Just three weeks ago, one topic dominated conversation at the ACC tournament in Charlotte: Bill Guthridge's expected departure from North Carolina. After the worst basketball season in many a year, would he be forced out or would he jump? Would Dean Smith intervene on behalf of his longtime lieutenant? Would Roy Williams leave Kansas and return to Chapel Hill where he, too, had assisted Smith? What if Williams didn't want to leave Kansas; would Larry Brown leave the 76ers to finish his distinguished career at North Carolina? Would the powers-that-be at Carolina ever look outside the family? Would they ever consider a guy such as Rick Pitino, should he want out of his Boston Celtics contract? They wouldn't ever consider a Dookie such as Tommy Amaker, even though he's one of the bright young coaches in America, would they? I mean, the Tar Heels were so uninspired, Carolina had to do something about Guthridge, right?
It's all we talked about. By we, I mean, oh, everybody: media folks, ACC officials, coaches and athletic department officials from other conference schools and, of course, the fans who uttered some pretty brutal insults. It became all-consuming, particularly after North Carolina lost an opening-round tournament game to Wake Forest. Goodness, it didn't even look like a North Caroline team the way the players hoisted up crazy shots with no apparent fear of consequences from The Head Coach. There were editorials in state newspapers that said the Tar Heels didn't deserve an at-large big to the NCAA tournament after that loss to Wake. And we all know who had to suffer the hit, right? Coach Gut. Uncle Bill. Nice guy, job too big.
No matter what happens this weekend in Indianapolis, Guthridge won't be hanged -- he'll be serenaded, maybe given a parade. That's what four victories in March will do, change virtually everyone's perception, change a 62-year-old man's life. North Carolina and Guthridge, with 13 losses, are still vying for the national title.
This month alone is Hollywood stuff. March began for Carolina with the depressing loss to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament. The Tar Heels beat Missouri in the first round of the NCAA tournament, then upset Stanford, the No. 1 seed in the South Region. But Guthridge had almost no time to savor making the Sweet 16 because last Wednesday his 96-year-old mother, Betty, died. She was buried Monday in Parsons, Kan. ''I loved her. She was a wonderful mother,'' Guthridge said, ''but she's really been out of it for five or six years. She went blind. She got Alzheimer's. She couldn't hear very well. So it was a real blessing she passed away. She wouldn't have wanted to live like that. I wish it could have happened sooner.''
The Tar Heels already had become closer from dealing with the criticism following the 18-13 regular season. After all, one more loss and it would have been the most defeats since 1951-52. But after winning two games, then rallying around Guthridge in the wake of his mother's death, the Tar Heels found themselves on something of a crusade, and eliminated Tennessee in the regional semifinal, followed by Tulsa.
What happened? ''We just became a team,'' point guard Ed Cota said. ''We finally just got it together, and there can't be a better time for this.''
Guthridge has been asked a hundred times how his team could go from performing so poorly late in the season to beating Missouri, Stanford, Tennessee and Tulsa. ''I pushed the wrong buttons,'' he has said repeatedly. ''It's my responsibility.''
Of course, not much is going wrong when you've won four straight in the middle of March. It has turned into the warm and fuzzy story of the biggest weekend of the season, even with the death of Betty Guthridge. Larry Brown just signed a new contract to stay in Philly. Everybody's talking about what wonderful freshmen and sophomores Roy Williams has at Kansas.
Six days before the Final Four, I am again wondering about Bill Guthridge's potential departure from North Carolina basketball. I am wondering, if the Tar Heels win the national championship Monday night, whether Guthridge will call a news conference to announce he is going out on top of college basketball to provide this story with just about the only fitting ending.
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