Final Four coaches share stories of pranks and mutual admiration

The Final Four logo awaits coaches and players from North Carolina, South Carolina, Gonzaga and Oregon at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. (Photo by Blake Benard/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — North Carolina’s Roy Williams, entering the ninth Final Four of his coaching career, sounds happy for the three opposing coaches, who are entering his first this weekend at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. But Gonzaga’s Mark Few hits close to his heart.

“I’m happy for all of them, (but) probably really more stressed about Mark because he’s had such great teams and came so close,” Williams said on Monday’s media teleconference with the Final Four head coaches. “And I think that it was just so satisfying for Gonzaga to get there. But I love them all.”

Williams, 66, said he considers Few, Oregon’s Dana Altman and South Carolina’s Frank Martin to be friends and is “very flattered” and “honored” to be with them at the Final Four.

He said Few, 54, is one of his “best friends in coaching.”

“We’ve played poker together, we’ve shot craps together, we’ve traveled together, spent time talking about our teams,” Williams said. “He just called me on one of his son’s birthdays, I think, to ask about some card game we used to play, make sure he had the rules right.”

Williams and Few have had many interactions over the years. One distinct memory for Williams is from 2009, when North Carolina beat Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament in Memphis, Tennessee. Their teams played on the court, but that wasn’t the only place they played against each other.

“In 2009 I called him, because we were both going to Memphis,” Williams said. “I said, ‘We’re going in on Wednesday night. We don’t play until Friday. When are you going in?’ He said, ‘Wednesday night.’ I said, ‘What time do you put your team to bed?’ He said, ‘About midnight.’ I said, ‘I do too. Tunica (Mississippi) is only 23 miles south. Let’s go gamble. Let’s go shoot some craps.'”

Few took Williams up on his proposal. Williams had five members of his staff in his car, and Few packed six into his. They went down to the casino and both lost money. As they were headed back, Williams was pulled over by a patrolman.

“I didn’t really think I was speeding,” Williams said. “I guess I didn’t realize I had the NCAA courtesy car. It had the logos all over the side of the car and the guy checked and said, ‘Coach, it was surprising to see this car out at this time of the morning on this road, blah, blah, blah.’ And he said, ‘Just slow down a little bit. You weren’t bad.’

“I said, ‘I appreciate it. Are you going to stay on this area of the street or the road? Well, Mark Few from Gonzaga is about 10 minutes behind me. I want you to pull his rear end over, too, scare him to death like you did me.'”

Funny stories aside, above all, Williams has the upmost respect for Few and his coaching abilities.

“He’s really a good guy who is one of the best coaches in our game at any level,” Williams said. “He could be successful anywhere.”

Few on Monday called Williams a “legend” and “right there with any of them that have ever coached the college game.” Few not only considers Williams a friend as well, but sees him as a coach he strives to be.

“I think it’s amazing what he (Williams) has been able to do throughout his career, just sustained excellence is how I would describe it,” Few said. “He’s been a mentor for me with just how he handles his program, how he runs his program. They run it with class and they do it the right way. And he’s always so humble. And it’s just incredibly impressive. I think you’re right. At the end of the day when it all shakes out, he’ll be one of the Mount Rushmore types in college coaching. I certainly believe that.”

Williams and Few could coach against each other in the title game next Monday. But for that to happen, Gonzaga must defeat South Carolina on Saturday and North Carolina will have to defeat Oregon. The Ducks are coached by another admirer of Williams. Altman said Williams has done an “outstanding job for a long, long time.”

Altman and Williams coached against each other early in their head coaching careers: Williams at Kansas, Altman at Kansas State.

At Kansas State, Altman had a 2-8 record against Williams’ Jayhawks.

“Yeah, we had some good games back at Kansas, Kansas State,” said Altman, 58. “Unfortunately, for me, he won most of them. But he was doing a great job at Kansas. And we upset him a couple times. We did have some times off the floor at the old Big Eight meetings. He and his wife were really good to Reva and I. And he’s had a great deal of success.

“Obviously his relationship with his players and relationships with other coaches, he’s very well respected in the coaching ranks. And as a coach I admire that, like I think the coaching profession does (too).”

Williams said during the Nike trips he loved to play cards and talk golf with Altman. When the two are in Las Vegas, they like to shoot craps together.

“He’s just a guy that I really, really enjoy and really, really like and have a tremendous amount of respect for,” Williams said.

Williams said he also has a lot of respect for South Carolina’s Martin.

“We’ve had a lot of humorous stories together that we probably don’t tell very many people,” Williams said. “But love his competitiveness. Love what he stands for. We’ve been on some trips together. He’s got me in trouble with my wife a few times just by telling stories.”

“I’ve gotten to know Coach Williams through a dear friend of mine, Eddie Fogler, being a former Tar Heel assistant with Coach Williams,” said Martin, 51. “I’ve gotten to know him.”

Martin said he appreciates how hard Williams’ teams play. For the past couple years in particular, they have recruited against each other for PJ Dozier, who chose South Carolina, and Seventh Woods, who went to North Carolina. Martin said he “loved recruiting against him. Everything was above board and very sincere.”

But most of all, Martin said it is a treat to call Williams a friend.

“It’s something that one day I’ll be able to sit back, when I don’t have to worry about working anymore, I can just, God willing, sit around and say stories to my grandchildren, I can tell them that I considered Roy Williams a friend,” Martin said. “That’s a huge thing for me.”