Coach Roy Williams’ love of coaching spreads to his pupils
Sometimes he wonders why he even does it.
Why, when the winter days grow colder and the losses become dreary, when the practices instigate frustration and the fantasy becomes a grind, he wonders if it’s worth it.
If being a college basketball coach means something is wrong with him.
Then Wes Miller snaps out of it.
The 31-year-old UNC-Greensboro basketball coach flashes back to the days he spent hours putting up shot after shot, perfecting drill after drill.
“I was just one of those kids that fell in love with the game of basketball,” he said.
“It really captivated me.”
He flashes back to the slew of memories he has of watching North Carolina play on national television and the countless times he yearned to be part of it one day.
“I grew up in North Carolina,” he said. “When you grow up in this state, you love college basketball.”
And he flashes back to the day it all happened.
The day UNC coach Roy Williams needed just one interaction — just two hours in his Chapel Hill office — to convince the James Madison transfer that taking a walk-on position at UNC would be worth it. Williams made Miller a deal — a promise.
A deal that a decade later, the Hall of Fame coach — with his 714 wins and two national titles — is still keeping.
“He told me that he would be really influential in helping me become a coach one day, which is what I knew I wanted to do at the time,” Miller said. “That was the primary reason that I made the decision to come to school there and play for him.”
Miller is just one of a handful of Williams’ pupils that is now at the helm of his own Division I program.
He returned to his Chapel Hill classroom earlier in December where Williams won, 81-50.
And tonight at 8 p.m, when the lights dim and the opening tip is tossed, the Tar Heels will take the floor against one of Williams’ prodigies for the final time this season.
Mark Turgeon and the Maryland Terrapins are coming to town.
It seems like forever ago when they first met, Williams says with a chuckle.
It’s noon Monday, and for exactly the next 10 minutes and eight seconds, the 26-year coach will field questions in a weekly teleconference.
He’s asked to recall his favorite memories of the UNC-Maryland series. Lefty Driesell. Dean Smith. Two legendary coaches, two competitive programs.
Then, about six-and-a-half minutes in, Williams opens up about Turgeon.
Turgeon’s the man Williams began working with nearly three decades ago with the 1987-88 Kansas team that won the national title. He’s the man that gave Williams four loyal years of hard work as an assistant coach. And he’s the man that 27 years later, Williams still reveres .
“When you hire a guy, you’re putting a lot of your own professional career and your life in his hands, and he did a wonderful job for me for four years,” Williams said. “I just love him and his family. I’ve known him it seems like forever.”
But both admit that coaching against someone that stood just feet away on the same sideline for so many moments isn’t an easy thing to experience.
It certainly takes an emotional toll.
“As soon as the game’s over, if you win, you feel the elation. And all of a sudden you realize who’s on the other bench,” Williams said. “And if you lose — like we did against (Alabama-Birmingham) — you feel bad because you’ve got some guys on your bench that you care a great deal about.”
Tonight, one of those guys that Williams cares so deeply about will be donning a No. 0 white jersey — for UNC.
It’s not often that Williams and Turgeon disagree, but tonight the Maryland coach will likely keep a close eye on Nate Britt, the Maryland native that Turgeon hoped would stay close to home.
“It’s hard when you compete,” Turgeon said.
But he hopes that competitiveness will wane soon.
“That’s one good thing about leaving the league — our relationship,” Turgeon said. “I’m sure we’ll talk a lot more in the future, and after this game, I’m sure we will, too.”
Like father, like son
It was 1985 when UNC guard Robert “Buzz” Peterson began to seriously consider a profession in coaching.
He was a year removed from living with Michael Jordan, who had left school early to enter the 1984 NBA Draft.
As a senior, Peterson knew that life was about to hit him.
He turned to Dean Smith.
“I kind of got intrigued by my playing days there, what we did on the practice court,” he said. “I told (Smith) I wouldn’t mind coaching.”
Smith fired back with an immediate question.
“He told me, he said ‘Let me ask you something.’ He said, ‘Would you take the assistant’s (coaching) job at University of Wyoming or University of Montana or something way out west?”’
Peterson, now the coach at UNC-Wilmington — whom UNC defeated in December — paused for thought, as Smith gauged his seriousness.
“I said, ‘Good question. Probably would.’’’
Williams was an assistant coach at UNC at the time.
Perhaps he had witnessed the conversation. Or perhaps he had just heard Smith say that many times before.
But sometime, decades later, Williams drew back on it, with a young Jackie Manuel — a member of the 2005 national championship team.
“I talked to coach Williams every summer, probably every day just to get a feel for him as to what to expect and what the coaching side of it is like,” Manuel said.
Manuel began to laugh.
“He’s like, ‘Are you willing to move to Idaho?’’’
Now alongside former teammate Miller at UNC-G, Manuel is an assistant coach.
He vividly remembers April 4, 2005 — the day Williams won his first national title at UNC with a 75-70 win against Illinois.
“We knew we would never play together again,” he said.
“And so we wanted to cherish this moment … so that once we leave here and are 10 to 20 years behind, we’ll all still leave behind a really good legacy.”
It’s what each of the four coaches Williams mentored knows he’ll leave behind once he, too, leaves North Carolina.
UAB coach Jerod Haase — who both played for and coached with Williams — said each day when he enters the gym, he brings a piece of his UNC friend with him.
“The one thing I always say about coach Williams is that he’s very, very genuine,” said Haase, whose team defeated UNC 63-59 in December.
“I hope people would say that about me.”
But more than anything, Haase, Peterson and Miller said that Williams will live on as one of the fiercest competitors college basketball has ever seen.
It’s the drive, the passion and the loyalty that the three said allows Williams to touch so many lives. They all strive to bring that same spirit to their own teams after watching Williams for so long.
Miller saw it the same day that Williams promised him he’d help him become a coach.
Haase experienced it as a player and assistant at Kansas and an assistant at UNC.
And Peterson recognized it as soon as he arrived on campus in the 80s.
Perhaps when Williams leaves, the next basketball court or arena will be named in his honor.
That’s what 2009 national championship team member Bobby Frasor predicts will happen.
Perhaps he’ll have a few more national championship banners hanging in said arena.
“I think coach Williams wins more national championships, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Peterson said.
“He’s going to win some more. It’s just a matter of time.”
But certainly, his memory will live on forever — because there’s just no chance that Roy Williams will ever be forgotten.
“He’s already in the basketball hall of fame,” Frasor said.
“But he and coach Smith are going to be Carolina basketball royalties forever and ever.”