GLENDALE, Arizona – Mark Few lifted the transition game he used for years at Gonzaga from Roy Williams’ playbook. When Few first started going on those Nike-sponsored vacations that coaches take during the offseason, it was the North Carolina coach and his wife who made the Fews feel welcome.
The last time Few and Williams’ teams met in the NCAA Tournament, they took a late-night road trip to a casino two days before the game and they have played enough cards together that Few has taught his kids a version of seven-card stud nicknamed “Roy Williams.”
The third and most meaningful meeting between Few’s Bulldogs and Williams’ Tar Heels comes Monday night at the University of Phoenix Stadium in the NCAA championship game. Williams, 66, can become the sixth coach to win at least three NCAA titles, joining John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun.
For Few, the championship would be the first for him and Gonzaga, a program that he tried to build in the mold of Williams’.
“Absolutely, he’s a mentor, somebody that I looked up to when I was first getting in,” Few said Sunday.
The genuine friendship Few and Williams share was on display the day before the national title will be decided.
“My wife and I, Marcy, we were on one of — I think it was probably the first Nike trip we were on, which is a gathering of just basically legendary coaches. And I mean, we didn’t feel like we were worthy. We didn’t feel like we belonged when there’s Roy and Coach K and [Jim] Boeheim and all these guys are walking around,” Few said. “And, bang, right when we got there [Williams] and Wanda took Marcy and I under their wing and treated us like we were anybody else. Couldn’t have made us feel better and more welcomed.”
They re-told the story of a midnight run to Tunica, Mississippi, to shoot craps in a casino with their assistants before the Bulldogs and Tar Heels played in a regional semifinal at nearby Memphis in 2009.
On the way back, Williams was pulled over for speeding in his NCAA courtesy car — and recognized by the officer who let him off. Williams tipped the officer that Few would be driving through soon and asked him to pull him over, too.
“The next day I came running into their shoot-around and got the equipment manager, called him over,” Williams recalled. “I said, ‘Did you guys get stopped last night?’ He said no. And just ruined my day. But that’s the story. But I think coaches should be able to have fun with each other and he’s a good guy.”
Before he got to know Williams personally, Few already knew his coaching style and philosophy intimately.
“I ran the Kansas break for my first seven years,” Few said. “Their whole transition deal. I just copied it, boom. And that’s all we did through our early years, just because I had so much respect for Roy. And it fit with what we’re doing and our philosophies were the same as far as playing fast and just running the secondary break.
“And so I watch them a lot. I’ve probably watched them 15 times this year just because I’m a fan of his and a fan of theirs and root for him. I don’t really have a first impression. I have about 100 impressions of them that are built in over the years.”
North Carolina won that meeting in Memphis 98-77. The first time Few and Williams faced off with the Bulldogs and Tar Heels was 2006 in the preseason NIT. The Zags won that one, 82-74 at Madison Square Garden and the fallout is still being felt today in Chapel Hill.
“I got seven or eight guys wear headbands out, you know, the white headbands kind of thing. And they kicked our tails. And I went in the locker room afterwards and said, get those headbands off, I’ll never see those again the rest of my life, blah, blah, blah. So, no North Carolina players have ever worn it [since]. So Mark Few changed our program in some ways,” Williams said with a laugh.
Williams also helped introduce Few to the Nike trip poker games. If Williams was looking for some type of payment from Few for that Kansas break, it sounds as if he might have extracted it at the card table.
“He’s so good that we have a game, seven-card stud game that’s got some variables to it, that we call ‘Roy Williams,'” Few said.
Admitting it might not make him the best parent, Few said that he has taught his kids poker and when he wanted to explain the rules to ‘Roy Williams’ he called Roy Williams.
“And my kids now think the world of him because he picks up the phone and I put him on speaker and he had to explain Roy Williams to them,” Few said.
On Monday night, Few will again try to beat Williams at his own game.
RALPH D. RUSSO