GREENSBORO — It hasn’t been that long since Roy Williams, his former assistant C.B. McGrath and their former player Wes Miller were all on the same basketball court coaching at the same time.
Back in early November, the three were joined by another colleague with UNC ties, now-former East Carolina coach Jeff Lebo, for a preseason disaster relief jamboree at the Smith Center.
It was a light-hearted, feel-good reunion in large part because the games didn’t count. That wasn’t the case Wednesday, when the three got together again at Greensboro Coliseum.
This time, the regular season meeting between Miller’s UNC Greensboro Spartans and McGrath’s UNC Wilmington Seahawks did mean something.
And while the coaches of the two teams approached the occasion as if it was just another game, at least outwardly, the experience wasn’t nearly as routine for their mentor sitting on press row in a neutrally colored pink sweater.
“I’m never doing that again,” Williams said as he worked his way over to the UNCW bench to console McGrath.
“You go back and forth every play. You feel good (for one), you feel bad (for the other). You feel good, you feel bad. Next time I’ll see them after the game.”
Williams was able to make the short trip over from Chapel Hill because his own team is in the midst of its end of semester exam break.
It was a perfect opportunity to show his support for two young men that have become as close as sons to him.
McGrath played for him at Kansas, before becoming an assistant and moving to Chapel Hill when Williams returned to his alma mater in 2003. The two worked side-by-side for the Tar Heels’ three most recent national championships, including the one earned in Phoenix last April — the day before McGrath took over the program at UNCW.
Miller came to UNC as a walk-on after transferring from James Madison in 2004. Despite his lack of size — he’s generously listed at 5-foot-11 — he earned his way into the starting lineup as a junior and became one of Williams’ favorite players because of his grit and coachability.
He is currently in his seventh season at UNCG, where his team won 25 games and went to the NIT last year.
As accomplished as he’s become as a coach, Miller said it was still special — and maybe even a little disconcerting — to have his mentor in attendance watching his team play.
“It’s really neat to have coach support us,” said Miller, whose Spartans beat McGrath’s Seahawks 71-58 to improve to 7-3 for the season. “It says so much about him and what he’s about, that he’s in the middle of his season. I know how I am in the middle of the year. He’s the same way. I still get nervous in his presence, so I was nervous coaching tonight.”
McGrath wasn’t quite as star struck by having Williams at courtside. Perhaps that’s because he’s too busy trying to figure out how to get his team out of a five-game losing streak that has dropped it to 2-6 in his debut season.
Either that, or it’s because he’s “seen Coach Williams a lot over the last 23 years of my life.”
“It’s not strange to see, by any means,” McGrath said. “But it’s nice that he came to support Wes and I.”
In addition to the two head coaches, two of McGrath’s assistants — Jackie Manuel and Joe Wolf — also played for the Tar Heels. Like Miller, Manuel was a member of Williams’ national championship team in 2005. He was also an assistant at UNCG as recently as two seasons ago, making his return to Greensboro special for more than just the members of the Tar Heel family on hand.
“Of course it was special seeing some of the people that used to work here,” Spartans’ junior guard Francis Alonso said after leading his team with 19 points in the win. “It was a fun game. We were really glad to get that win.”
That’s something UNCW’s Ty Taylor wishes he and his teammate would have been able to do for McGrath.
“I feel bad for coach,” Taylor said. “Obviously that’s his mentor and we didn’t do enough to get the win.”
The good news for both Miller and McGrath is that regardless of the result, the two were still friends when all was said and done Wednesday. They joked with each other several times on the sideline, including one exchange in which a referee missed a 10-second backcourt call against the Seahawks.
After Miller unsuccessfully pleaded his case with the official, McGrath — who had been unhappy with the men in stripes most of the game — called over and said to his former player and said sarcastically: “They haven’t missed one all night, Wes.”
Both coaches shared a laugh, then quickly returned their focus back to the court.
Although each did a good job of tuning out the distraction while the game was going on, it was hard not to notice who was coaching the team on the other side of the floor, especially once the final buzzer sounded.
“As I said to C.B as we were shaking hands, I hate that one of us has to lose tonight,” Miller said. “He’s a friend and we’ll be pulling for UNCW all year because of C.B. McGrath and Jackie Manuel and some of those other Carolina guys over there on the sideline.”