CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – On Friday, in the aftermath of N.C. State’s announcement that it had fired head coach Mark Gottfried, a reporter asked Roy Williams about the notion that the Wolfpack job was too tough due to sharing a neighborhood with North Carolina and Duke.
Williams provided a gem of a response, offering a specific detail he had not shared publicly before, one that did not even grace the pages of his 2009 autobiography, “Hard Work.”
“I really don’t pay any attention to it,” Williams said. “I was offered the job at State, or the original call was made to me 100 years ago. I said, ‘How in the dickens can I come coach at State? That just doesn’t make sense.’ I was called and asked about it on two different occasions when I was at Kansas.”
Williams coached in Lawrence from 1988-2003. N.C. State made two coaching changes during that time period, first after firing Jim Valvano in April 1990 and again after Les Robinson stepped down in 1996.
The 14th-year UNC head coach is 32-3 all-time against N.C. State and 27-3 during his time in Chapel Hill. His passion for the Wolfpack dates back to the late 1960s.
“I've gone on record as saying that I struggled with them,” Williams said in 2012. “I was a freshman in college and some old high school buddies that I had played baseball and basketball with were over at State and they gave me enough crap for the rest of my life. I didn't appreciate it and I didn't like it. So I've always had the feeling that this is an important game.”
Williams also delivered a sharp criticism of the way in which situations such as Gottfried’s firing are handled.
“It was disappointing,” he said. “I’m a coach. I’m not an athletic director, I’m a coach. I think we should fire more athletic directors. Should I stop right there? I didn’t say ours. They make the decisions, dadgum. It’s like me firing my point guard. I recruited his butt. I’m trying to be a little humorous there because it’s a sad thing. Mark’s whole family has got to go through it, it’s not just him.
“I do have one strong feeling, and I’ve said this forever – it got me in trouble with my athletic director at Kansas before I left there - I don’t think any college coach should be fired during the season. It’s college basketball. It’s college sports. It’s college athletics. If you want to make a decision as an athletic director, that’s your right, but I don’t like that part of it.”
Virginia’s been struggling a bit lately, but what have you seen out of them that concerns you?
“I’d probably disagree that they’ve been struggling. They’re in the ACC and playing good teams. They lose at Syracuse, they lose at Virginia Tech, they lose at Villanova. Most people are going to lose at those places. They’re at the top of the league in 3-point shooting percentage, first or second. They’re first or second in defensive rebound percentage, so they don’t give up a lot of second shots. Their defense is still really good. Their shooting percentage is really good, so they know the right guys are getting the shots.
“London [Perrantes] is a tremendous floor leader for them. The two young guys, Ty [Jerome] and [Kyle] Guy, give them two freshmen coming off the bench who can really score. They did lose two big guys up front who were really good for them, but [Jack] Salt is giving them a lot of good minutes up there and [Isaiah] Wilkins is playing with a sense of urgency in everything he does. I think it still is a vintage Virginia club under Tony [Bennett]. They don’t beat themselves. They’ll make you work extremely hard for your basket, and if you come down and take a quick shot, it’s sort of silly because now you’ve got to go back and play defense for 25 seconds.”
How do you go about preparing your team for the vast difference in pace?
“The same way I’ve always done it. I’ve always said I like to win in the 80s and 90s, but to be a really good team you’ve got to win in the 50s and 60s as well. And we understand that, so you talk to them about it, you practice it, get the blue team to be more patient with their shot selection and make sure for the white team to get a better shot, not just the first shot they look at. The first great shot you look at is what you want. We played really well last year in the ACC Tournament and won the game by four points, 61-57. We played pretty well against Indiana a couple of games later and I think Marcus [Paige] made four threes before the first timeout. If you can only play one way, I don’t think you can make a consistent run through this league, for sure, but even nationally, I think you’ve got to be able to play more than one way because you’re not in charge. If we were always in charge, it would always be 90-100, but the other team has a right to do that and they choose the way they play.”
How do you expect the absence of Kenny Williams to affect your approach?
“He was our best perimeter defender. I sure can’t get Kennedy Meeks to play defense on the perimeter like I had Kenny doing it. When his jump shots went in, he was really a talented player. He really helped us a great deal. Against Notre Dame, he was sensational in that game because he made three threes and was really good defensively, so it’s a big loss. Getting Theo back makes it a little easier because you’re sort of trading off, but Theo’s not as good defensively as Kenny. Theo does some other great things for you. We’ll bring Stilman [White] back into the mix a little bit more. I think Seventh [Woods] is getting a little better. His stats in ACC play are a little better than they were during nonconference play, but it does change things up, even in practice… You never want to lose a guy that’s important to your team, and he’s been pretty important to our team. I started him.”
How is Kenny handling the situation?
“Really handling it very well so far. Very emotional and very tough at first, but if you had seen him on the bench when Seventh made the spin move and laid it up, he was pretty active jumping around on one leg. I asked him if that was a new dance routine. He’s doing well. He’s already been in to see me this morning.”