Tim Crothers is an author and former senior writer at Sports Illustrated who is joining the News & Observer sports staff to write a regular column during the rest of the college basketball season.
Nearing the end of his first day as a college head coach, 28-year-old Wes Miller discovered a text message from an unexpected source. In the wake of UNC Greensboro coach Mike Dement's sudden resignation on Dec. 13, Miller had just been promoted from an assistant to the Spartans' interim head coach, becoming the youngest coach in Div. 1 basketball, when Jason Capel, the coach of Southern Conference rival Appalachian State sent Miller the following text: Congratulations. Your heart will never stop beating fast as long as you are a head coach.
Capel was uniquely qualified to mentor Miller because just 19 months earlier, when coach Buzz Peterson abruptly left Appalachian State for UNC Wilmington, Capel had been elevated from an assistant to head coach, thus becoming the youngest coach in Div. I at the time. Miller and Capel are both UNC alums. Capel's message to Miller was the same one passed on to him by Tar Heel coach Roy Williams on the day that Capel accepted the head job with the Mountaineers.
"I guess I wanted Wes to know that there was someone in his corner who had been through it just a year prior, because it's amazing what a difference moving just one seat down the bench can make," says the 32-year-old Capel. "Our programs may be rivals, but Wes and I are both part of the UNC family. I wanted him to know that I'm here if he needs me. That's what family does."
Capel's Tar Heel career actually finished before Miller's began. Capel played under Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty, Miller under Williams. The connection between Capel and Miller stems largely from the teammates they shared. "Jason was like a big brother to guys like Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott who became the big brothers to me when I came to Carolina," Miller says. "That is our bond."
Going to Carolina
Miller, a Charlotte native, transferred to UNC in 2003 with the promise that Williams would teach him to be a coach. Williams saw himself decades earlier, a stubby kid with a coaching dream who sensed there would be no better place to apprentice than North Carolina. As a player, Miller developed into a 3-point shooting spark plug, but Miller and Williams both understood he had a higher calling. When Miller learned he'd been promoted to the UNC Greensboro head coach, he called his wife, his parents and then Williams.
"I had no idea how emotional I was going to be on my first day of practice as a head coach," Miller says. "I had a number of things I had planned on saying, but it all went out the window in that moment. Instead I just asked the players to look me in the eye and I told them, 'I don't know if I'll be any good at this, but I'll give you everything I've got.'" Williams couldn't have said it better himself.
Miller and Williams have spoken at least a half dozen times since. Says Williams, "I have told Wes, 'Just because you're a head coach now, don't think you have to change into somebody you're not. You're a really positive, energetic guy. Be that guy.'"
Mimicking Williams, Miller has directed his team to play faster and look to score off the secondary break. He often finds himself frantically waving his team up the floor the way Williams does. Miller's practices are planned out to the minute, with an offensive emphasis of the day, a defensive emphasis of the day and a Thought for the Day; all Tar Heel traditions that Williams carried on from Dean Smith. On Miller's office wall is a photo of him playing pickup in Chapel Hill with President Barack Obama, and his UNC diploma.
A family affair
While Capel occasionally consults with Williams, his primary coaching mentors are his father, Jeff Jr., the former head coach at Old Dominion and his older brother, Jeff, the former head coach at Oklahoma, who is now an assistant at Duke. Still, Jason Capel coaches the Carolina Way. He utilizes the UNC practice plan, right down to the Thought for the Day. He calls many of the same sets that he once ran as a Tar Heel player. On the wall in Capel's office is a picture of him jumping into Kris Lang's arms after the Tar Heels earned a spot in the 2000 Final Four, and his UNC diploma.
"It's kind of fun when you look at Wes and I as two of the youngest coaches in college basketball competing in the same conference," Capel says. "We both have a similar history. We both have a similar passion. We both want to beat the heck out of each other."
"I can't say that I'm a big Appalachian fan, but I am pulling for Jason Capel to be successful," Miller says. "I believe that goes both ways."
Their first meeting
As a first-year head coach a year ago, Capel lost seven of his first 11 games before rallying his troops to win eight of their last 10 to finish 16-15. Appalachian is hovering around .500 again this season. Miller lost his first six games as the UNC Greensboro head coach, extending the team's overall losing streak to 11. The Spartans then won four straight leading into their game against Appalachian on Thursday night at the Greensboro Coliseum when the two teams vied for second place in the Northern Division of the Southern Conference. Obscured by the considerable shadow of their alma mater's faceoff with N.C. State that same night, Capel and Miller battled through the kind of game that turns young coaches old. Appalachian State jumped out to a 17-point lead over UNC Greensboro, and Miller admits that he got as angry with his team as he'd ever been in his fledgling coaching career. He challenged them to play stronger defense, exhorting them with the same fist-pumping, vein-popping ardor as his mentor, Williams.
The Spartans gradually crawled back into the game and took a 64-61 lead with 51 seconds left. Then during a timeout, Miller committed a rookie mistake that he says he will never forget as long as he is a coach. Miller had subbed out forward David Williams, but then diagrammed Williams into the Spartans' inbounds play, thus mistakenly sending six players back out onto the court. The resulting technical foul helped the Mountaineers eventually tie the game and force overtime.
In the UNC Greensboro huddle before overtime, the Spartans' coach had a humble request for his players. He told them, "You guys know that when you make mistakes that I've always got your back and I believe in you. Well, I just made the biggest bonehead mistake a coach can make and now you guys have got to have my back."
UNC Greensboro never trailed in overtime and won the game 77-73.
Moments after the final buzzer, the handshake between Coach Capel and Coach Miller lingered. They wished each other well for the rest of the season and they actually meant it. Two Tar Heels. Two hearts beating fast. Two fresh limbs on the venerable UNC coaching tree, intertwined, and both stronger for it.