Luke DeCock

A brief history of Roy Williams' Tough Little Nuts

When it came time in Theo Pinson's senior-night speech to mention his four-year teammate and partner in crime at North Carolina, Pinson had to borrow the right words to describe Joel Berry.

“Like coach says,” Pinson said, “you're a tough little nut.”

Tough little nut. That is an honor Roy Williams has indeed bestowed upon Berry, as he did Marcus Paige before him. Those two became the most famous Tough Little Nuts, a phrase that not only occupies a prominent place in his Roycabulary but may be more meaningful than any other in his collection of quips, verbal ticks and colloquialisms.

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North Carolina's Joel Berry II (2) makes a three-pointer during the second half of Virginia's 71-63 victory over UNC in the finals of the 2018 New York Life ACC Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY, Saturday, March 10, 2018. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

It is not an honor handed out lightly. It must be earned. And only certain players even qualify: guards, typically smallish, always gritty, always with a knack for taking, and making, the final shot.

“Part of my deal is how kids handle adversity,” Williams said. “That is part of the tough little nut: you handle situations, whether it be injuries or people coming after you all the time, or Marcus' situation of being able to handle taking and making the last shot, or Ty (Lawson) at Florida State making that running one-hander at the buzzer. A lot of it comes from how they handle the negative, how they handle the adversity, how they bounce back from problems.”

In Nexis, the oldest existing reference to the phrase “tough little nut” is from a 1980 Associated Press story about a teenager who got lost in the Grand Canyon. “He a tough little nut, a survivor,” his father said. That narrowly beat out a Canadian harness-racing trainer describing a trotter. Roger Staubach once used the phrase to describe Tony Dorsett.

The phrase is of more common currency in the English of countries like England and Australia, but there's at least one recorded use of it by an Asheville high school basketball coach, which raises the question of whether it's somehow tied to Williams' hometown.

But Buddy Baldwin, Williams' high school coach, said it's not something he says and has no idea where Williams got it. Nor does longtime Williams assistant and current UNC Wilmington coach C.B. McGrath, who played for him at Kansas.

“I think it's just something coach said one time, and it stuck with him,” McGrath said.

Williams thought he first applied the term to Kansas point guard Jacque Vaughn, but there's no record of it. (Gregg Popovich did, oddly enough, in 2014.) The first documented reference is to Kansas guard Aaron Miles in 2002.

“I mean, he didn't shoot,” Williams said recently. “He didn't do a lot of things. But he won. And he competed. And he was a tough little nut.”

Miles, who is now the coach of the Golden State Warriors' G-League team, remembers being called that, among other things: “little fella” and “little rascal.” He thought of himself that way and took pride in being tough. He was glad Williams felt the same way.

“For me, it's a compliment,” Miles said. “You call somebody tough, that's a compliment, knowing that he believed I would go on the court and do whatever it takes to win. That's how I was raised. That's how I want to be viewed.”

Once Williams arrived at North Carolina, his usage of the sobriquet picked up speed. Raymond Felton. Walk-on Dewey Burke, once. (“I must have been on drugs or something,” Williams said.) Wes Miller. Ty Lawson, even before his toe injury in 2009. And not only Dexter Strickland for his defensive performance during the 2011 NCAA tournament against Washington's Isaiah Thomas but Thomas as well, the only opposing player Williams has used the term to describe.

“He just likes a kid that plays hard, who's going to give everything, who goes after it and doesn't mind taking the last shot,” Baldwin said. “That type of kid. That's what he means.”

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Former North Carolina All-America guard Marcus Paige, currently a two-way player for the Charlotte Hornets, talks about the current Tar Heels team, his NBA future, and more. Gerry Broome AP

Over those years, Williams used the term sporadically. That changed once Paige arrived. An intellectual overachiever who demanded the ball in his hands when the game was on the line and battled both injuries and a bizarre shooting slump at various points of his career, Paige was also known as a “little sucker” and a “little rascal” in Williams' terms, but it was “tough little nut” that most defined him, just as he did as much as anyone to define the term.

It's not a term Williams uses with his players, or in practice, but Berry remembers hearing and reading about Paige described as such before he inherited the mantle.

“When he called Marcus that, I was like, I want to be called that too,” Berry said.

Berry's toughness, mental and otherwise, would get him there eventually, even before the 2017 NCAA tournament, when he limped through the entire three weeks on a pair of bad ankles, still doing as much as anyone to lead the Tar Heels to a title and earning Most Outstanding Player honors in the process.

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By this point, as Berry's career winds down and the Tar Heels begin the NCAA tournament Friday against Lipscomb, the phrase “tough little nut” has become inextricably linked to Paige and Berry, and it's probably not a coincidence that the Tar Heels have been to two straight Final Fours with them on board. There's also an open question, going forward, of whether there's another Tough Little Nut within the program ready to follow in their footsteps -- and what it means if there isn't.

That still leaves the mystery of where it comes from, although Miles has a theory.

“Someone else might say tough mother, you know,” Miles said. “But coach isn't going to curse.”

As for what it means, and why it carries so much weight for Williams, it helps to understand the coach's own personal history. He wasn't a great basketball player in high school or for North Carolina's freshman team, and he certainly wasn't a big one, but he was an overachiever who hated to lose.

If Williams has a special phrase for scrappy little guards who will do anything to win – and a special place in his heart – maybe it's because Williams was, in his mind, the original tough little nut.

“I'll put it this way,” Baldwin said. “He was that way himself when he played.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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