GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Earlier this week, Dana Altman walked into Oregon’s weight room and took stock of the Final Four and all that comes with it, the various scheduled events and accompanying media circus, among others. In addition to the typical fanfare, Altman also expressed concern about a spy in the locker room, a Tar Heel disguised as a Duck ahead of Saturday’s national semifinal.
It’s been that kind of week for Adam Linens, who is in his second year as Oregon’s strength and conditioning coach. The Graham, N.C. native is Tar Heel born, growing up a rabid fan and graduating from UNC with a degree in exercise and sport science in 2005. He’s let his fandom show in the locker room before, most notably during the Tar Heels’ run to the national championship game last season, which has prompted a steady stream of ribbing ever since Luke Maye’s game-winner over Kentucky to cement this Final Four matchup.
“Last year when we were in the tournament, he’d always be cheering for them when we weren’t playing, and so we’d all joke with him, like, ‘c’mon Adam, you’re with us now!” senior guard Charlie Noebel said. “He keeps getting the question, ‘who are you rooting for?’ He says the Ducks now because he’s with us. He’d get a lot of backlash if he wasn’t with us.”
Oregon assistant coach Mike Mennenga couldn’t help but to interrupt an interview with Linens in the Ducks locker room on Friday, saying, “We’ve already cut this guy, he doesn’t bleed blue. We put him under the hot lamp, put him through the test. We would not let him on the plane if it was anything otherwise.”
The quips and jokes are all in good fun, although the magnitude of circumstance is not lost on Linens. Here’s an admitted diehard Carolina fan, one of so many that grew up watching UNC games religiously and then bantering with friends about team’s strengths and flaws in the days in between, enjoying Oregon’s first trip to the Final Four since 1939 and the opponent is none other than his alma mater.
“With the rich history of Carolina, going to so many Final Fours and winning so many national championships, having a chance to play against them… I never thought I’d be on this level,” Linens said.
He was as an athletic trainer during his undergrad days with the Tar Heel football team, working under Doug Halverson, who is now UNC’s athletic trainer for basketball. Linens’ first decade out of school was spent in the NBA and WNBA as a strength and conditioning coach, which allowed him to follow the Tar Heels, watching live games when he could and recording games when he couldn’t.
That flexibility has changed since taking the Oregon job, given the similar schedules and different time zones.
“I don’t always get to catch every game like I used to, but I’m still obviously a fan and I root for them,” Linens said. “Going up against them on [Saturday] night will be the first time ever that I’m not rooting for the Tar Heels, which will be a little weird. Obviously, I’m totally invested in my guys.”
Linens is not the first native Tar Heel to experience such a unique moment on an opposing staff. Quinton Sawyer, who is now an assistant athletic trainer for the Phoenix Suns, was an athletic trainer as a graduate student during UNC’s 2005 national title run. He spent six years as Michigan State’s athletic trainer, playing his alma mater three times during that span.
Linens chatted with Sawyer this week about the uniqueness of the situation. The hope is to never have to play against your alma mater, but if you do, why not make it in the Final Four?
Friends and family have made the trip to Phoenix to watch tonight’s semifinal, although those with tickets courtesy of Linens are under strict orders to leave their Carolina blue at home and to be on their best behavior. Their seats, after all, will be in the Oregon section.