Vann Williford: A Good Basketball Life
Editor's note: This story originally appeared as a chapter in "Legends of NC State Basketball," by GoPack.com managing editor Tim Peeler (SportsPublishing LLC, © 2004). It is reprinted here with permission.
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. – Vann Williford was so anxious to sign a letter of intent to play basketball at N.C. State, he interrupted Wolfpack coach Norm Sloan in the middle of a round of golf at Pinehurst.
Williford, a lanky boy of 6-foot-6 with slim Division I prospects, had his mother drive him over from the family's home in Fayetteville, N.C., to catch up with Sloan, who was at the famed golf resort in the Sandhills for the annual Wolfpack Club Jamboree. When Sloan finished putting out on the ninth green – Williford doesn't remember which of the resort's courses – the young boy and his widowed mother were there waiting with a pen in hand.
For years, Williford dreamed of playing in Reynolds Coliseum, home of the Dixie Classic and the basketball palace where boyhood idols like Ronnie Shavlik and Lou Pucillo played.
Playing on the courts around Fort Bragg, Williford developed into a capable, but skinny, forward that helped Fayetteville High School win back-to-back Class AAAA state championships. Williford was a complementary player on the championship squad, because teammate Rusty Clark, who later played at North Carolina, was the undisputed star for a team that was expected to win it all in the state's highest division. But the second title was a surprise, won in the final seconds by a pair of Williford free throws.
Still, there were no recruiting skirmishes for Williford, whose spindly frame was by-passed during his senior season by all the coaches on Tobacco Road. Then-Wolfpack coach Press Maravich had absolutely no interest in Williford because Maravich's son, Pete, was all set to become the next Wolfpack star.
But funny things happen in basketball and in life: Maravich never played a game for the Wolfpack, and Williford was the guy who led State to its first ACC Championship under Sloan.
Maravich, the basketball prodigy who grew up dribbling through the streets of Clemson, S.C., and was a superstar at Raleigh's Broughton High School, was not admitted into N.C. State. The ACC had a steadfast rule that all athletes had to score at least 800 on the SAT, and even after a year at prep school, Maravich couldn't make the score.
So father and son headed off to the academically less restrictive Southeastern Conference, to coach and play at Louisiana State. That left the Wolfpack needing a coach and more than just the one recruit, Nelson Isley, that Coach Maravich had bagged before he bagged it.
Williford, the youngest of three children who needed a scholarship if he had any hopes of going to college, learned the game by tagging along with his big brother Richard to various industrial league basketball games around Fayetteville.
"He was a very good high school player, and used to play in all the industrial leagues,'' Williford says. "I would go with him to these games and during timeouts and halftimes and between games, I would be shooting on the sidelines. He piqued my interest in the game."
Williford honed his fundamentals playing pickup games with his buddies in and around the courts at Bragg, getting a big taste of basketball and a touch of experience with the military that would serve him at N.C. State when he enrolled in the ROTC program.
By the time high school was over, Williford had some interest from Western Carolina and Pfeiffer and a possible appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. He ended up signing with Pfeiffer, but told coach Francis Essix plainly: "If I get a better offer, I am going elsewhere."
By late spring, it began to look like there would be no better offers, until Sloan, a State alumni who had built a successful program at Florida, began to assess the program he inherited from Maravich. Sloan asked his coaches if there were any unsigned players still available. William Bell, a big Wolfpack booster from Fayetteville, packed Williford and an eight-millimeter film of Fayetteville playing against Durham High School and 6-foot-10 center Randy Denton.
Sloan watched the film while Bill Kretzer walked a giddy Williford around campus. The coach called a few days later to offer Williford a scholarship, and it didn't take long for Vann to make a decision. He easily would have driven a golf cart from Fayetteville to Pinehurst to sign the papers.
For more than a year, it appeared that those doubters who didn't think Williford could play at the highest level of college basketball were right. He struggled as a freshman, and Sloan openly discussed redshirting Williford as a sophomore.
"That would have been the kiss of death had it happened,'' Williford says. "He was going to go [recruit] his players. If I had been redshirted, I think I would have wound up sitting on the bench for three or four years and not played at all.''
Williford went back to Fayetteville for the summer and worked every day on his game, while working in the town's summer recreation department. When he got back to campus for the 1967-68 season, Williford teamed with Kretzer as a double post in Sloan's continuity offense. He averaged only 11.2 points, but even as an undersized center, Williford hustled his way to an eight-rebound-per-game average and led the ACC in field goal percentage by making 57.3 percent of his shots.
A half dozen games into the season, he was not only out of redshirt contention, he was in the starting lineup. It was a big surprise for everybody, including Williford, who was so nervous in his ACC debut that he put his gym shorts on backwards in the lockerroom.
At the end of the year, Williford and Kretzer were principle figures in one of the most bizarre and controversial ACC Tournament games ever played. Sloan started the semifinal game against sixth-ranked and regular-season runner-up Duke with his two post players at the top of the key, daring Blue Devil coach Vic Bubas to bring his big man, Mike Lewis, from under the basket. Bubas refused, and the result was a dead-air game that mostly featured Kretzer at midcourt dribbling the basketball.
Players from both teams caught up with each other in on-court conversations, a referee sat on the scorers table and Bubas refused to allow Lewis to budge from under the basket.
"This is as exciting as watching artificial insemination,'' UNC radio announcer Bill Currie said on the air.
Williford scored a single free throw with 16 seconds remaining, giving the Wolfpack an 11-9 lead, and each team scored a single free throw the rest of the way, finishing off the fabled ""12-10 Game.''
But no strategy could help the Wolfpack in the title game against North Carolina: the Tar Heels won 87-50, in what was then the largest winning margin in the title game in the tournament's history.
That game was also marred early in the second half when Williford and UNC's Clark, the two old Fayetteville High teammates, ended up in a tussle that resulted in Williford being knocked out when Clark hit him in the back of the head, earning him an ejection and cooling what had always been a cordial relationship.
"We aren't any less friends than we were and we aren't any more friends, because we weren't very close anyway," Williford said.
As a junior, Williford developed his offensive skills and was named first-team All-ACC, thanks in part to his relationship with burly guard Rick Anheuser, who had transferred the previous year from Bradley University.
"Norm made Anheuser better than he ever was, and Anheuser and Norm helped Vann become the player he was,'' former Wolfpack assistant Sam Esposito says. "Vann kept getting better and better, and Anheuser had a lot to do with it. Before that, he was just sort of out there to play.
"They played a lot of two-on-two."
Williford, the virtually unwanted recruit, was a first-team All-ACC selection as a junior and one of the best players in the league as a senior, when the Wolfpack won 16 of its first 17 games and was ranked as high as fifth in the nation. But that was the season that belonged to South Carolina, which the consensus preseason No. 1 and never dropped lower than eighth in the polls. The Gamecocks, led by former North Carolina coach Frank McGuire, recorded the third unbeaten ACC regular-season mark by going 14-0 in the conference.
With the NCAA East regional slated to be in Columbia, South Carolina, the Gamecocks headed into Charlotte for the ACC Tournament with the kind of swagger that could only be taught by McGuire, the New York-born coach who was lured South in the 1950s to challenge Everett Case's supremacy in the ACC.
McGuire did it, winning the NCAC championship in 1957 with the undefeated Tar Heels, but left the school in 1960 for the NBA's New York Knicks when the gambling scandals broke. But he came back to the ACC to build South Carolina into a national power, and 1970 was the year that his loaded team was supposed to rule the roost.
But Roche turned his ankle in the semifinal game against Wake Forest, and the Wolfpack turned McGuire's dreams of his second national title into a nightmare, thanks again to Sloan's slow-down tactics that negated the Gamecocks' massive size advantage.
Still, South Carolina led by as many as 11 points in the first half and was ahead 24-17 at halftime. Despite the deficit, Sloan order his team to hold the ball early in the second half, and nearly six minutes ticked off the clock before McGuire finally pulled his team out of its 2-1-2 zone. It turned out to be a huge mistake.
Williford keyed a comeback that allowed the Wolfpack to tie the game at 35 in regulation. Two overtimes later, after Wolfpack guard Ed Leftwich stole the ball at midcourt from Gamecock point guard Bobby Cremins, State had won its first ACC title under Sloan. Williford was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, after scoring 18 points in the title game.
"Norm absolutely out-coached McGuire,'' Williford said. "They came in the game with the attitude that they could play with anybody on their terms. It was pure coaching genius."
McGuire refused to let his team come out of the lockerroom to accept the second place trophy, and Cremins disappeared after the game into the North Carolina mountains for some solace. Because of NCAA rules at the time, since the Gamecocks were hosting an NCAA Regional, they could not play in the National Invitation Tournament.
"That was one of the toughest moments of my life," Cremins said when he was the head coach at Georgia Tech. "We had such a great team. It made life miserable for us and Coach McGuire. I was just miserable."
But on the other side of the court, the emotions were exactly opposite. Sloan, an original Case recruit who loved the tradition established by his old mentor, became the third N.C. State coach to win an ACC championship. And Williford won the award named after the former coach.
Even now, Williford gets choked up about Sloan's gamble to give him a scholarship, based solely on an eight-millimeter film. That point was driven home in 1999 when athletics director Les Robinson went to Sloan and asked which of his players deserved to have his jersey honored by the school.
Williford, Sloan's first recruit and an unexpected star of the league, was the first name the coach mentioned.
"I think he appreciated what I did for him as much as I appreciated what he did for me," Williford says.
The Wolfpack's appearance in the 1970 NCAA Tournament was a let-down. Playing on South Carolina's home court, with the entire arena against it, the Wolfpack lost to St. Bonaventure in the opening game, and then to Niagara in the consolation contest.
Williford, who signed up to join the Army when he enrolled in advanced ROTC at State, was drafted in the fourth round of the ABA draft by the Carolina Cougars. He played two years for the troubled franchise, but it did not turn out to be the same kind of success story as his college career.
"Other than the money I made, my professional career was not a very pleasant experience,'' Williford says.
In the end, following a two-year stint as a second lieutenant in his home town at Fort Bragg, Williford used his N.C. State contacts, and the money he made from his Cougars contract, to build a lifelong career in industrial equipment sales. For more than three decades, he has been president of Atlantic Coast Toyotalift in High Point, N.C.
""It's been a good life,'' Williford says.
You may contact Tim Peeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.