Yes, from the first day I had some. Kendall (Marshall) was telling me, ‘Oh they're all coming back.' I said, 'Kendall, how can you say that?' You've got less information than I have [laughter]. But, no, I thought there was one point we could've lost all three. There was one point I thought we were going to get all three back and everything in between.
I was not surprised by John or Z, because the conversation I had with them I got the impression that's the way they were leaning. Harrison's a great poker player – could be. I really went back and forth on what I thought he would do, which that was in my own mind too.
We had three or four pretty significant meetings over a three-week period, the last one was on a Friday. He said he thought he would come to a conclusion by the weekend, so I said, ‘Well, call me on Sunday night.' So he did, and I'm so great with technology that the phone went out right in the middle of the conversation, right when he was getting ready to tell me what he did. It was not a good moment, that's all I can tell you.
How soon did you get him back on the line?
It was crazy, because I don't think he would mind me saying this. We sort of chatted for a moment, and I parked the car in the driveway because Wanda and I were just coming back from eating and he called right before we pulled in the driveway. So we chatted and I said, ‘All right big fella, what are you thinking?' He said, ‘Well coach I loved playing for you. You're a great coach and I loved my teammates. I loved being a student at the University of North Carolina and…'"
[Williams then imitates a cell phone losing service]
I said, ‘Harrison ... Harrison ... Harrison' – he said, ‘Coach?' I said, ‘Big fella, I'm sorry but I've got to ask you to repeat that last part.' Then we were trying to get him up with Steve (Kirschner, UNC's Sports Information Director) so we could do the release. We were trying to find Steve at the Durham Bulls baseball game – so it was quite a comical afternoon. And he did the statement completely on his own. It was one of the neatest statements that I've ever seen. He did it completely by himself.
Is there any correlation to the decisions that Ty (Lawson), Tyler (Hansbrough), Wayne (Ellington) and Danny (Green) made and these guys coming back? Any kind of similarities?
There are some similarities, but not a lot in my mind. Tyler Hansbrough came back because he wanted to try to win a national championship. Danny Green in his mind was not going anyway – but he wanted to see what they said about him. Wayne and Ty made the decision to come back because they weren't pleased with the information they were getting and enjoyed being around. They enjoyed being college players and wanted to see what could happen. I think all four of those were a little different.
This time I think Z and John were more like Tyler Hansbrough – they just enjoyed what the dickens was going on – loved college and loved being a basketball player. I don't think they really thought that much about, 'Well, I'm going to help my situation with the NBA' as much as Ty and Wayne did. Harrison, again, is a really unique individual. He thought of everything you could possible think of and looked at it from every angle you could possibly look at it. He has stated that he wanted to accomplish great things here and didn't feel like that he had done that yet.
I think they were similar in that, yes, guys came back as opposed to leaving, but there reasons were a bit different.
How important is to have the continuity with these guys back?
There's no question this spring was more pleasant then it got started last year. I don't foresee having to dismiss anyone from the team, so that'll be more pleasant. I don't foresee anybody leaving in the middle of the season, so that'll be more pleasant. It's been a much more calmer summer. It's been a summer, when we talked to the guys even in the late spring when we did our individual meetings, we talked about some big-time dreams and goals. What I think they needed to do. It's been a lot more pleasant, I'll still go back to calmer.
On paper, where does this team rank in terms of all the teams you've had headed into the season. What's a reasonable expectation for Carolina fans this year?
Where it ranks, you can't say too much about it until you start playing. I've had five or six teams that I thought had a chance – if they get lucky and things go well – that they have a chance to win a national championship, that's the same kind of thing I think with this team.
You never know what's going to happen. I still go back to maybe the two best teams – understand I said 'maybe.' I was an assistant here in 1984 and we didn't win it. Kenny Smith's broken wrist had a lot to do with that. In 1997 at Kansas, I thought we had the best team and we played like that. Jerod Hasse's broken wrist had a lot to do with it. You never know what's going to happen. 1993, I thought we had a chance to be really good. 1997, 1998 and 2002 particularly. 2005, 2008, I thought we had a chance to be really, really good. In 2005 and 2009 we came through and were really, really good and got lucky. I think that that's what the North Carolina fans should think about. We have a chance to be really, really good but that doesn't mean that you're going to win in the end. This year four No. 1 seeds did not make the Final Four, four No. 2 seeds did not make the Final Four. Only one No. 3 seed made the Final Four. It's the way our game is set up, it's not the best of 3, best of 5 or best of 7 where usually the best team wins. If I'm advising the Carolina people I'm going to say: look forward to it, enjoy every day, enjoy every game. If some good things keep happening at the end of the year, enjoy it even more.
Was Zeller's development the product of finally playing a full season?
I think so. I think that if we would've gotten a full season out of him those other years, you would've seen that same type of development. He's so much more confident now than he was. He understands what he's been able to do with his body and that's really helped him.
The pick-up games he's played in the summer over the last couple of years have been a big factor in helping his confidence as well -- just being able to be there every day.
How do you grasp being that big and that agile be able to run the floor and do what he does?
He's the best runner I've ever coached, with size. He probably doesn't run as well as Kirk Hinrich and Ty Lawson. For a guy of his size to be able to run like that, it always puts pressure on the other team's big guy, he can't slack up. Because all of a sudden he's down the court laying it up.
Can you talk about how college can help a guy like John Henson?
John's dad had the best statement. It's not how quickly you get to the NBA, but how ready you are when you get there. The agents always say you have to get your clock running faster, but they have other motives. I think there is something to be said for being able to be successful right when you get there - that's extremely important. I think John understands that and his family does. He's enjoying being a kid. I think the whole thought process is difficult because the NBA is a hard thing for us to compete with. It's just a big animal with those big dollar signs and big dreams that everybody has. John himself is another very unique individual that knows he can do so much more. As a coach, I think players mature and improve on the court and off the court at a much easier rate, a more stable, steady rate than they do in the NBA. There's just so much free time, so much money and so little time on the practice court. The NBA guys say, ‘Oh, they'll improve' but I just don't agree with that.
What are the tricks of the trade to handle the assault of expectation?
I think one thing, you're really lucky if you have great leadership on the team and those guys understand what the possibilities are. With Raymond Felton, Sean May and that group they really understood that. With Tyler Hansbrough, Marcus, Bobby, Ty, Wayne, Danny, all those guys understood what their possibilities were and in the off-season they prepared that way. They didn't just want to take things for granted. Once our season starts, we have to do the same thing with the staff so we don't assume. I'm going to be a little more demanding and I think they expect that. Our schedule is a big-time schedule. We've got Wisconsin here in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge, we're at Kentucky, we have Michigan State on the aircraft carrier, we have Texas coming here, we're in the Las Vegas tournament. It's the kind of schedule that will challenge them each and every day.
Playing on the aircraft carrier and the whole Osama Bin-Laden body thing – how strange is that for you?
I don't know – I don't have any thoughts on Bin Laden's body. It's somewhere in the ocean. Playing on the aircraft carrier is going to be a unique thing, very neat thing. I'm ecstatic to do something like that in front of our military personnel for what they've done for our country and are still doing. I'm thrilled about that part – thrilled is not descriptive enough phrase because I'm just excited as I can possibly be. Everything that we can do to show our military how appreciative we are of what they do each and every day, putting themselves in harm's way to fight for what we as Americans believe in, is something that I'm very proud of.
What's the next step in Kendall's growth? What demands have you put on him, in terms of becoming more durable?
As I've told you before, I won't tell you everything that we talk about. There are three or four things that they need to work on. I am concerned, we were very lucky last year that Kendall was able to give us those minutes without a true point guard backup. I think Dexter will be so much more prepared this year to do those kind of things. I think Stilman (White) coming in will have a chance to do some of those things. We may put the ball in Harrison's hands or in Leslie's hands and let them do some things too. But, we also realize that Kendall was so effective that we expect him to get even better. One of the ways he can do that is to prepare his body and try to get bigger, stronger, quicker and have the stamina to do it over a full season – if need be – as compared to just a half season like last year.
What is his next step?
It's pretty easy. What do you guys think? He's got to shoot the ball better and he's got to get quicker, so he can do things defensively. The second one is the hardest, it's harder to get quicker. The easy guys to coach in the world are the 100-meter dash guys. Just go when the gun starts and get there as fast as you can. Getting quicker is really difficult, so you have to work on your body a lot of ways there. Getting his shot where it's more dependable so people will have to come out and play him.
How important to the development of last year's team was Dexter accepting the role as the defensive guy?
I think the game where he accepted it and understood it even more than anything was the last game and that was the Kentucky game. I thought, defensively, he was as good as any player I've ever coached at the guard position. I'll be curious to see how he builds on that himself. Every kid wants to shoot, Dexter's no different. Every kid wants to score, Dexter's no different. I think that at the end of last season, he realized - particularly that game - realized how important he can be. It'll be interesting to see how that works and I think he'll understand it even more and appreciate himself even more. We're not going to tell him he can't shoot and can't do those other things but I think that that's his niche.
A couple of the guys talked about how you hammer home how it's just as easy to make headlines for the wrong reasons as for the right, and that you've kind of used the football stuff as a teaching tool. Can you elaborate on that?
The only way I've used the football stuff is because it's been so pertinent, it's been here. I haven't picked on the football team. I tell them all the time, you get your name in the paper easily. I did that 24 years ago too. Now what goes on in college athletics, with the social media, there's no secrets, you have to be on guard all the time. Several years ago at the Jimmy V classic, I'm doing something for charity and the Hooters girls come over and want me to give an autograph, I do it and it ends up on Facebook. I don't even know what the crap that was, still don't. So I'm in a restaurant in Wilmington, and there are three couples there celebrating somebody's anniversary and the girls want to have their picture made with me – I make them sit their drinks down. I had no idea if it was 7-Up or straight vodka, but you have to do those kinds of things. It's that part that you have to understand, there's not much privacy in the world. We talk about that, we talk about Twitter and Facebook, that you have to be concerned with what you say and how it can be represented. Regardless of your inflection or your tone when you say something, it doesn't come out all the same. But, it's the day that we're in. I don't like it. I used to go into somebody's home and feel like I made a great presentation and we really connected and it was just me and the family. Now I come home, spoiled rotten on a private plane and Wanda tells me everything that happened in the home visit because it's already on the internet.
It's what we live in. Youngsters, it's their world. It's not my world and for the most part, looking around, it's not your world. What they do now is so much different from the rest of what we did. We have to understand that part. But, you have to be careful, there's that old saying not too many good things happen after 2 a.m. I think there's not a lot of good things that happen when you get very personal on Twitter or Facebook.
Were you surprised that Dexter didn't need surgery? What went into that decision?
Was I surprised? Not really, because I'm not a doctor. I don't ask them whether I should play zone or man-to-man and they don't ask me about their suggestions. Dexter played so effectively without it and had such little pain as the season went along; I was not surprised because of that reason. I was not surprised because he had already been through it with the high school deal. Dexter is an extremely tough individual that could probably play with pain as good or better as anybody on our team.
Where is Reggie (Bullock) in terms of his rehab?
He's in the trainer's room doing it [laughter]. They're allowing him to shoot now, to run now. He's not playing, he's not doing any full-speed cuts. They're being very slow and cautious with him. I think that, if this was during the season, he might even be further along than he is right now. I think they're being very cautious with him. Two weeks or 10 days ago, I think he had a little bit of swelling because he had pushed it a little bit hard and they backed off a little bit. He told me yesterday it felt very good.
A lot of people are talking about how all of the big guys are coming back. But you also have P.J. (Hairston) and McAdoo (James Michael) coming in. What are your initial thoughts about those guys coming into and playing your system?
I haven't seen any of the pick-up games. We're not supposed to watch and I really do not watch, I'd love to. But I get reports, for sure. I think those guys are very gifted and very talented. They came here knowing that there are probably going to be some pretty good players in front of them. I think they'll make some adjustments to not being the guy all of a sudden. Yet, there will be times where I'm going to tell them we need them to be the guy. They're wonderful kids who wanted to be here and wanted to be part of a really big-time team and that's what they're a part of now. Until you get into practices – I've heard guys that in pick-up games are just killing everybody and then they get into practice and can't play dead in a cowboy movie. I generally like to wait and see. They're gifted and I expect they'll help us.
Over the last two years, eight of the 12 ACC teams have changed coaches. Can you talk about that turnover and what it does to the league? What's it say about the league?
It says coaching college basketball is not a very stable position, that's what it is. The ACC, the history and tradition of the ACC, has been one of winning. It's been one where your teams are thought of as some of the best teams in the country, so it's very competitive. In the old days, you had more athletic directors who were former coaches, now you have more athletic directors who are business men that think things can be turned around, perhaps, quicker than they realistically could be turned around. And the rules make it very difficult. Twenty years ago you could take a job in the spring and still have several guys available that you might be able to recruit to help your first team out on the court.
That just doesn't happen. I took the job here - April 14 was the press conference - and we recruited one kid that could've helped that team the next year. And so, you make a change and then four years later when it still hasn't gotten to where you want to, then you blame the coach. It's harder to rebuild something. People said our league was down, the coaches never think your league is down, particularly when you're playing somebody within your league, especially on their court. The ACC stands by itself over a 50- or 60-year period of what we've been able to accomplish. It's a hard job.
There's some speculation there's been a changeover because North Carolina and Duke have such a stranglehold over the conference. That's quite a hill for a coach to climb…
Well it is. Especially is, when I can go back and say those athletic directors are former business men. If they had been in computers and been at IBM all those years, they'd know what was going on in basketball too. But you know, they were selling wrist watches and not having to compete with IBM. Do we have any AD's that were former jewelry salesmen? [laughter]
But it is a different world. And that's not to criticize them, because the game of college basketball is so much more business oriented now. There's so much more of a financial concern than it used to be in the old days. Perhaps they need to be, but I'd like to see more former coaches be in those AD positions so they can do both.
North Carolina, I hope, is always going to be good. Duke, I don't hope quite as much, is always going to be good. I think the coaches in our league that use those things as a positive, generally come out speaking better of them.
Coach, speaking of Duke, how do you see…
I'd rather not [laughter].
How do you see that rivalry playing out next year – given that they're losing three key contributors?
We've been through that. We lost six of our top seven and five of our top six. One year we were really, really very bare and the next year people thought we were not and we were pretty doggone bare. I don't think Duke needs to worry, the Duke fans don't need to worry. I think they're going to be sensational. The three big guys they had come back – Ryan (Kelly) Mason and Miles (Plumlee) – each one of them, you'll have to look at this, had a double-double or averaged a double-double in the ACC tournament and NCAA play. That's three pretty good guys right there. You had some guys in (Seth) Curry and (Andre) Dawkins who were able to shoot the ball in the basket and you've got a phenomenal recruiting class coming in. I think they're going to be a fantastic basketball team and the guy that coaches them is pretty doggone good and will figure out a way to make the parts fit. I don't think their cupboard is as bare, by any means, as what we've gone through over here a couple of times, and other teams have gone through also. It just show what kind of great job Mike and his staff do about always have guys coming in.
Next weekend in Raleigh, you'll have a chance to accompany Coach Smith at the Naismith banquet. Can you talk about that event and all three programs in the area being represented?
I don't know much about the event - we did it at Kansas several years ago and I received the Naismith award. It's a phenomenal trophy. When you speak of sportsmanship, you do talk of Coach Smith. I've said: the best I've ever seen on the court and even better off the court. The quality of him ethically and morally can stand any competition, any comparison ever. The Naismith Sportsmanship award, Coach Smith had the background of Kansas and Dr. Naismith being there and the whole bit. It'll be a special thing, I'll never be a great substitute, I'll never even be a good substitute for Coach Smith. When you do that and you're honoring coaches – it'll be a neat event. My only concern, and I hope it doesn't get to this, is if our baseball team is playing great, if they're playing for the national championship – oh my God. My talk will be about two minutes and I'm going to watch the dadgum TV. I'll be watching the Tar Heels if we're on TV.
You're obviously close with (Vanderbilt) Coach (Kevin) Stallings and he's got people telling him how he should feel. Do you have an understanding of what he's going through?
Everybody should. Blood is a lot thicker than those people that pay your paycheck. Wes Miller came here to play and his family's name is on the practice facility at Wake Forest. I asked his dad and he said blood is a lot thicker than that money is. Kevin is a great ambassador for Vanderbilt, but when little Jacob is behind the plate, he doesn't give a flip about Vanderbilt and I wouldn't either.
When Woody Durham was applying for the Carolina job, he said he talked to Coach Smith and Coach (Bill) Dooley, have any of the respective candidates asked to speak with you?
I've had some communication with them but I haven't met with any of them. I don't even know how many we had that came through here, but I didn't meet with any of them. It was wicked Wanda's birthday, so I was down in Charleston, S.C. with her.
Weather wise, did you have trouble getting out of Omaha last night?
No, we sneaked out right in front of everything. I was back here checking the gyms at camp, last night at 9:20 p.m. It was a good day.
Earlier you mentioned the schedule and playing Wisconsin. Have you had a chance to talk to their athletic director?
Former athletic director? Former athletic directors don't have enough to do? The fact of the matter is, Wisconsin had home games two-straight years. The fact of the matter is, I've been here eight years and we've played three true home games, and Illinois in Greensboro and three true games, and Michigan State in Detroit, so you could say four in four. The fact of the matter is in 12 years we've had six and six, the fact of the matter is Wisconsin in 12 years has had six and six. The fact of the matter is, I call and say, ‘Who are we going to play?' I've never told them I want to play anybody - never told them I don't want to play anybody. They have more important things to do than think about what the dickens I want to say anyway. The fact of the matter is that I was on the rules committee and said the style of play in basketball was getting too physical. The fact of the matter is I'm very good friends with Dick Bennett and Tom Izzo. The fact of the matter is, I don't care what somebody else says.
[Looks at Steve Kirschner] How'd I do?
If Coach (Mark) Gottfried had called you and asked your advice of what you think about the NCSU job – what would you have told him?
I would've told him to take the job. If you want to coach, I think North Carolina State is a great job. I think the ACC is a great place to coach. It's a great place to live, two hours from the beach, 3.5 hours from the mountains. I wouldn't think there were any negative things about it at all. They have four, five or six, I think, really good players. If he had called, there would not have been any negative things whatsoever.
What'd you tell (Mark) Coach Turgeon?
Almost the same thing. I think that Maryland is a great job. In my opinion, he's accomplished more with less at every job he's been at – Jacksonville State, Withica State, Texas A&M. Maryland, I think, is one of the best jobs in all of college basketball. You're in the ACC, you're in Washington, D.C. You have so many talented players that you can get in the car and see and they can get in the car and see their sons play. I just think it's a fantastic job and Mark I think is a truly great coach.
The only thing that bothered me is that, after I recommended him so highly, I said, 'Why did I do that?' I'd rather have one of you guys coaching.