If the UNC administration had been smarter during the sorry summer of 2000, Jeff Lebo very well could have been sitting on the Carolina bench Saturday instead of coaching East Carolina.
Of course, it eventually turned out fine when Roy Williams returned in 2003 after he had initially decided to stay at Kansas. Williams has won two national championships and made the Basketball Hall of Fame during his ten years back in Chapel Hill. But it did not happen until Carolina suffered through 2½ seasons born from the worst of several bad decisions made by then-Chancellor James Moeser and former athletic director Dick Baddour.
When Williams shocked Tar Heel Nation by turning down the offer to succeed Bill Guthridge and the Dean Smith era, Baddour was left without a Plan B. It would be the second (or third) time that happened to Baddour, who once boasted he had so much confidence in his coaches that he never kept a list of possible replacements in case one of them left suddenly.
Moeser had been appointed UNC’s new chancellor but had yet to move to Chapel Hill. After resigning from the same post at Nebraska, he was packing up in Lincoln when Baddour called to tell him Williams was staying at Kansas.
“What are you going to do?” Moeser asked Baddour.
“Coach Smith says that Larry Brown will come for at least five years,” Baddour responded. At the time, Brown was coaching the Philadelphia 76ers but had already banked millions in the NBA and was willing, actually excited, to help out his mentor and alma mater.
Now, when you don’t have a Plan B, and someone offers you Larry Brown, who at the time was 59 and considered the best pure basketball coach on the planet, that classifies as a no-brainer. But not to know-it-all Moeser, who knew very little about college athletics other than Nebraska had a great football program. Moeser never played sports and was a musician by trade.
From more than a thousand miles away, Moeser made what at the time was the most important decision in the history of Carolina Athletics – who would follow the Smith regime as head coach.
Moeser reminded Baddour that he had been a Provost at Kansas when Brown coached there for five years in the 1980s. Brown won the national championship with “Danny (Manning) and the Miracles” in 1988, but not before he had gone through a messy divorce and violated some minor NCAA rules that would lead to a probation for KU.
Those are not small considerations, but they pale next to the problem facing Baddour after Williams said no. Moeser obviously did not recognize the severity of the situation and vetoed Brown when he could have shared his reservations with Baddour and told him to make sure Brown toed the line. With Smith still active in the basketball program, his most famous protégé would surely have coached and recruited and done nothing to embarrass himself or his school in the job Brown had always dreamed of having.
Baddour had not been the choice of former Chancellor Michael Hooker and wanted a better relationship with the new Chancellor after Hooker died of lymphoma in 1999. So he did not fight Moeser’s foolish decision. A strong, savvy AD would have assured Moeser that Brown was the best choice and he would take full responsibility for the hire.
“Who else is there?” Moeser asked Baddour.
Baddour said the Rams Club higher-ups were favoring first-year Notre Dame Coach Matt Doherty, who had just taken his inaugural Irish team to the championship game of the NIT, losing to Wake Forest. Though green with a checkered reputation of his own, Doherty was remembered by Moeser as having served on Williams’ staff at Kansas. And Baddour knew him as a starter for Smith’s 1982 NCAA championship team.
So, it happened rather quickly. Baddour tracked down Doherty at a Wal-Mat in South Bend, invited him to Chapel Hill for what turned out to be a six-hour interview. And on July 14, 2000, Doherty was introduced as the Tar Heels’ new head coach. Smith had called several former players, who suggested that hiring the high-strung and emotional Doherty was a big risk as well as a huge change from Guthridge’s mild-mannered ways.
Smith was particularly perturbed when Doherty did not have the sense to retain at least one UNC assistant (Phil Ford, Dave Hanners or Pat Sullivan) and asked to bring his four coaches from Notre Dame, even though that staff had been together for only one year. And Baddour, who should have recognized how difficult the transition from the Smith era would be under any circumstances, did not insist Doherty keep one or two and bring only one or two.
What followed is on the record – an 18-game winning streak, a huge upset at Duke and ascension to No. 1 in the country for Doherty’s first team of Guthridge holdovers (Doherty actually won the Associated Press Coach of the Year in 2001.) But after internal problems in the program surfaced, the Tar Heels split their last eight games, Doherty’s second team went a disastrous 8-20 and he was fired following a 19-16 record in 2003.
At the regrettable press conference announcing Doherty’s “resignation,” Moeser backhanded the coach he hired on the way out. He told the media that UNC held lofty standards “not just for winning, but for the quality and character of the program and the people in it. The issue here . . . is leadership.”
If that wasn’t the pot calling the kettle black . . .
Fortunately, Williams had fallen out of love with Kansas and knew the “family business” was in trouble. He answered Smith’s call the second time, and it’s been Carolina Basketball as usual ever since.
Was it worth the Doherty mistake, when sacred streaks of NCAA Tournament appearances, top three finishes in the ACC and winning seasons were snapped, in fact, shattered? Not when you consider there was an alternative to the rush to hire Doherty.
Lebo, the former Tar Heel star guard of the 1980s, was entering his third season as head coach at Tennessee Tech. Only 33 at the time, Lebo came from a coaching family and had far more pedigree than Doherty. He had coached under Eddie Fogler at Vanderbilt and South Carolina, winning SEC championships at both schools. Doherty, on the other hand, had tried a Wall Street career and radio/TV work before beginning to coach at Davidson.
Larry Brown was the answer, but Moeser and Baddour blundered their way through that. If it had to stay in the Carolina family, a plan Smith was ready to give up, Lebo was an infinitely better choice than Doherty. With the support and guidance of Smith and Guthridge, which Doherty never received after casting out the Tar Heel assistant coaches, Lebo would have been far more successful and might have won enough to stay a long time.
After fielding winning teams at Tennessee Tech and UT-Chattanooga, Lebo made a bad choice by taking the Auburn job, where he refused to cheat in recruiting like so many SEC schools of the time. He lasted six years, then was hired by East Carolina, where he brings a 6-1 team to the Smith Center Saturday.
Stuff happens, but if smarter moves were made at a very perilous time, Lebo might well have already coached many games at the Dean Dome.