From Rick Barnes to almost Roy Williams: How UNC’s legendary head coach almost became George Mason’s men’s basketball coach
BY DOMENIC ALLEGRA SPORTS EDITOR
During the 1987-1988 season, George Mason athletic director Jack Kvancz and first-year head coach Rick Barnes always had lunch every Thursday at Thursday’s, a restaurant on Lee Highway in Fairfax.
But something changed the week of April 17 that led to George Mason almost landing one of the greatest coaches of all time, Roy Williams.
On that Tuesday, Barnes was out buying trophies for the banquet on Thursday when he got a call from Kvancz.
“Meet me for lunch,” Kvancz said.
Barnes, checking the day of the week, asked, “What’s going on?”
Kvancz responded, “Well, we need to talk.”
“Is there something wrong?” Barnes asked.
Kvancz responded, “No, nothing’s wrong. Just meet me.”
After driving to the usual spot and meeting Kvancz, Barnes found their table. After Barnes sat down, Kvancz put a matchstick pack down on the table with a number on it. That number?
“That’s what Providence pays,” Kvancz said. “If you’re interested, you need to call John Marinatto, the new AD at Providence, this afternoon.”
“Okay, I’ll call him,” Barnes said.
This wasn’t the only job offer Barnes had received in his first year at Mason. “I actually had been called a couple of weeks before by Rick Pitino who asked me if I had any interest in the UMass job,” Barnes told Fourth Estate. “But Jack [Kvancz] told me when I asked him, ‘I’d rather you wait and maybe down the road, a bigger job may come along.’”
After Providence head coaches Rick Pitino and Gordon Chiesa left for NBA coaching jobs and two weeks after getting a call from UMass, the “bigger job” had come. The associate AD at Providence, Jerry Alaimo, had called Kvancz, who assisted under Alaimo at Brown, to see if the 32-year-old Barnes had any interest in the top job at Providence.
Barnes called later that day after lunch and headed to Providence to meet Marinatto. “I remember taking the last shuttle out of D.C. to National Airport, flying into Boston and John [Marinatto] picked me up, and we ate dinner at the Bostonian hotel up there,” Barnes said. “He and I then drove down from Boston to Providence at 2:00 in the morning and he showed me around campus and the facilities and all that. He then drove me back to Boston that morning, I took the only flight out, and got back around 6 or 7 a.m.”
To Barnes, Providence was his dream head coaching job, but he loved his job at Mason.
“I didn’t want anybody to think that Mason was a stepping stone for me because, in my mind, I could have been happy being there for the rest of my life,” Barnes said.
But Barnes had made his decision and told Kvancz on Thursday, just hours before the banquet, according to a Potomac News article from April 22, 1988.
This took an emotional toll on Barnes.
“That night at the banquet, I talked about our team and — it was really almost like a pep talk to them because I knew that the next morning, I was going to meet them and tell them my decision,” Barnes said.
Despite Mason President George Johnson offering Barnes a raise from almost $46,000 to $130,000, the same amount as the highest-paid coach in the Colonial Athletic Association at the time (Richmond’s Dick Tarrant), Barnes described his offer from Providence in the Potomac News as “an offer that I couldn’t afford to refuse.”
The next morning, Barnes called the team into his office and told his players of his decision to go to Providence.
“I remember telling them I had accepted the job at Providence and I cried,” Barnes said. “I cried like a baby — I really did and it was a very emotional time because I loved that group of guys. But I literally walked out of that meeting, went home – I had already packed – I got on a plane, flew to Providence and had the press conference that morning.”
Barnes continued, “[Even though] I was able to move into what was considered the first or second-best basketball conference in the country, it was a shock. When I think about it and really close my eyes and think about that meeting that morning after the banquet, it was truly one of the most emotional times that I’ve ever had as a coach, even to this day.”
Barnes’ resignation sent shock waves throughout the Mason community. Jim Emery, who was an assistant to Barnes during the 1987-1988 season, described it as “a loss in the family.”
“Coach Barnes was very highly regarded among his peers, among athletic directors, among fans,” then-Mason sports information director Carl Sell said. “He was a very popular guy throughout the country and we knew he was going to move up. It was just a question of where and when. Everybody knew that somebody was going to try to hire him eventually — we were just surprised it was Providence after his first year.”
Kvancz, however, was now in need of a new men’s basketball head coach for the second time in two years and had to immediately start the process of a national coach search for Barnes’ replacement.
“I have an idea of what I’m looking for,” Kvancz said in the April 27 issue of the Potomac News. “I hope to have this thing done as soon as possible. By the end of next week, at the very latest.”
Kvancz continued in that article, “We need to get the job filled as quickly as possible. But I’m not going to rush into the process, just for the sake of getting it over with.”
During the selection process, Kvancz also spoke with his former head coach at Boston College, the legendary Bob Cousy.
“I talked to Coach Cousy about the pressures involved in hiring another new coach within a year. He told me, ‘If you didn’t want that kind of pressure, you should have chosen another line of work,’” Kvancz laughed, according to a Mason press release from July 1988.
“Despite the reluctance of Kvancz to reveal any names, sources, including several from within the George Mason athletic program, indicate that a number of candidates — possibly as many as 10 or 12 — are emerging for the post,” Mike Saelens, a sports writer, said in an issue of Potomac News.
Kvancz found among those candidates was a no-name assistant from North Carolina.
As an assistant to the great Dean Smith for the previous 10 seasons, Roy Williams was not in any hurry to leave Chapel Hill. That was until one night in years prior where coach Smith took Williams out and talked to him about becoming a head coach.
According to Williams, “[Coach Smith] took me out one night and said, ‘You know you need to think about being a head coach.’ And I said, ‘Coach, I’m happy where I am.’” But coach Smith insisted and said, “No, you need to be a head coach.”
After interviews with Furman, UT-Chattanooga and Mississippi State over the previous decade, George Mason came calling in the spring of 1988. Who called? Not Jack Kvancz, not associate AD Jay Marsh or President George Johnson, but rather the Mason basketball equipment manager.
The cousin of the Mason equipment manager, Steve Garay, worked as a coach for the UNC basketball camp and continuously bragged about Williams to his relative up in Fairfax.
The Mason equipment manager “talked with our coach [Garay] down here several times about their position and then all of a sudden, that spring it opened up,” Williams said to Fourth Estate.
The UNC assistant got the call from the equipment manager who, after talking to Kvancz, asked if Williams would be interested in coming up to interview for the opening.
Williams flew up to Fairfax on a Thursday into Washington National Airport and was picked up by associate AD Jay Marsh.
After driving from the airport, Marsh drove Williams around campus.
“I’d never been on the campus before,” Williams said. “It was a much different campus than what we had at Chapel Hill. At that time I felt like it was more spread out, but you could see that it was growing and it was going to continue to grow.”
“Mason had some success, there’s no question about that, but I thought it was a good program. If I hadn’t thought that, I wouldn’t have even made the phone call.”
Kvancz then met Williams and showed him some of the facilities on campus before meeting with the 10-person committee — something Williams hadn’t faced in prior interviews.
“George Mason was the most in-depth interview because of that entire committee,” Williams said. “When I interviewed for UT-Chattanooga, it was the athletic director and one of his assistants. When I interviewed for Furman, many years before, it was the athletic director and one of his assistants. When I interviewed for Mississippi State, it was just the athletic director and the president.”
“This was really the first time I had interviewed with a large committee,” Williams said. “I decided with those other interviews, but especially with this one, that I would try to describe how I would run the program and hopefully by the end I would have answered all the questions and showed that I knew what I was talking about.”
During the interview, Williams showed the committee that he was the ideal candidate, ticking everything off their list.
“We talked about the academics, we talked about recruiting, we talked about the style of play,” Williams said. “We talked about the value I thought of working with the university and with the community. I just went from A to Z with everything that I had been exposed to in those 10 years as an assistant at North Carolina.”
Even though Kvancz had set aside two and a half hours for questions, Williams had blown the committee away in a mere 40 minutes. “Anybody have any questions you want to ask the coach?” Kvancz asked the committee at the end.
Not one person asked a question.
“I was a little surprised at the end that they had no questions,” Williams said to Fourth Estate. “They said I covered everything and that’s when Jack [Kvancz] walked me upstairs and,” according to Williams’ book, said, “‘You just blew everybody away. That’s a group of very opinionated people and not one of them could come up with a question to ask you — I want you to be our new basketball coach.’ I said, ‘Great.’”
Soon after, Kvancz and Marsh took Williams around to see more facilities and a dining hall before heading back to the airport. In a total of only four or five hours in Fairfax, Williams had landed the George Mason head coaching job.
When Williams arrived back home in North Carolina, he could not stop thinking about the job and if it was the right fit for him. He couldn’t sleep and described himself as just being in “outer space” for a couple of days.
According to Williams’ book, “Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court,” Kvancz called Williams on a Friday in early May and said, “I’m coming down on Saturday morning. I’ll bring the contract. We’ll dot the i’s and cross the t’s and we’ll agree on everything. You’ll sign it. I’ll sign it. I’ll bring it back and then our president gets back on Sunday, and we’ll fly you up and have the press conference on Sunday afternoon. It’s a done deal, and, Roy, I am so pleased that this has worked out.”
That night, Williams did not sleep in the slightest.
“I was lying awake feeling like I was trying to convince myself to take the job and that I would be taking it just to have the opportunity to be a head coach,” he said in his book.
In the morning, Williams got up at 6 a.m. and decided to give Kvancz a call before the AD’s flight to North Carolina.
“I remember getting up that morning early and I was going to go for a run,” the four-time national champion told Fourth Estate. “I decided that I was worried about it too much and something was wrong. I said ‘Jack, I don’t have the right feeling, don’t have the right guts — I just need to tell you to move on because I’m not the right candidate for the job.’”
Williams didn’t even know if Kvancz could hear him because of the garbage truck pick-up happening at the same time.
“I just never could come to grips that it was the right time, the right job, the right place, and I always felt like when the right one did come along, it would be an easier decision,” Williams said.
Williams then had to wait until 10 a.m. to tell Coach Smith because he didn’t ever wake up that early.
“I called him and said, ‘Coach, I’ve got some bad news for you,’” Williams said in his book.
Coach Smith responded, “What’s that?”
“I called Jack Kvancz back and told him I’m not going to take the job,” Williams said.
“How do you feel?” Smith said.
“Relieved,” said Williams.
“Then you made the right decision,” Smith said. “Just be patient. The right job will come along and you will know it.”
Two months later, the Hall-of-Fame head coach got that job at Kansas.
Williams doesn’t think about the Mason job often, but has talked to Kvancz a couple of times since calling him up on that Saturday morning.
“Years ago Jack was on the NCAA Tournament selection committee and I got a chance to say hello to him but I’ve only talked to him once or twice in the last 33 years,” Williams said.
“I just felt so guilty about all of it. I’m pretty sure that I sat down and wrote him a letter and sent it to him to apologize for wasting his time.”
Looking back, the now-retired Williams respects how Kvancz handled the situation and how great he was during the interview process.
“I had heard really good things about him, you know, just in the basketball circles, being in that area … but what I remember the most is he was just very straightforward with [the process] and he told me exactly what [the committee] was looking for and exactly what he thought he could do and what the program could do,” Williams said.
Despite losing Williams as a head coach, Kvancz found Ernie Nestor, an assistant out of UC Berkeley, who brought the Patriots to their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 1989.
Williams went on to win four conference tournament championships at Kansas, finishing with a record of 123-17 at home and 418-101 over his 15 years prior to rejoining UNC. The Hall of Fame coach also reached four Final Fours and two national championships in 1991 and 2003. At UNC, Williams made it to another five Final Fours and won three national championships as head coach and one as an assistant before retiring on April 1, 2021.
Excluding his first season when Kansas was on probation, Williams made the NCAA tournament with the Jayhawks every year. Between 1990-1999, Kansas posted a 286-60 record, the most wins and highest winning percentage of any team in NCAA Division I during that decade.
It would have been amazing to see the great things Roy Williams could have done with Mason’s program and how it would have grown the university. Conference championships, 20+ win seasons, national coach of the year? Maybe Williams could have even gotten to the Final Four before the 2006 Cinderella run — who knows?
There’s one thing for certain: The story of Roy Williams at Mason would have never happened if it weren’t for an unexpected lunch that Tuesday afternoon in 1988.