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Published: Wednesday, 3/13/2002

Whiz-kid trio of coaches not asked to the Big Dance

They have impeccable reputations they must protect. To do so, they must alter the negative perceptions. If they flame out, what will that say about the people who anointed them as God's gift to coaching?

Had everyone's expectations been in proper perspective, we wouldn't be surprised that North Carolina's Matt Doherty, Michigan's Tommy Amaker and Iowa's Steve Alford stubbed their collective toes this season.

All three coaches - part of a new generation of thirtysomething college basketball whiz kids - failed to reach the NCAA Tournament.

Hired for their potential as much as for their actual coaching accomplishments, Doherty, Amaker and Alford received lush contracts befitting coaches with more experience and a history of tournament success.

Alford played under Bob Knight and won a national championship at Indiana. Amaker played in a Final Four under coach Mike Krzyzewski and also coached under Coach K at Duke. Doherty played for Dean Smith and was a teammate of Michael Jordan on North Carolina's national championship team.

They're youthful enough to recruit the modern player and not take it personally when they leave school early for the NBA. Hip enough to know about Timberland boots. Secure enough to compromise and share power with players. And popular enough to build a strong base of support with national media.

And the beat goes on. All three Duke assistant coaches - Johnny Dawkins, Steve Wojciechowski and Chris Collins - have been mentioned as candidates for the DePaul vacancy. Wojciechowski and Collins have a combined five years' coaching experience.

DePaul is seeking a “name” coach to compete with Louisville's Rick Pitino and Memphis' John Calipari in Conference USA. Wouldn't DePaul officials be better served examining the mature resumes of Southern Illinois' Bruce Weber, Wyoming's Steve McClain, Bowling Green's Dan Dakich or Utah's Rick Majerus?

Doherty coached one year at Notre Dame before snaring the North Carolina job before last season, where he won 26 games and national coach of the year honors.

Amaker guided Seton Hall to the Sweet 16 his third year, the best of his four years there. Michigan hired him before this season.

While Doherty, Amaker and Alford may have impeccable reputations, they all made mistakes this season, Doherty and Amaker in particular.

Doherty's second year at North Carolina was an embarrassment. The 8-20 Tar Heels failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 28 years.

Amaker won 11 games at Michigan, one more than Brian Ellerbe managed the previous year.

The argument in support of Doherty and Amaker is that they didn't have enough talent to win. Both programs are rebuilding.

But they can't have it both ways. Big-time coaches with hefty contracts are supposed to win - now.

Knight produced a No. 6 seed for Texas Tech in the NCAA Tournament despite the poor hand he was dealt. Can you imagine Knight winning only eight games at North Carolina?

The game of basketball can pass you by in a blink. Sometimes it comes down to what you know, not who you know.

John Harris is a Blade sports columnist. E-mail him at jharris@theblade.com.



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