Coach Roy Williams of North Carolina receives plenty of inquiries from other schools to play exhibition games at the Smith Center.
Chancellor Elwood Robinson of Winston-Salem State mentioned it to Williams 18 months ago, and it was Williams who told Robinson it was possible if there was an opening in the schedule.
That became a reality. WSSU will take on UNC on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in an exhibition game at the Smith Center.
One factor that played heavily in WSSU’s favor was the impact Big House Gaines, the legendary former basketball coach and athletics director at WSSU, had on Williams. Gaines, who died in April of 2005, and Williams knew each other for a long time.
“His stature,” Williams said about why Gaines was so revered. “I’m not talking about his size, but about the diversity he brought to coaching, and what he meant to not only African-American coaches but what he stood for and the kind of person that he was.”
This isn’t the first time the Tar Heels and Rams will play in an exhibition game. At the start of the 2004-05 season, WSSU played at the Smith Center; before that game, Gaines and his wife, Clara, were honored by Williams and the Tar Heels.
“When we played Winston-Salem State the last time (in November of 2004), I made sure that they brought Coach Gaines to the game and we honored him,” Williams said. “I know we did that, and we brought him and (Clara, his wife) down on the floor because he did it the right way and cared about his players and that was long after they had graduated.
“He was a great example for every coach.”
Gaines spent 47 years on the bench at WSSU and won 828 games and the Division II national championship in the 1966-67 season that featured Earl "The Pearl" Monroe.
Williams, 69, has been in college coaching a long time and got to know Gaines on the recruiting trail. He remembered a meal the two shared in Houston when Gaines was still coaching and Williams was at Kansas.
“We were in Houston watching high school kids play, and he was sitting by himself,” Williams said. “So I went over and sat beside him and said ‘Coach, we have a break here for about an hour and a half between games, and I know of a great barbecue restaurant you might like.’
“And Coach said, ‘I’ll see what kind of taste you have young man.’”
Williams' hunch was right.
“We went to the barbecue place, and he loved it,” Williams said. “So every time I saw him after that, he’d say, ‘You got another good place where we can go eat?’ That’s a story I treasure because I enjoyed sitting down with him for lunch like that.”
Williams said he got to know a lot of coaching giants through the years, but he was thrilled to call Gaines a friend.
“If you didn’t admire Coach Gaines for what he believed in, then there was something wrong with you,” Williams said.
As for Friday’s game, WSSU will be getting $25,000 to play and will be getting exposure for playing the Tar Heels, who are ranked 11th in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Williams has said this preseason is so crucial for his team, which lost its four top scorers from the 2018-19 season.
“It will be a fun atmosphere, and we won’t have anything to lose either because we are just trying to get better,” Williams said. “I know they will be enthused to play, and I know I’ll be upset if my team isn’t enthused to play.”