As every Triangle basketball fan knows by now, the men’s basketball team of the University of North Carolina is staggering through what could become the worst season in the school’s history. The team’s fortunes have fallen so far that it’s unlikely to be invited to the NCAA tournament, something that hasn’t happened since 1974, when getting into the post-season field required winning the ACC Tournament. It’s a season in the wilderness, to be sure, for both the team and its fans.

It might seem an inopportune time, then, to celebrate Tar Heel fandom. But that’s what a new book by Chapel Hill native Thad Williamson does. More than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many–which is nothing less than an exhaustive study of the spiritual, ethical and sociological dimensions of obsessive Tar Heelism–hits the bookstores just as stunned fans are wondering what comes next.

At 6 foot 4 inches, Williamson has a better view of the rim than most of us. The bearded, rumpled 32-year-old Harvard student, who’s now working on his doctoral dissertation on suburban sprawl, got his basketball education early as a UNC faculty brat. In More than a Game, he recounts his Tar Heel upbringing in a richly remembered narrative that forms the first half of his book. As an adolescent, Williamson assumed a small, but front-row, role with the program as the manual scoreboard operator at UNC’s home games. As an adult, he renewed his direct association with the team by working as a journalist for two different online sites devoted to the Heels.

Williamson is a leftist intellectual and author of two books on public policy, who, in a phone interview from his Cambridge home, said his professional interests involve “stabilizing communities economically and expanding more democratic forms of capital ownership.” He has long seen the Tar Heel basketball culture, and the community of Chapel Hill from which it sprang, as a surviving remnant of a more neighborly and stable era. The figure who came to embody that culture was Dean Smith, a man celebrated for his decency and progressive politics as much as his coaching prowess. In his book Williamson writes that, as an activist undergraduate at Brown University, he realized that “my moral values were shaped entirely by Chapel Hill liberalism.”

His family’s prominence in the Chapel Hill community eventually brought the young fan into contact with Dean Smith’s longtime assistant coach, Bill Guthridge, whose family attended church with the Williamsons. So it was with intense personal interest that, in 1997, Williamson watched as Guthridge was tapped to replace the retiring Dean Smith. This was a royal succession of great pitch and moment for the Tar Heel faithful. The knowledge that someday Dean Smith would retire was a source of anxiety and dread everywhere in Tar Heeldom–not just the loss of coaching prowess, but the loss of a loving father, one who was kind and politically liberal and morally engaged. North Carolina progressives–disproportionately located in Chapel Hill–couldn’t defeat that drawling gargoyle, Jesse Helms, but Saint Dean would always be there, protecting his flock from the devils, wolves and demonic deacons lurking in the darkness, and providing a shining example of a more just world. Chapel Hill, and Carmichael Auditorium in particular, was a field of Elysium on which the good guys could (and did) win. The choice of Guthridge to succeed the great man, and the continuity of Smith’s values it promised, thrilled Williamson.

To the author’s subsequent dismay and anger, Guthridge soon found himself the target of wrathful fans and journalists who questioned his tactics, recruiting ability and toughness. The discontent was exacerbated, Williamson believes, by the widespread use of Internet bulletin boards and chat rooms: After the team’s ignominious first-round loss in the 1998 NCAA tournament to unheralded Weber State, the Internet became a public forum for vicious attacks on the 19-year-old Brendan Haywood, who had played poorly, and on Guthridge himself.

“Some message board types started complaining, saying he was too old, that Roy Williams would be better,” Williamson writes. “I thought that sentiment reflected the worst of Carolina fans, and a profound lack of gratitude and respect. … To me, to disrespect Bill Guthridge was to disrespect Carolina basketball, just as surely as disrespecting Dean Smith would have been.” Suddenly, the extraordinary deference that Tar Heel fans had accorded Dean Smith was gone, and the basketball culture of UNC was starting to look depressingly ordinary.

By this time, Williamson was working part time as a journalist with the online publication, one of the prime venues for the anti-Guthridge sentiments. Feeling increasingly compromised, he jumped ship to a smaller but friendlier Web site, (which has since merged with his former employer). The sniping of the media and fans continued, however, and perhaps only coincidentally, Guthridge quit his post in the spring of 2000, citing exhaustion. It was hard to believe, given the degree of hostility Guthridge faced, that his three-year record was 80-28, with two Final Four appearances.

“The way Bill Guthridge was treated bothered me so much,” Williamson recalls, that he decided to undertake a systematic study of UNC fandom. Williamson’s revulsion at the hostility directed toward Guthridge forced him to reconsider the exceptionalism of the UNC program. Did Carolina fans, spoiled by decades of success, have the easy luxury of appearing magnanimous in victory and stout-hearted in the face of the rare defeat? Were the claims that there’s a special bond between the players and the community merely hollow? Could it be that the virtues of hard work, honesty and loyalty that UNC claimed for itself were only the byproducts of on-court success? (After all, building character and tradition is much easier when the laborers have names like Phil Ford, Michael Jordan and Jerry Stackhouse, and their foreman is Dean Smith.)

Drawing on his social science training, Williamson set out to discover more about UNC’s fans by devising an 86-question survey. In addition, at his behest, 15 fans kept season-long journals during the 2000-01 campaign. He received more than 600 responses to his questionnaire, and his analysis of them, along with the diaries, form the core of the book’s second part. The exhaustive survey asked respondents for such mundanites as age, race and gender. There are also questions designed to gauge their socioeconomic backgrounds and political and emotional temperaments, and many questions about the depth and breadth of their attachment to UNC basketball, and about personal experiences with team members and coaches.

The results revealed a diversity of human experience: There’s the expected 20-something single males who watch games over pizza with their buddies, but there are also retirees, a Hispanic California resident who did not attend UNC, and a sage, passionately liberal middle-aged social worker. What Williamson generally found was a group of people who follow the program closely–on TV, the Internet and in the papers–and have built their lives around the yearly rituals of Tar Heel basketball and its imputed values of integrity, loyalty, class and honesty (to list the top four responses to survey question Number 42).

The questionnaire reveals that UNC fans have long, long memories: The fourth most cherished moment in UNC history is the victory over Duke in 1974 (with eight points down, 17 seconds to go). And, curiously, among the most painful memories is a rather esoteric, but obviously devastating, one–a loss to South Carolina, in 1971. Fans with memories like these are in for the long haul, and Williamson was generally relieved that the petulance and nastiness of the Internet message board culture seemed to represent a small but noisy minority of the Tar Heel rooters.

When Guthridge bowed out two years ago, these fans and program insiders assumed that Smith’s former assistant, Roy Williams of the University of Kansas, would come home and take over. Williams had emerged as the heir apparent over the course of two decades, ever since he was an ambitious graduate assistant and Dean Smith counseled him to begin his coaching career at the high-school level. However, in a shocking, nearly Oedipal rejection, Williams decided that he was committed to the perennially powerful program he had built in Kansas, and did not want to fill the shoes of Smith and Guthridge. A scramble ensued, and the position was given to Matt Doherty, a hero of the 1982 national championship team but a relatively inexperienced coach.

Doherty raised eyebrows immediately by discharging Guthridge’s staff, including the beloved, if troubled, Phil Ford. He replaced them with his (non-UNC) staff from his old position at Notre Dame, sending an unmistakable signal of independence. Since then, Doherty has put his own stamp on the team, bringing a new brashness to the squad and taking steps to energize the notoriously sedate atmosphere of the Dean Dome. The well-dressed, telegenic Doherty has brought a bit of Rick Pitino-ish glamour to the job, in a departure from the courtside modesty of the Smith-Guthridge era.

But his style comes at some cost to the placid, discreetly progressive culture that Williamson celebrates in his book. Doherty’s use of profanity during games and in practice–while hardly unusual in the field of athletic combat–has ruffled some feathers in Chapel Hill (and stroked others, particularly critics of Guthridge). More embarrassingly, after a game against Clemson last year, Doherty engaged in an obscenity-filled shouting match with opposing coach Larry Shyatt, and during a game last year against Duke, he was overheard calling the Blue Devils’ cheerleaders “ugly.” (He apologized for the latter indiscretion.)

“The era of basketball coach as icon from a political point of view is definitely over,” Williamson concedes, before pointing out that Doherty is under tremendous pressure. “It’s unrealistic that Doherty will play that [philosopher-king] role. He’s got his work cut out for him on the basketball court.” Doherty’s equanimity and fortitude in the face of blowout after blowout has impressed Williamson, who remarks, “He hasn’t gone around casting blame. He’s been very supportive of his players.”

Williamson concludes in his book that most UNC fans are sane and sober ones, for whom basketball is a source of healthy diversion and inspiration. Yet he writes, “Would today’s Carolina fans be willing to wait 20 years to see Matt Doherty win a national title the right way, if that’s how long it takes (indeed, if it happens at all)? I’m not sure I want to find out.” Already, UNC’s fans (and nervous rivals) are looking to next year, when a highly touted group of freshmen is due to arrive. Expectations are being raised, and the pressure on Doherty will be turned up a couple of notches–with the talent that’s coming in, it probably won’t be good enough to play clean, honest, but losing, basketball.

In his book, Williamson asks Dean Smith about the fans who insist that their support would not waver during hard times. Quoth the Dean: “They mean that, but I think you and I know different. It’s still very important that we keep scoring.” EndBlock

Thad Williamson will be discussing his book, More than a Game, this Sunday, Feb. 10, from 4-6 p.m. at the Bull’s Head Bookshop in Chapel Hill, prior to the UNC-Maryland game that night.