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North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith always insisted he would know when to walk away from the job that made him a legend.

Smith did that Thursday when he ended his 36-year head coaching career by announcing his retirement at a packed news conference in the Smith Center.

Smith, 66, stepped down content with his decision and in good health. The highly successful program was handed over to his longtime assistant Bill Guthridge.

Though no terms were announced, sources said Guthridge would receive a five-year contract.

"Each year, for the past eight years, I have been saying maybe it's time to go do something else," Smith said in a nationally televised news conference. "I enjoy basketball. I enjoy coaching basketball. It's the out-of-season things I haven't been able to handle very well."

All of those things will now fall to Guthridge, 60, an assistant coach to Smith for the last 30 years.

"This isn't quite the way I envisioned this scenario through the years," Guthridge said. "I always hoped Dean and I would go out together, riding into the sunset five or six years from now. But things don't always work out the way you want them to."

Though the future belongs to Guthridge, the day belonged to Smith.

He first approached athletic director Dick Baddour last week about the possibility of retiring. Smith has often talked about how drained he is after each season ends and how he gradually gets recharged as preseason practice approaches each October.

The fire didn't start this year, however. He told Baddour on Oct. 2 that he was seriously considering retirement and wanted the weekend to think about his decision. "I was about 80 percent sure," Smith said Thursday.

Smith, whose contract runs through the 2000-2001 season, had already been telling recruits he would not be at North Carolina for their senior seasons.

Smith called Baddour on Tuesday afternoon and confirmed he was leaving. Smith had spent the weekend at the Smith Center at the annual strategy sessions he has with former players who are now coaches, including Eddie Fogler of South Carolina, Roy Williams of Kansas, Larry Brown of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, Randy Wiel of Middle Tennessee State and Buzz Peterson of Appalachian State.

Though Smith enjoyed the camaraderie and the basketball talk, he said, the feeling that had accompanied the start of the last 36 years had ebbed.

"It was almost like something was wrong," Smith said.

"If I can't give this team that enthusiasm, I said I'd get out. That's how I feel."

Guthridge found out Tuesday that Smith would retire and he would become the school's 16th men's basketball coach.

Smith got choked up only once Thursday, when he talked about the loyalty he has received from his former players.

"They are really special. . . . That's all," Smith said, cutting off his remarks early in the 50-minute news conference.

Smith dismissed rumors that his decision was based on more than a lack of enthusiasm for dealing with the demands of another season. He said his retirement was not health-related, though he said he would start exercising immediately because he needs to lose weight.

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