Former UNC coach settling in at FAU

Updated: November 6, 2005, 11:46 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- As Hurricane Wilma bore down on South Florida last week, Matt Doherty entered his first crisis management test at seldom-heard-from Florida Atlantic University, less than two months into his first semester on the job.

He didn't flinch.

Doherty, fresh off a two-year hiatus from coaching after being forced out at his alma mater, North Carolina, was ready for the storm. During his forced time off, he attended two leadership courses at the famed Wharton School at Penn and the Darden School at Virginia; visited NBA and college practices; and did television work for ESPN regional and CSTV.

Even though FAU hasn't played a game yet under Doherty, the Owls are already seeing his refined leadership skills in full bloom.

Because assistant Mike Balado is from Miami and has experience dealing with major storms, Doherty assigned him to be crisis manager for hurricanes. Player meetings were held twice a day last weekend, prior to the storm's hitting, so the players were aware of possible alternative plans.

Balado and assistant James Stafford were assigned to call each player's parents to explain what they were going to do. Malcolm Farmer, the director of basketball operations, was in charge of food.

When the players and staff were told to evacuate the area because the campus was without power and downed trees had to be cleared on the Boca Raton campus, Doherty ensured every player was within a three-hour radius so when the team regrouped later in the week, everyone could get to Orlando quickly.

The wife of associate head coach Rex Walters, a former player under then-assistant coach Doherty at Kansas in the early '90s, had a line on timeshare condos in Orlando, where FAU had to worry about paying only for maid service. A friend of Doherty's at Disney knew of a basketball practice facility the team could use.

"We did it very quickly," Doherty said Friday afternoon. The Owls will stay in Orlando Monday and Tuesday before returning to Boca Raton. FAU will reopen for classes Wednesday, but damage to the gym's roof has forced the team to look for an alternative practice site in the Boca Raton area.

"I'm a better leader, better manager and hopefully, more calm handling everything," Doherty, 43, said. "It's called experience. I'm big on turning negatives into positives. My experience at North Carolina ended in a negative and I learned how I could better myself.''

Two weeks into practice, Doherty has turned what could have been a major disruption from Wilma (the Owls missed three days of practice earlier last week) into a pseudo training camp, running two-a-days. Players traveled and ate together, and many watched NBA games in Doherty's room Thursday night.

This is the new Doherty, a Doherty who is as competitive as he ever was at North Carolina but one who is more polished and secure about his environment.

Sure, he was once the Associated Press national coach of the year at UNC (26-7 in his first season in 2000-01), but he also had some personality conflicts and his teams were left out of NCAA Tournament for an unheard-of two straight years (going 8-20 in 2001-02 and 19-16 in 2002-03). The Tar Heels returned to the NCAA Tournament the year after his departure, and last April, with a roster stocked with his recruits and freshman sixth-man Marvin Williams, won the national title under his former mentor Roy Williams.

The Tar Heels lost seven players from that team, six of them Doherty recruits. There are still a few Doherty recruits left, such as David Noel, Byron Sanders and Reyshawn Terry, but there clearly is a clean break between the Doherty and Williams eras, allowing both parties to move on without any more comparisons to Doherty's tenure in Chapel Hill.

Doherty said he has worked hard to have a good relationship with North Carolina, receiving a letter from Dean Smith and talking to Roy Williams when the two were on the road recruiting in July.

"Most of my players are gone now,'' Doherty said. "It's good and I needed to coach again and it feels good to coach again. I'm excited about it.''

But how did he get to FAU of all places?

Doherty said he gave himself a window of two years to find a job, and he had geographic restrictions. He wasn't going West. He had moved five times in eight years and most recently relocated to Charlotte, near his wife's family. Two years ago, he interviewed at St. John's on his native Long Island and talked to James Madison. Last spring, he talked to Tulsa and UMass.

"This past year, I thought a lot of jobs would open up but it was very limited,'' Doherty said. "I didn't think about FAU.''

Matt Doherty
Doherty has built a high-major-caliber staff in Boca Raton.

Doherty said he called FAU to recommend Walters, who was then an assistant at Valparaiso. But he found out that the Owls wanted a head coach. Doherty consulted with Walters and asked whether he would be OK with his pursuing the position, on the condition that Walters would agree to come with him if he got the gig.

"Everyone kept saying it was a diamond in the rough,'' Doherty said.

FAU went for a big-name in football in hiring Howard Schnellenberger. Clearly, that was the agenda in luring Doherty. The school is moving from the low-major Atlantic Sun to the well-respected and highly competitive mid-major Sun Belt for the 2006-07 season.

The Owls went to the NCAA Tournament once under Sidney Green (in 2002) but this commuter school in tiny Boca Raton had to rebuild its basketball program. Doherty said he had to put together a high-major staff. He said Walters' unselfishness in taking less money enabled him to hire Balado, Stafford and Farmer.

"They have invested in the physical resources with a new floor and roof, although it was damaged in the hurricane,'' Doherty said. "We're getting new locker rooms next year and there is strong talk of a domed stadium -- 40,000 like the Carrier Dome [in Syracuse] for football and men's and women's basketball. There's a 90 percent chance that happens and that would change the dynamics of this place."

Doherty and his staff brought in seven newcomers, selling them on being competitive now and building an NCAA Tournament program.

"We have an awful lot to offer, with palm trees, blue skies and every other girl that looks like J. Lo," Walters said. "How many coaches have been the AP coach of the year? ... We're dumb enough to believe [we can make this big]. What was Gonzaga like 15 years ago? The Sun Belt is a good conference and we want to be in the Sweet 16. We need to recruit a better athlete, stronger player and a player with strong character, and coach Doherty can open up a lot of doors. We've got selective basketball and AAU people calling us, trying to help us.''

Still, the players were a bit stunned that Doherty would want to be at FAU. Sure, Doherty said when he arrived there is always buyer's remorse, but that happened to him at each of his stops, wondering whether he should have left Kansas for Notre Dame, South Bend for Chapel Hill.

But FAU? It took the players to play for him a bit before they saw he was serious about settling down.

"I didn't know why he would want to come,'' said senior guard Quinton Young, who averaged a dozen points last season under Green. "It's a small school and I figured that he would want a big-time school. I didn't think a coach like that would want to come to Florida Atlantic.''

Young said he believes Doherty is sincere because he continues to talk about how much he loves the community, the president and how promising he sees the future.

"I was surprised,'' said junior guard Brent Crews, a transfer from Chipola College in Fla., near his native Chipley. "He had always gone to winning programs but this had been a losing program that won only 10 games last season (10-10 in the Atlantic Sun, 10-17 overall).

"But I believe he wants to build his own program and a system from the ground up,'' Crews said. "I heard that he teaches more than just running you.''

Young said last season's practices were intense but the previous staff didn't stress the little things, like setting screens or a good cut to the ball or basket. Doherty has always showed attention to detail, whether in recruiting or coaching, but he has changed his approach.

During Friday's practice, Doherty spent the first 30 minutes sitting on the sidelines watching Walters run the players through full-court layup and shooting drills. When it came time to handle putting in their "dummy" offense and side out-of-bounds plays, Doherty was on the court, instructing (not yelling) his players into position.

"I learned from watching coaches like Jerry Sloan [of the Utah Jazz] and Eddie Sutton and Bob Knight and Tom Izzo to delegate,'' Doherty said. "Sometimes players get tired of the same voice.''

In the early part of practice, it was Walters' voice that resonated in the gym, imploring his players to be more vocal and to have vision on the court. He said the players should get used to raising their voices because they would have more fans at games.

It seems as though they will. Prime courtside seats are sold and, according to Walters, Doherty has been a hit around Boca in what Walters terms the "sixth borough," because of its abundance of New York ex-pats.

"The stress level is the same, but I can handle it better since I'm better at delegating,'' said Doherty. "It's not as stressful a job but I still want to win and still go after recruiting as passionately as I did at North Carolina. It's OK to delegate but you've got to work smarter.''

The two-year sabbatical, as Doherty calls it, allowed him to live the life of skiing with the kids, getting up late, wearing sweats all day and ignoring the razor if he felt like it for a few days. But the formal leadership training -- something he says should be required of young coaches -- put him in a position to be successful again. Finding the right spot was the tough part.

"It was hard because, like everyone, you get an inflated opinion of yourself" Doherty said. "I thought I could get Illinois when Bill Self left or get Virginia when Pete Gillen left. But it's hard to get Division I coaching jobs. I wanted to coach. If I do a good job here, we'll grow this thing. People say I'll only be here a few years but I've been to the top of the mountain and the view isn't always better from there.''

Walters added that the staff could build this program without feeling the heat of winning 20 games a year. The FAU administration is allowing him to be successful in scheduling, too. Doherty isn't being forced to sell himself on the road for nine games. He said he has to play only two guaranteed games a season, an incredibly low number at this level.

The beauty of this job is that mid-major schools are willing to go home-and-home to get a Florida trip, especially schools in the Northeast with alumni living in the area. That's why Marist agreed to a four-year home-and-home. The Owls open up at Colgate and at Northwestern -- two road games that were on the schedule when Doherty took the job. But in-state games against North Florida, Jacksonville, Central Florida and South Florida are all logical games. Playing in Louisville's tournament is the up-game (College of Charleston in the first round, Louisville or Middle Tennessee State in the second) and then Marist rounds out the schedule. The Atlantic Sun plays 18 league games.

"I feel like I've found my rhythm,'' Doherty said. "Once we had everybody come together in late August and started workouts and my kids, my children, got comfortable in the schools and we came together as a team and program, it felt good to be on the court again.''

Doherty is at peace now in his career. He was never certain where he would land after being dumped at Carolina, but he always knew what he would be doing. He knew he would be back in coaching.

"It's basketball, whether it's at North Carolina or FAU, it's basketball and it's teaching the game of basketball,'' Doherty said. "You're finding a way to put this team in a position to be successful.''

Still, at the end of practice, you knew you weren't in Chapel Hill anymore. One of the FAU players counted to make sure there were 11 balls to put in the bag and he carried them out to the car. There weren't managers hustling to gather all of their equipment. The players had to do it themselves.

As they scampered about, you could tell there were defined chores, delegated by Doherty through his staff -- a sign that his leadership was already working quite well.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE