Vasco Evtimov will be the first to tell you: when he makes a promise, he sticks to it. Even if it takes 20 years to complete.
Evtimov graduated from North Carolina this weekend with a bachelor's degree in communications. In doing so, the 41-year-old fulfilled a promise he made to Dean Smith, his former head coach at UNC, in the summer of 1999.
And to confirm that accomplishment, Evtimov made good on another promise. In the hallways of the building that bears his namesake, there’s a bronze bust of Smith, who died in 2015 at age 83.
“The first time I saw the statue, I always told myself the day I graduate, the first thing I’m going to do is come over here and take a picture — to make sure that he knows,” Evtimov told The Daily Tar Heel in an exclusive interview. “And that’s what I did. When I finally did it, the feeling was incredible.”
The photo has done numbers. Evtimov joked that he’s “never gotten so many likes on Facebook.” And his Instagram’s been blowing up, too. Everything culminated on Sunday morning, when he sat in Kenan Stadium with thousands of other undergraduates and officially became a UNC alumnus.
His path to graduation, which he first shared with the DTH in February, was a unique one. Evtimov arrived in Chapel Hill a 1996 McDonald’s All-American, but he played sparingly for a star-studded team that went to the Final Four.
With the approval of Smith, Evtimov then took a redshirt year and completed 10 mandatory months of French military service. When the 6-foot-10 forward returned to North Carolina, much had changed.
Bill Guthridge was in his second year as head coach after Smith’s surprise retirement ahead of the 1997-98 season. Evtimov played well in the preseason, but the NCAA handed him an 18-game suspension for playing with a local club team while in France. He returned late in the 1998-99 season and felt increasingly out of place.
That summer, he opted for a professional career overseas — but he promised Smith he would return to UNC and get his degree when he retired.
“It says everything about him: the kind of man he was, how important education was to him …” Evtimov said of Smith. “He didn’t just care about you as a basketball player. He wanted you to become a grown man with an education because you needed to know basketball wasn’t forever.”
Evtimov retired in 2016 and soon after began taking classes through Complete Carolina, a degree completion program for former student-athletes. He lived in an apartment for five semesters, often biking to campus and taking classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
But just last week, as Evtimov finished up his exams, he had a bit of a scare.
His graduation status hinged on a passing grade in MATH 119, a class he’d struggled in all semester. It was ironic, Evtimov said, because he excelled at math in high school and got a B+ in MATH 118 earlier at UNC.
As graduation approached, he hung around in limbo, waiting to see if his final exam score would give him the boost he needed. The news didn’t come until three days before graduation.
“Then I passed,” Evtimov said, “and I was ready to go.”
In the immediate future, Evtimov plans to stay in North Carolina. His son, Nicholas, has committed to play basketball at Western Carolina, and his daughters, Maria and Lili, go to school in Winston-Salem.
He’ll be on the lookout for any coaching jobs — his eventual goal is to be a college assistant — while also securing something full-time where he can utilize his communications degree.
For now, though, Evtimov is celebrating his graduation with one of his favorite hobbies: carp fishing. For this interview, he called in from one of his spots in rural Danbury, North Carolina.
He reminisced on a lot: the promise he kept to Smith, coming back to UNC, the 8 a.m. classes he doesn’t have to take anymore. And he thought back to the previous graduations he’d attended in Kenan Stadium and how Sunday’s was different, in the best possible way.
“This time I walked,” Evtimov said, “and the feeling was amazing.”