Now, Roy Williams never would have actually considered it. Not after attending North Carolina and playing there on the freshman basketball team. Not after working for Dean Smith, and not after growing up with a special kind of disdain for N.C. State.
But still. Put all that aside, for a moment, and imagine if it had happened. Imagine if Williams, now in his 14th season as UNC’s head coach, had said yes all those years ago when N.C. State called and asked him if he had interest in its head coaching vacancy.
Instead, Williams said on Friday, this is what he did say:
“I said how in the dickens can I come coach at State? I mean, that just doesn’t make sense.”
Williams told the story, perhaps for the first time publicly, on Friday. He told the story of how N.C. State contacted him not once, but twice, about coaching the Wolfpack.
Williams was meeting with reporters during a regularly scheduled press conference the day before the Tar Heels’ game against Virginia on Saturday. Inevitably, though, the recent news out of N.C. State came up.
The school on Thursday officially fired coach Mark Gottfried, one day after the Wolfpack’s 97-73 defeat against UNC on Wednesday. Williams said it was “disappointing” to learn of Gottfried’s firing.
“I’m a coach,” Williams said. “I’m not an athletic director. I’m a coach. I think you should fire more athletic directors. I didn’t say ours. They’re the ones who make the decisions, dadgum. We’re just – it’s like me firing my point guard. I recruited his butt.
I said how in the dickens can I come coach at State? I mean, that just doesn’t make sense.
UNC coach Roy Williams
“No, I’m trying to be a little humorous there because it’s a sad thing because 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.”
Gottfried, who will continue to coach through the end of the season, is in his sixth season at N.C. State. The Wolfpack is 2-11 against UNC under Gottfried, but those two victories account for nearly all of N.C. State’s success against Williams-coached UNC teams.
Since he became the Tar Heels’ head coach in 2003, Williams is 27-3 against the Wolfpack. Some of the games between UNC and N.C. State, though, have been memorable in recent years. There was UNC’s 69-67 victory in the 2012 ACC tournament semifinals, for one.
And the Tar Heels’ 85-84 victory, in overtime, at PNC Arena in 2014. Marcus Paige, then a sophomore guard, scored 35 points. His final two came on a layup at the buzzer, and his teammates surrounded him in a celebratory mob.
“There have been some big-time games,” Williams said. “I mean, there really have. And Marcus … I was about willing to see if we could get the kind of ball they used over there and just paint it and make it look like a Nike ball and let him shoot with that one, because he made a bunch of shots over there.”
Amid the impending vacancy at N.C. State, some in the national sports media have already questioned N.C. State’s decision to fire Gottfried, who led teams to the NCAA tournament in each of his first four seasons. The Wolfpack could be headed toward a second consecutive losing season.
Every time the N.C. State job has come open in the past 20 years – before the school hired Herb Sendek in 1996, before it hired Sidney Lowe in 2006 and before it hired Gottfried in 2011 – some have questioned why any coach would take the job, given the proximity to UNC and Duke.
Williams said he didn’t “pay any attention” to such talk, before acknowledging that he was offered the N.C. State job many years ago – twice. Williams didn’t specify when he was offered the job, but the only two times it was open while he was at Kansas was in 1990 and 1996.
N.C. State hired Les Robinson in ’90 and Sendek in ’96.
“I was called and asked about it on two different occasions when I was at Kansas,” Williams said. “But it’s a great job, great school, great athletic program, in the ACC. A lot of basketball tradition. But it’s a hard job. Every one in this league is a hard job.
“You’re going to have some spells where things don’t go as smoothly as you want them to go.”
Perhaps those spells, for N.C. State, might have been considerably rarer if Williams, a UNC alum who was an assistant coach under Smith, had returned to the area to coach at one of UNC’s rivals. Williams, though, didn’t appear to give the idea too much thought.