By Robbi Pickeral
When Brad Frederick graduated from North Carolina in 1999, his head coach, Bill Guthridge, told him: "Go away for a few years, and hopefully you'll have the chance to come back."
It took a while longer than he expected, but 14 seasons later, he is.
Frederick, the former walk-on who played on two Final Four teams under Dean Smith and Guthridge, was hired in early June as the Tar Heels' director of basketball operations. He replaced Joe Holladay, who retired after 20 seasons on Roy Williams' staffs at Kansas and UNC.
The father of three returns to Chapel Hill from Vanderbilt, where he had become the longest-tenured men's basketball assistant coach in the SEC.
On the job-ladder surface, the switch may seem like a curious move, considering Frederick's new role does not include recruiting, or coaching during practice. But his reasoning for the change was simple, he said: "Because it was North Carolina, because it's Coach [Roy] Williams, and it was just too good of an opportunity to turn down."
Frederick, you see, has ties not just to Carolina (where he met his wife, Jocelyn), but to Williams and the current staff, too. He was only 12 when his father, Bob Frederick, hired Williams away from Carolina to become the Jayhawks head coach. His first memory of Williams is of attending that introductory news conference in Kansas, in 1988. "And what I remember the most,'' Frederick said, laughing, "is his thick southern drawl."
Williams said Frederick has been "like part of my family" for the last 25 years, and for good reason. Not only did Frederick's dad serve as Williams' boss, and friend, until his passing in 2009; but Frederick and Williams' son, Scott, became fast friends as teens, attending the same school from sixth grade on.
When it came time for college, Frederick, a guard, could have accepted a basketball scholarship from a lower Division I school, but he knew he wanted to coach--and he wanted to play in a system where he could learn from the best.
Williams suggested he consider North Carolina, which not only featured Smith, the Hall of Famer who had given Williams his first collegiate coaching break, but a junior varsity program that could allow Frederick to eventually move up to varsity walk-on status. So he joined the JV team, moved up to varsity as a sophomore--and went on to play 70 games during a memorable period in Carolina basketball history that included Smith's retirement and Guthridge's first two seasons as a head coach.
"I was fortunate to be on Coach Smith's last team--and what an amazing year that was, starting the ACC season 0-3 and then going to the Final Four," he said. "And then the opportunity to play for Coach Guthridge, that was amazing, and then my senior year I was an assistant coach for the JV team, under Coach [Phil] Ford. I just learned so much."
When he accepted a job at Vanderbilt out of college, he always had a niggling he might come back. But over the years, as he helped coach the Commodores to six NCAA tournaments and Williams returned to Chapel Hill, UNC's staff remained intact. Frederick applied for head coaching jobs here and there, he said, but the "fit" never seemed right.
When the Tar Heels finally had an assistant coach opening before last season and UNC alum Hubert Davis was tabbed to fill the spot, Frederick figured the opportunity to return to his alma mater had passed him by. "Hubert was obviously a great choice...so I just moved on and concentrated on Vanderbilt," he said.
So much so, he was preparing to buy a new house in Nashville last April when he ran into Williams on the recruiting trail, and learned Holladay was retiring. He knew it would be a different experience, doing behind-the-scenes work such as scheduling travel, checking compliance issues, running camp. But considering how long Williams' staff had been stable, he knew this might be his best chance to get his foot back in the Smith Center door.
"The fact that he played at and graduated from Carolina makes it an easy decision to add him to our staff,'' Williams said in a prepared statement when Frederick was hired. "He knows he has big shoes to fill, but I am confident our players, coaches and staff will truly enjoy working with him."
Indeed, junior forward Jackson Simmons said it has been great to have another Carolina alum in the coaches offices, to hear more stories from the years he played and to learn from his experiences at Vandy. And while Frederick said it's odd to not be recruiting, the hope is to do it again, as an assistant coach at UNC, someday. "That's not something that Coach Williams promised me," Frederick said, "but he certainly said I would have an opportunity depending on who left and when they left and so, I certainly would hope [that happens]."
In the meantime, Frederick is enjoying being back on campus, where he often sees Guthridge and Ford, plays pick-up games on a familiar court, and is occasionally recognized by UNC fans. "That's the funny part," he said. "They'll see me in Carolina clothing, and they'll ask my name, and then they'll say, 'Oh, I remember you.' And I laugh and say, 'You probably don't.'"
But they will now, now that he's finally back. "I kind of forgot how obsessed people were with Carolina basketball,'' Frederick said, smiling. "And from seeing people in town to the constant news coverage, it's just such a different animal than it was anywhere else. It's one of the things that makes this place special.
"You always hear about this guy coming back from this team, or that guy coming back [from that team]. Now I get to be here to see it."
And be one of those guys, too.