When he succeeded the legendary Dean Smith as the basketball coach at North Carolina shortly before practice began for the 1997-98 season, most viewed Bill Guthridge as an avuncular caretaker. Despite the five-year contract he was given, many anticipated he might not be in the position that long.
So it didn't come as a surprise when word started getting out Thursday that Guthridge, 62, would announce his retirement at a news conference yesterday afternoon. Nor would it shock anyone that another former Smith assistant, Kansas coach Roy Williams, will likely be offered the job - if he hasn't been already.
Guthridge leaves after coaching the Tar Heels to 80 victories and two Final Four appearances - something no other Division I coach accomplished in their first three years. He was named national Coach of the Year in 1997-98 and set an NCAA record with 34 victories in his first season. But last season's tumultuous 22-14 ride that included five home defeats had taken its toll on Guthridge.
"I think it's time to turn it over to somebody else," Guthridge said at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
That apparently could be Williams, who coached the Jayhawks since leaving North Carolina in 1988 after spending 10 years as an assistant under Smith. Williams was scheduled to have a news conference last night in Lawrence, but he released a statement earlier in the day denying reports that he had been offered the job.
"The Associated Press and ESPN story that I have accepted the job is completely false," Williams said. "I have agreed to talk with [North Carolina athletic director] Dick Baddour, and that is the only thing that has been agreed upon.
"I have also spoken with [Kansas athletic director] Bob Frederick and chancellor Robert Hemmingway and will continue to do that. For four years I have gone on vacation the week before the recruiting period, as I have planned this year. Any announcement of any kind to bring this to a conclusion will come on or before July 7, the day before I go on the road recruiting."
Frederick has said that he will try to keep Williams, who will turn 50 in August, "a Jayhawk coach forever."
"Our hope and fervent desire is that the best basketball coach in America will continue to practice his craft at KU," Frederick said Thursday night.
A North Carolina athletic department spokesman said late yesterday afternoon that no offer had been made to Williams - or anyone else - and that no announcement regarding the team's next coach was immediately forthcoming.
Other candidates mentioned for the job include coaches with ties to the North Carolina program. Aside from Williams, they include Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown, Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl, South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler and Notre Dame coach Matt Doherty.
A former assistant under Williams at Kansas, Doherty would also be a candidate for the Jayhawks job should Williams wind up in Chapel Hill. Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino also has been mentioned for the job. Pitino reportedly turned down an offer from the University of Miami.
Williams, a native of Spruce Pine, N.C., and a 1972 North Carolina graduate, has compiled a 329-82 record in 12 seasons at Kansas. After going 19-12 while on NCAA probation and ineligible for postseason play, the Jayhawks have been to the NCAA tournament 11 straight times.
Kansas reached the Final Four twice under Williams, losing to Duke in the 1991 final and to North Carolina in the 1993 semifinals. Since then, the Jayhawks have made it to the regional finals only once despite being a No. 1 seed four times. They lost in the second round in each of the past three seasons.
While Kansas fans seemed to have accepted the slippage the past few years, Tar Heels fans have been less tolerant of North Carolina's inconsistent play under Guthridge. The criticism began the Tar Heels lost to Weber State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament in 1999.
It continued throughout last season, when North Carolina started in the top 10 and fell out of the national rankings for the first time in a decade. The Tar Heels barely made the NCAA tournament, but then made an improbable run to the Final Four, where they lost to Florida.
"I'll really miss next year's team and what those guys have done for me," Guthridge said.
But Guthridge, who lost his 96-year-old mother during this past season's NCAA tournament, admitted that he now understands what drove Smith into retirement after 36 years, a few months after becoming the winningest coach in college basketball history.
"You're just exhausted," said Guthridge, who tried to revive himself with a trip to Europe in May.
Smith, who attended yesterday's news conference, called Guthridge's announcement "a celebration of a fantastic career. ... Certainly what a marvelous run of three years."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.