Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Tar Heels tarnished

Matt Doherty resigned under pressure as head coach of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team last week. The pressure in this case appears to have come from Doherty’s predecessor, Dean Smith, although before the media school officials have tried to blame UNC players. The popular legend is that UNC athletic director Dick Baddour met one-on-one with several players who criticized Doherty, and subsequent to that Baddour called for Doherty’s resignation in order to prevent multiple players from transferring to other schools. In general, the consensus was that Doherty’s leadership style was far too combative for UNC’s taste.

The facts did not appear to support firing Doherty (and he was effectively fired.) In three seasons, Doherty compiled a respectable 53-43 record. Although UNC did not make the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, Doherty was the national coach of the year in his first season, and UNC was able to recruit a high level of talent in the past year, putting the team in excellent position for next season. Furthermore, Doherty represented UNC well, and there is no evidence of any NCAA or other ethical violations during his tenure. In short, there seems to be little good faith basis for dismissing Doherty with two years left on his current contract.

The most likely explanation for Doherty’s demise was that his mentor, Dean Smith, lost confidence in him. Doherty was criticized, for example, for firing longtime UNC assistant coach Phil Ford upon taking over the program. In reality, however, Doherty simply wanted to bring in his own assistant coaches, something every head coach does, and UNC officials explicitly told Doherty he was free to choose his own staff. Yet Ford’s firing rubbed Smith and other UNC officials the wrong way.

Here’s the problem: With Doherty’s firing, UNC officials are now looking to a number of former Smith assistants to fill the job. In fact, ESPN reports UNC leaders “don't want the Tar Heels to go outside of the Dean Smith family tree.” This obviously limits the coaching search to just a handful of well-known names, such as Kansas coach Roy Williams and NBA coaches George Karl and Larry Brown. This approach also excludes from consideration a number of highly qualified individuals that are available, such as former Illinois coach Lon Krueger.

It would be one thing if UNC were a private institution. But this is a government-run university supported by substantial taxpayer funds. On top of that, the head basketball coach is likely the highest paid employee of the university (Doherty, a relatively inexperienced coach when hired, earned about $800,000 per year.) For the hiring search to be limited to former associates of Smith borders on nepotism, a practice that is illegal in many government programs. At the very least, UNC is tying one hand behind its back in an effort to placate Coach Smith’s desire to perpetuate his particular vision of the basketball program.

Indeed, UNC’s ethical judgment was compromised when they fired Doherty in the first place. To fire a coach with two years on his contract when he had committed no proven malfeasance is highly questionable. UNC’s judgment is even more suspect when one considers Doherty’s claims (unrefuted by UNC) that the school never made any effort to discuss their alleged concerns with him before demanding a resignation letter. For example, Doherty says officials only spoke with players, not with Doherty’s assistants or other basketball staff. Nor did the athletic department every investigate or allege any specific misconduct towards players, despite UNC’s reasoning that it was player discontent which justified the firing.

All in all, this was disgraceful conduct, made all the more outrageous in that it constituted a government action. After all, have you ever heard a case where a professor was fired simply because a handful of students expressed displeasure? Of course not. Most senior professors are granted tenure that insulates them from even justified review. But Doherty was fired without even a chance to complete his contract. It’s hypocritical, actually, when you consider Dean Smith had a 35-27 record in his first three years at North Carolina, a winning percentage nearly equal to Doherty’s. Then again, Dean Smith didn’t have a predecessor who viewed the basketball program as his personal fiefdom either. Hopefully Doherty’s successor will actually be allowed to run the program as he judges best. Both the basketball team and the taxpayers of North Carolina, who are unjustly forced to subsidize the university in the first place, deserve at least that much.

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