When I first met Jerod Haase, I thought he was awfully...well...Kansas.
He talked about the Jayhawks a lot. He talked about Allen Fieldhouse a lot. One of the first times I spent an extended period of time with him was in the summer of 2003, when we went to do a brief Tar Heel history lesson and toss around some ideas about Smith Center and basketball office improvements. He seemed nice enough, and--this is important--he'd been part of the 1993 Cal team that beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament, but he had very little background with North Carolina basketball, and now he was going to be sitting on the bench at the Smith Center.
He sat there for nine seasons, and sometime in those nine years, he became a Tar Heel.
You could feel the respect on Saturday before the game, when UAB director of operations Bobby Frasor and Haase were introduced to the crowd. Frasor got a big hand, as you knew he would. He won a national championship, was a key part of some of the best and most enjoyable teams of the Roy Williams era, and perhaps most importantly, he always seemed to enjoy Chapel Hill just as much as the rest of us--even those of us who didn't jump off a fraternity house.
So Frasor, of course, got the expected ovation.
With Haase, though, you weren't sure. He didn't play here, didn't have four years for fans to watch him dive on the floor or knock down big three-pointers. Fans in the Smith Center had only ever seen him in a suit and tie.
Deservedly, however, he received a very appreciative ovation, one that he'll probably appreciate in about a day when he stops being ticked off about his team's 102-84 loss. That was the go-to Roy Williams comment about Haase: that he hated losing more than any other player he'd coached.
Saturday night, you saw it. His Blazers weren't supposed to beat Carolina at the Smith Center. But the Tar Heels were without Marcus Paige, and UAB knocked down some big three-pointers, and there it was--a nine-point game late in the second half.
Carolina eventually pulled away, but even 20 minutes after the game, you could tell Haase was still miffed. Weren't supposed to win? They played, didn't they? That means there's a winner and a loser, and just like a certain other coach sitting down on the other Smith Center bench--the one who tossed his jacket and spiked a clipboard during the second half--if he's going to compete, he wants to win. In anything. And that includes a road game at 14th-ranked North Carolina, and forget the expectations.
He was measured in his postgame comments. UAB ran several good halfcourt sets to get good looks, and many of them looked unfamiliar. What resources have you drawn from to build your playbook? "Everything from utilizing my assistant coaches and their backgrounds to molding our system to fit our personnel," he said. "And then I take everything I learned from Coach Williams and Carolina, and try to mesh it together."
What about running a program, some of the day-to-day aspects that you can't prepare for as an assistant coach? "That part I've been really comfortable with," he said. "That doesn't mean I'm any good at it, but I have a high level of comfort running the program and running the team, and that goes back to Coach Williams."
What about playing at Carolina? "To say that it was strange and awkward playing against North Carolina is an understatement," he said. "I never knew what it would be like to feel that way, but once the game started I was very into the game and trying to get our team to play the best they possibly could."
In other words, he sounded like a head coach. He's just eight games into his head coaching career, but already, he looks and sounds the part. Early in his career, he'll be pigeonholed as a Roy Williams clone, but that's not completely true. On Saturday night, he quickly called a first-half timeout from the bench to secure a loose ball for the Blazers. He ran several sets that weren't simple carbon copies of the Carolina offense to get good, open shots. Midway through the second half, he subtly signaled his team to trap full-court, so as not to allow the Tar Heels time to prepare, and it turned into a UNC turnover when Dexter Strickland immediately took the ball into the corner and was tied up for a jump ball.
You want in-game strategy? In the final minute of the first half, UAB got the ball with approximately 58 seconds left. As Quincy Taylor brought the ball up the court, Haase got his attention, called a play, and told him, "Go with about 50 seconds left." The idea, of course, was to get two possessions to Carolina's one. It nearly worked out perfectly, as the Blazers hit a three-pointer on the first possession, got a defensive stop and then had a good look just before halftime.
He didn't seem especially sentimental about the fact that he was the one who designed that championship ring earned by Frasor and his 2009 teammates, or that Haase--along with associate athletic director for communications Steve Kirschner--is the one who rearranged the Smith Center banners and jerseys to make them more organized. Remember that 100 years celebration of Carolina basketball and all the sellout events associated with it? Haase played a major role in those.
He helped recruit everyone on the Tar Heel bench, and was a major force in the recruitment of Joel James. At a time when James was overweight and hearing largely from local schools around his Florida home, Haase spotted him at a winter tournament. "He was the first one who told me I could be a special player," James says. "Coming from him, that meant so much."
In his role, Haase was a master of details. Nothing went unplanned, and he thought about everything--from opposing scouting reports to the way the band played during team introductions to tweaks to the jerseys. If you couldn't get time to ask Roy Williams's opinion on a particular topic, but needed a suitable proxy, there was a simple answer: "Ask Jerod."
As Williams is fond of quoting, it's not immoral to love two schools. When Haase arrived at Carolina, he unquestionably loved Kansas. By the time he left, after he'd lived and breathed the Tar Heels for nine years, it seemed pretty obvious that he loved Carolina, too. Maybe he couldn't give you the play-by-play of the 8 points in 17 seconds comeback against Duke. But he helped engineer the 2005 comeback against the Blue Devils, and he cut a piece of net from the last rim of the season in 2005 and 2009, and he had a family in Chapel Hill, and all of those events are mileposts in a life.
On this night, though, there wasn't time for him to think about that. He was the coach, and his team had lost, and he probably wasn't going to be much fun to be around for the rest of the night. He did multiple interviews, did a quick ESPN piece, and performed his postgame UAB radio network interview obligations. Only then did he relax ever so slightly, and the man who does everything for a reason began to loosen his tie.
It was deep UAB green, and it was covered in Carolina blue polka dots.