When the final buzzer sounded, Jackie Manuel searched for someone to hug.
He could head for Roy Williams, who just led the North Carolina men’s basketball team to its first national championship following the Dean Smith era. The pile of teammates burying Rashad McCants in celebration was another option.
As the confetti settled, he wrapped his arms around Jawad Williams and Melvin Scott. In front of 47,000 people in the Edward Jones Dome, the seniors bowed their heads for a thankful prayer.
From UNC’s infamous 8-20 season to former head coach Matt Doherty’s departure from the team, the three of them stuck together through four turbulent years in Chapel Hill.
Now, they could finally reap the rewards of their hard work after a 75-70 win over Illinois in the 2005 national championship.
“We went from the bottom, the lowest of lows, to the top of the mountain,” Manuel said. “It was the best feeling ever.”
Fifteen years later, Manuel is returning to his college town in a new role. He's making the switch to women’s basketball to work on Courtney Banghart’s staff as the team’s director of player personnel, development and recruiting operations.
After eight different stops as a player or coach since he graduated in 2005, having a new job closer to his wife, who works at UNC’s College of Arts & Sciences, means he gets to spend more time with his family while pursuing his passion for coaching in a place he considers his home.
‘Coach, I want to be here’
When North Carolina opened the 2001-2002 season with a loss to Hampton, the normally easy-going Manuel was nervous.
It was supposed to be an easy tune-up game for the Tar Heels. Instead, they lost to a program that, at that point, had only been to the NCAA Tournament once. After the game, Manuel sat in the locker room, growing more pessimistic by the minute.
“Are we even going to be able to win a game on our schedule?” the first-year guard thought to himself.
UNC did manage to win a few contests — 27 in Manuel’s first two years with the team — but he and his teammates knew the bar at North Carolina was much higher. He could feel the pressure and awkwardness when fellow students greeted him with cold shoulders around campus.
By the spring of Manuel’s sophomore year, Doherty held a press conference to announce his resignation. Williams left Kansas to take the helm of his alma mater, and immediately spoke with Manuel.
He heard the sophomore might not be happy on the team, and Williams offered to help him look for transfer options if that’s what he wanted. Or he could stay and cut back on his 3-pointers.
“Coach, I want to be here,” Manuel said. “I want to be part of the team. I want to stay at the University of North Carolina.”
From then on, Manuel spent his college career putting in work to master the nuances of his game. He ran so hard in his first practice under Williams that he puked. He honed his defensive skills, especially maneuvering around screens, enough to earn All-ACC Defensive honors twice. His 3-point attempts dropped from 2.7 per game as a first-year to 0.5 his senior season.
“He was darn near perfect,” the coach said.
‘Hey, G.I. Jane, what’s up?’
In the moment, Sean May gave Manuel hell for dragging him along to pick up ice cream for his girlfriend after a summer practice. Looking back on it, though, he realizes his teammate had bigger plans.
“He was laying the foundation for a marriage,” May said.
Manuel spent almost three years of his college career delivering treats to his future wife, Ronda Norman. It was her favorite little thoughtful gesture of his.
Norman enrolled at UNC in 2001 on an ROTC scholarship. She met Manuel one day during her sophomore year when she was walking through the Pit in uniform and someone from a group of nearby athletes called out to her.
“Hey, G.I. Jane, what’s up? You going to war?”
She turned to see Manuel jogging over to walk with her. He lived in Hinton James while she stayed right around the corner in Ehringhaus, so the two were always able to spend time together, and after a few months, their friendship blossomed into dates.
With those dates came more snacks, a sign of Manuel’s growing love for someone he could see himself starting a life with. After the team’s banquet their sophomore year, he saved his dessert, a cookie dough sundae from Champps, to bring back to her.
“That’s when I said ‘You know what? He’s a keeper,’” she said.
Ronda graduated early in December 2004, the middle of Jackie’s senior season. She had dreams of moving to New York to work for a public relations firm, but Jackie pleaded with her to stay. He felt like this was the team’s year and he needed her support.
He promised to make it up to her, so she found an internship in UNC’s sports information department and planned to attend every game of his last season. He quickly lived up to his pledge when he proposed in January 2005 and married her soon after he graduated that year.
Three kids and 15 years later, Jackie runs tickle time and plays games with Ryann, Kameron and Jordan whenever their mom needs a breather. From on the court to in his home, he’s always been great with the younger crowd.
“He’s really someone who’s living his purpose through coaching,” Ronda said.
‘Would you be willing to move to Idaho?’
By his third year in the NBA’s D-League, Manuel was ready to try something new.
Multiple injuries, including a broken foot, had stunted his chances of a long professional playing career. He saw players coming into the league with the wrong mentality and wanted to help prevent them from making the same mistakes he did, so he reached out to Williams for advice.
“Well, answer this question for me: Would you be willing to move to Idaho?” Williams said. “The reason I ask is because in coaching, you never know where you’re going to be living. If you’re not willing to live in Idaho, you’re not willing to be a coach.”
Manuel decided he could live with that uncertainty and bounced between coaching gigs for Chapel Hill, UNC-Greensboro, Valparaiso and UNC-Wilmington. No matter where he ended up, the people who knew him best were certain he had what it took to help lead a team.
After all, he didn’t score a single point in the 2005 national championship game, but Williams played him for 18 minutes because he understood the game and excelled in his role. During his time as an assistant coach in Chapel Hill, C.B. McGrath saw enough potential and basketball IQ in Manuel to bring him on as an assistant when McGrath earned the UNC-W head coaching position.
“Because it hasn’t always been easy for him, I think he actually embraces the things that are going to be hard,” Banghart, his current head coach, said.
Now, as he begins a new chapter of his journey with the UNC women’s basketball team, Manuel wants to help the next generation of Tar Heels learn from his example to remain resilient throughout whatever life has in store.
“Everything that’s happening to you is happening for your good,” he said. “No matter what, it’s happening for a reason because it’s going to make you better. That’s what my life has been.”
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