For several seconds, Phil Ford, the greatest point guard in ACC history and a genuinely good person, was stumped.
I’d asked him what was the most important function served by Linda Wright Woods, longtime administrative assistant for UNC basketball coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge.
After studying on it for awhile, Ford did something he never did on a basketball court: he gave up.
“That’s impossible,” he finally admitted. “Everything she did was important.”
Mrs. Woods died Feb. 3 at her home in Stem, and her memorial service was held at the Dean E. Smith Center on UNC’s campus March 6. She worked at the university from 1977 until 2000, but stayed away from the basketball offices for about a month - just long enough, she’d said in a 2015 N&O story, to clean out her closets at home.
“I retired in 2000, but I’ve been working ever since,” she’d said.
It was as a player and a coach that Ford knew Woods. She was, officially, Smith’s administrative assistant, “but she did everything,” he said. “She kept Coach’s schedule, she typed up his private letters… Basically, anything that happened in the office, she oversaw. She loved Carolina basketball, she loved all of us. She was a sweet, sweet lady.”
She was also, he said, “as loyal as any person I’ve ever known on the face of the earth. She made sure all the players had cakes on their birthdays, sometimes if a player needed some tender loving care, she was there for them. Her door was always open. Not just players – team managers and anyone associated with the program.”
One of those team managers on the receiving end of Woods’ TLC was Chris Leevy, (pictured here with Woods) who was at the school and with the team from 1992 through 1996.
“If you look in the dictionary under ‘loyalty,’ you’ll see a picture of Mrs. Woods,” Leevy told me Sunday while driving from Columbia, S.C. to the Dean Dome to fulfill a vow he’d made to her 25 years ago: to conduct her funeral service.
“She was my second mother – the sweetest woman you’d ever want to meet. My family has been in the funeral business since 1932, and she would jokingly tell me ‘When I die, son, come and get my body,’” he said.
Leevy, an ordained minister and pastor, also officiated in 2008 the services for Ruth Kirkendall, another longtime UNC basketball assistant.
“I know you hear it all the time, but UNC basketball is ‘family,’ and there’s nothing like having a member of your family conduct your service, eulogize you,” he said.
What, I asked Leevy, was the main thing he remembered from his four years with the team?
“Mrs. Woods and Coach Smith treated the managers the same as they treated the star players – like their own children,” he said.
In his eulogy, he spoke about how, in her old office at Carmichael Auditorium, “Ma Woods’s desk sat diagonal” while everyone else’s was flush against a wall or in the middle of the office.
“I never understood why, but the answer is what (former player Eric Montross) told you earlier: she had to see the door. She had to see every player go by so she could give them a hug.”
Woods, he said, “was the first Director of Basketball Operations at any school. Now, every school has one, but she doesn’t get the credit she deserves for being the first.”
How much confidence did Smith have in Woods?
In his memoir, A Coach’s Life, he wrote “Giving Linda an assignment was sort of like putting the ball in Phil Ford’s hands going to Four Corners – nothing but good things were going to happen.”