PEMBROKE — Ben Miller doesn’t remember his first game as an assistant under North Carolina coach Roy Williams during his tenure at Kansas University.
But he recalls some other numbers.
“I remember one of them, maybe his 300th victory, where I helped put together a funny video with some of his former assistants and buddies,” said Miller, who served on Williams’ Jayhawk staff from 1995 to 2003.
“It seems like it was yesterday. And now he’s at 800.”
Shortly after leading The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team to a big win over North Georgia on Monday night, Miller turned his attention to the North Carolina-Syracuse game to watch his mentor notch another milestone — becoming a member of the 800 Club.
“I got to see a good part of the game and the celebration afterward,” Miller said. “I did send a text message to Coach (Williams), just congratulating him on how happy I was for him and his current team, knowing from visiting with him about the challenges he’s faced over the years.”
With the Tar Heels’ 85-68 win over Syracuse, Williams became the eighth Division I men’s basketball coach to reach 800 wins, reaching the mark in fewer seasons (29) than any other coach — including former North Carolina coach Dean Smith and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Only former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp got there in fewer games than Williams.
The victory came in Williams’ 1,012th game at the helm. The first 519 contests came at Kansas, where Williams went 418-101 before returning to his alma mater in 2003, where the coach boasts a record of 382-111. All in all, Williams is 800-212 in his 29 years as a head coach. He boasts the second best winning percentage (79.1) of any active men’s college basketball coach, trailing only Gonzaga’s Mark Few (83.1).
Alongside Williams for 234 of his 418 victories at Kansas, Miller got his start with the Jayhawks in 1995 as an administrative assistant before being promoted to assistant coach before the 1999 season.
“It is neat to be a small part of some of those wins,” said Miller, who went to a pair of Final Fours as a member of Williams’ staff.
“I tell him every chance I get that I appreciate having that chance to learn from him. It resonates with me every day in how we (at UNCP) try to treat our players and create a family atmosphere.”
The individual accolades speak for themselves, but Miller described the 66-year-old Hall of Famer as a coach who is “more about ‘we’ than ‘me’” when it comes to success.
“I remember when Coach (Williams) was at the Final Four one year when I was at Missouri State,” Miller said. “We had dinner and he gathered us all up — all of his assistants — and said, ‘We’re going into the Hall of Fame and I want you guys to be there.’ I’ll never forget that. I know with this milestone he feels the same.
“He’ll always say, ‘It’s about what we did, not what I did.’”
During the postgame ceremony at the Dean E. Smith Center on Monday, it was evident Williams wanted to share the spotlight again.
“It’s a special moment, but you know what I really love?” Williams asked the crowd as he pointed to his current players. “No. 17, for this team.”
Williams noted it had been a difficult few years, a stretch that includes the 2015 death of mentor Dean Smith and a multi-year NCAA academic investigation that continues to hang over the school.
“From 700 to 800 (wins), the kids have been my salvation,” Williams said on Monday. “You guys know the junk that’s been going on. I’ve taken a lot of it personally and I was not involved. But if it wasn’t for the kids and the way they’ve made me feel and made me really enjoy coaching and enjoy life everyday — that’s the special thing.”
As expected, Miller came to the defense of his mentor when asked about the “junk.”
“He always did everything the right way,” Miller said. “You hate it for him because he represents what’s right about college athletics — coaching and caring about people and their education — and his track record as far as graduation speaks for itself. That’s what you do it for. It’s not about his individual achievement. And he’ll tell you that.”
Currently in his 14th season with the Tar Heels, Williams is fresh off a pair of ACC Championships and an appearance in the national championship. Earlier this season, the Braves lost 124-63 in an exhibition game against North Carolina.
“I think they have a special group, as we saw first-hand,” Miller said. “Coach (Williams) has always been fantastic as a role model, friend and mentor to me. Not a day goes by where there isn’t something we do, or I try to do as a head coach, that I learned from him and how he does things with running a program.”
Miller learned those things quickly when he got his start with the Jayhawks, working basketball camps alongside current North Carolina assistant Steve Robinson and helping with drills and officiating during Williams’ varsity practices.
“The things that stood out to me the most were: how hard (Williams) worked, his fire on the court, his compassion for people, how hard he worked at recruiting and how much players cared for him,” Miller said. “His actions always spoke so loud.”
With the likes of Kansas’ Raef LaFrentz and North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough in attendance to witness Williams’ 800th win, it’s clear to Miller that Williams has a special ability to unite players and fans from a pair of blue-blood programs.
“Seeing those bonds is kind of cool,” Miller said. “Especially the unique bond between Kansas and North Carolina and how he kind of bridged that gap. For Coach (Williams), seeing the success of his players after they finish school is really special to him.”
But for as much success as Williams has had during his coaching career, there are still some who question his coaching ability.
“Sometimes it is frustrating to hear some of those comments,” Miller said. “I think people may take Coach (Williams) for granted at times. I know most of them don’t, but there are always a few.
“He has two national championships and was a shot away from another one last season. I do think most people and true Tar Heel fans and Kansas fans appreciate what he’s done.”
As he reflects on Williams’ latest milestone, Miller said he hopes to see the accomplishments continue to pile up with many more years of roaming the sidelines.
“I hope he goes a long, long time,” he said. “Hopefully, this other junk will quiet down so he can enjoy it even more. Looking at his career and what he stood for over time with his programs, it’s an amazing accomplishment. He’ll go down as one of the best ever.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.