by Robbi Pickeral, GoHeels.com
In 2003, Wes Miller transferred to North Carolina because he ultimately wanted to be a head basketball coach. Along the way, the scrappy guard from Charlotte helped the Tar Heels win a national championship, started 17 games his junior and senior seasons, and became a fan favorite with his tenacious defense and timely 3-pointers. But he originally came to UNC, he said, because he wanted to learn from the best.
So the idea of returning to Chapel Hill as a head coach just six years after graduation, to compete against his alma mater and the coach he thinks is the best, "will be emotional," he said last week. "I haven't really processed yet what I think it will be like to be back, on that other bench at the Smith Center," said Miller, whose UNC Greensboro team faces the Tar Heels on Saturday. "I just know that I'm a guy that grew up in North Carolina who wanted to play college basketball and coach college basketball. And I'm just so fortunate that I've been able to do both...and in such a short period of time. And what I learned at UNC, and from [coach] Roy Williams, is such a huge part of that."
Miller, now in his second full season as head coach of the Spartans, knows it will be odd to coach for the first time at UNC, and against Williams. But it also seems fitting-a full-circle sort of moment, considering Williams' impact on Miller's fast rise.
After Miller graduated in 2007 and spent a season playing professionally in England, it was Williams who helped him set up a West Coast tour where the would-be coach studied how other teams practiced. It was Williams who continued to offer encouragement as Miller began his coaching career with assistant jobs at Elon and High Point.
And it was Williams who offered both a shoulder, and a sounding board, in December 2011, when UNCG athletic director Kim Record summoned Miller—then an assistant for the Spartans—into her office and asked if he would take over for fired head coach Mike Dement for the rest of the season.
At 28, Miller became the youngest head coach in Division I at that time. His third call after accepting the interim position (after his wife and parents) was to Williams, who left a film session early the following day to advise the latest branch of his coaching tree in person, in Chapel Hill.
"I'm probably a heck of a lot more confident in Wes right now than Wes is in himself," Williams said shortly after Miller took over the Spartans program. "... Every day is going to be a new challenge; every day it's going to be overwhelming. You just have to chip away at the rock, and finally the rock will fall apart and you'll feel a heck of a lot more comfortable about it."
Looking back, Miller credits Williams for helping with both that comfort and chipping process, as they talked almost daily about strategy, about program-building, about how to get a team to buy in.
The Hall-of-Famer offered compassion when Miller lost his first six games as a head coach-and then congratulations when the newcomer drew up a game-winning alley-oop play against The Citadel. That victory propelled a seven-game winning streak, an 11-5 late-season surge and a Southern Conference North Division title.
Ultimately, Miller had the "interim" stripped from his title, signed a five-year contract-and later helped UNCG sign a three-year deal to play the Tar Heels. "When all that was happening, people used to ask: What was it like having Coach Williams as a mentor, a guy in your corner? I have the same answer now as I've always had: I'm just lucky. I'm just fortunate that the guy I can lean on in this profession is one of the best that has ever done it,'' Miller said.
"And the fact that in the middle of the season—we all know Coach, and we all know how committed he is to each and every moment of his program—the fact that he would take the time in the middle of the season to really care about what I'm going through on a day-to-day basis, it just says so much about who he is, and what he's about...He's long been a mentor, but I'm just so fortunate that at this point in my life, I can call him a friend, too."
To that end, the contact between the two hasn't stopped, although the phone calls have lessened from multiple times a week two years ago to several times a month now.
They both, after all, are busy.
Miller described last season, his first full year as UNCG's head coach, as "disappointing," as the Spartans finished 9-22. But he's excited about this season, and energized by a team than includes seven freshmen and three other newcomers to the program.
"They're learning ... and I'm still learning, too,'' Miller said. "Coaching is the most challenging thing I've ever tried to do in my life, and I keep coming back to this when I'm thinking and can't sleep: It's not the basketball and the X's and O's and the practices, it's not that stuff that's the hardest. It's the ability to get 18- and 22-year-olds to be selfless, to get on the same page, and work and play for each other; I just think that is such a challenge. That's what's giving me so much gray hair.
"But it's such a fun challenge when you achieve it, and you have those moments when they come together as a group."
Miller, whose team was 4-3 entering Tuesday night's game against Presbyterian, will be pushing his team for more of those moments Saturday. He'll be joined on the Smith Center visitor's bench by a couple of other familiar faces to Tar Heels faithful: UNCG assistant coach Jackie Manuel, who also played on UNC's 2005 national title team, and director of basketball operations J.B. Tanner, a Carolina walk-on from 2007-09.
It will be a great feeling, Miller knows, being back. It will also be a weird feeling, returning to the court where he made so many memories not all that long ago.
"When I transferred [to UNC], I knew I wanted to be a head coach,'' Miller said. "To go back there, 10 years later, as one-I can't imagine it yet."