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A career falls into place

USC men’s basketball assistant coach Scott Cherry works with Sam Muldrow during a recent workout. Cherry is Darrin Horn’s top assistant.
USC men’s basketball assistant coach Scott Cherry works with Sam Muldrow during a recent workout. Cherry is Darrin Horn’s top assistant.

Since he left high school, Scott Cherry has been connected with the royalty that is North Carolina basketball. He played in the 1993 national championship game. So, of course, his coaching career path was paved by connections and quick phone calls, right?

Far from it.

In fact, Cherry arrived this month as USC’s top assistant via a long and circuitous road.

He toiled for awhile in a third assistant role in which he watched a lot of videos but couldn’t recruit. He was a women’s basketball assistant coach. He coached a junior varsity high school team. He even sold forklifts for more than two years.

But when Cherry’s coaching career got going, it got going.

In the past three years, he was an assistant coach in the Final Four and, after switching jobs, helped a second team to the Sweet 16.

“He has paid his dues, and he’s a better coach for it,” said former North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge, an assistant when Cherry played from 1989-93.

“He must be doing something right, because you can’t find too many assistants who have been to the Sweet 16 or higher, been to the Final Four as an assistant and a player, who’s coaching in college basketball today,” said George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, who served over Cherry in two separate occasions.

Those moves are a big reason Cherry’s experience, despite being 36, apparently caused Darrin Horn to hire him for the second consecutive year. Last year, Horn brought in Cherry to be his top assistant at Western Kentucky, and he did it again when Horn took the USC job.

“This business is just different for everybody,” Cherry said last week, just after moving into his new office. “I really thought when I wanted to get into coaching I would call coach (Dean) Smith, and he would hook me up and give me a job. But he made you work at it. He made you try to make contacts and get involved with jobs.”

Cherry grew up in upstate New York, and was a late signee to North Carolina in 1989. The Tar Heels had two scholarships open when J.R. Reid left early for the NBA and a potential recruit, Kenny Anderson, chose Georgia Tech. It was a huge break for Cherry, whose other choices included Holy Cross, Iona and Fairleigh Dickinson.

When he got to Chapel Hill, he learned he had to compete every day. The other guards — King Rice, Derrick Phelps, Hubert Davis — were McDonald’s All-Americans. He ended up playing in 76 games over four years, totaling 112 points and 51 assists. He played in two Final Fours, and saw action in the second half of the 1993 championship game, when North Carolina beat Michigan.

“I was happy. You can’t be upset at the fact that you played for Dean Smith, one of the best of all time, at a program like North Carolina, and get my degree from there,” Cherry said. “Would I like to have played some more? Sure. But I understood my role, and what I brought to my team, and tried to do the best at it that I could.”

Guthridge said he could tell that Cherry would make a good coach.

“Being the backup point guard, he had a knowledge of the offense and the other things that are needed in a coach,” Guthridge said. “You could also see the enthusiasm he brought to the team.”

Still, a coaching career waited a few years. Cherry played overseas for one year. He wasn’t sure he liked that, so a friend’s father offered him a job selling forklifts. It was lucrative, but Cherry realized he missed basketball.

He started as a junior varsity coach in Winston-Salem, N.C. After a year, he became an assistant women’s coach at Middle Tennessee State, and briefly served as a video coordinator at Tennessee. Then he was hired at George Mason as the third assistant, which at that time meant he couldn’t go on the road to recruit, so Cherry did a lot of the grunt work, whether it was breaking down film, scouting opponents or whatever.

He left again for a year, working at Tennessee Tech as a full-time assistant, but came back to George Mason when Jim Larranaga had a full-time position open. He was there for the Final Four run in 2006, but left before last season for Western Kentucky. It was a move partly personal — his wife, Cortney, is from Tennessee — but also professional.

Larranaga wasn’t going anywhere — he turned down his alma mater this year. So Cherry seized a much better chance for advancement, anticipating that Horn would move up, and Cherry would either have a shot to replace him or a chance to move along with him to a big school.

“It just felt something like this might happen,” Cherry said.

Western Kentucky passed over Cherry for the coach’s job, which Cherry said he understood given the athletics director’s prior relationship with the chosen coach, Ken McDonald. Cherry has made his own connections outside the Tar Heel fold. However, he said he had never met USC athletics director Eric Hyman, a fellow North Carolina graduate.

Larranaga thinks the moves set up Cherry perfectly for higher expectations at USC. Fans should forget about setting 20 wins as the benchmark as a good season, according to the George Mason coach.

“I mean we finished in the Final Four. And then two years later he’s in the Sweet 16 with a different mid-major program,” Larranaga said. “Now he gets to go to the SEC where you should have more resources, you have better funding, you get involved with more quality players, your players should have that much more going for them because they’ve reached the high-major level already.”

Reach Emerson at (803) 771-8676.