15th Final Four before losing in the national semifinals to Florida. He stepped down 2½ months later.

"I'm extremely saddened by the passing of Coach Guthridge, aka 'Coach Gut,' especially coming so close to the loss of Coach Smith," Jamison, who was national player of the year during Guthridge's first season as coach, said in a statement. "He, like Coach Smith, was more of a mentor and father figure than anything else. His legacy and contributions to my life and to our University will live on and he'll be much more remembered for his sense of humor and class just as much as his coaching."

Matt Doherty, who succeeded Guthridge as Tar Heels coach and served in that capacity for three seasons, tweeted his condolences Wednesday.

"It has been a trying time for the University of North Carolina basketball program over the past four months, and our thoughts and prayers are with them again today," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. "Though he was a head coach for a short time, he gracefully carried on a culture and legacy that many thought could not be perpetuated."

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.