C.B. McGrath spent 18 years as an assistant coach watching and learning from Roy Williams, one of the most successful head basketball coaches in NCAA history. If you count McGrath’s career playing for Williams at the University of Kansas, the two were together for 22 years. Williams hired McGrath as an assistant in 1999, while McGrath was working on his Master’s Degree in human biology at KU. McGrath followed Williams to UNC Chapel Hill in 2003, before being hired as head men’s basketball coach at UNC Wilmington in April of 2017.
“I think it’s really important the way we play, the product we put out there, I want all the fans, alumni, everybody there to be proud of what they’re watching,” McGrath says about his Seahawk team. “Win or lose. Obviously, everybody wants to win. I want to win, don’t get me wrong. But I want them to be proud and say, ‘you know what, that’s a good team’.”
McGrath was born in Indianapolis, but moved with his mother to Topeka, Kansas a short time later when his parents divorced. He says that’s also about the time the family started calling him by his initials, instead of by his first name.
“I had a sister who is about 16-18 months older than I am.” he says. “My mom said she couldn’t say ‘Colin’, but she could say ‘CB’, so that’s when she switched it. I’m not sure, that’s the only story I’ve gotten.”
McGrath was a high school sports star. He lettered in basketball, golf and cross country at Topeka West High School, and was named the Kansas High School Basketball Player of the Year in 1994. That caught the eye of Williams, the head coach of the storied Jayhawks’ program in nearby Lawrence, the only place where McGrath wanted to play.
“He called me and said ‘we have one scholarship available. We’re saving it for a 7’2” kid, and he needs to still qualify academically, and that’s why I’m not offering you a scholarship. Where would you go to school if you could go anywhere?’ I said Kansas. He said ‘would you consider walking on?’ I talked to my parents and asked ‘would you consider paying for my college because Coach Williams wants me to walk on. I’ll be a member of the team. We said yes.”
That summer, McGrath drove to Lawrence every day, because team members were lifting weights and playing pickup basketball. That impressed Coach Williams, and when the 7’2” player did not qualify, McGrath was offered a scholarship. It was year-by-year, no guarantees past a single year. But McGrath earned it all four years, and Williams even paid for his fifth year as McGrath started working on his Master’s Degree in human biology. In 1999, Matt Doherty, an assistant coach on Williams’ staff at Kansas, took the head coaching job at Notre Dame. Williams hired McGrath to fill the open spot, beginning his transition from player to coach.
“As a player, you don’t even think about what your coaches are doing, to be honest with you,” McGrath explained. “You just know that when you practice, you want to practice well so you don’t get yelled at. It’s amazing how much work they did, and who did what work.” McGrath talks about learning the secrets of recruiting at 17:15 of the podcast.
When Williams took the head coaching job at UNC in 2003, McGrath joined his staff in Chapel Hill. McGrath admits he never thought he would move to North Carolina after hearing Williams brag so often about his home state. McGrath speaks about that early in the podcast, along with the response he got after announcing the move.
“Coach Williams talked about it all the time,” McGrath says with a smile. “When you’re a Kansan, you’re pretty proud about being a Kansan. You play Kansas basketball, and you think it’s pretty good. He comes in, starts talking about North Carolina this, North Carolina that. North Carolina is the greatest place to live, you’ve got the mountains, you’ve got the beach two hours away. So, I told myself I was not going to live in North Carolina.”
“A lot of Kansas fans and my friends didn’t understand why I was going,” he says. “They said ‘you love Kansas’. I was like ‘yeah, but my job is in North Carolina’. I didn’t have a job at Kansas. That’s just the way the coaching business is.” McGrath compares the UNC fans to the KU fans at 25:00 of the podcast.
McGrath, Williams and the UNC program saw success quickly after the new staff took over, winning the 2005 NCAA men’s basketball championship by defeating Illinois 75-70 in the title game. McGrath had visited Wilmington while working at Kansas, since his sister-in-law Jenny Garrity coached the UNCW women’s tennis team for more than a decade. When his family moved to Chapel Hill, the visits became more frequent. McGrath met then-Seahawk head coaches Jerry Wainwright and Brad Brownell along the way, and heard good things about the university from Garrity and her husband Jimmy, who worked with both the men’s and women’s basketball programs at UNCW. McGrath applied twice when the basketball job opened, and came up short. But when Kevin Keatts left UNCW for North Carolina State in March of this year, McGrath’s third time was the charm. He interviewed the day before the Tar Heels left for the Final Four in Phoenix. He tells the story at 33:05 of the podcast.
“Coach (Williams) had tried to call Jimmy (Bass, UNCW Athletic Director) after I interviewed,” McGrath says. “I tried to call him. I thanked him. A day later Coach asked ‘have you heard from Jimmy?’ I said “I haven’t heard from him Coach’. He said ‘well, that’s not good’. I said, ‘I agree, so it’s over’. I didn’t think about it anymore. I was going to wait for the announcement of who they were going to hire.”
They hired C.B. McGrath, who still had work to do with the Tar Heels in the Final Four. As word started to leak out, McGrath and Williams decided they had to tell the team. McGrath talks about that decision on the podcast, too, and the emotional moment he shared with Williams when he told his mentor that UNCW had offered him the job.
When McGrath arrived in Wilmington, he had holes to fill. All of Keatts’ recruits had requested to be released from their commitments. C.J. Bryce, the leading scorer from the 2016-17 team, sought his release as well. McGrath had to find assistant coaches and players.
“I got in and knew we had a job to do, and I needed to find at least some players where I felt like I could get a full roster to practice,” McGrath says. “I needed to find at least a couple where I knew I had a legitimate roster I could coach. The most difficult thing for me was I had to see these kids play, because I hadn’t seen any of them. I was recruiting five guys, and those guys were Carolina recruits. So, I needed to find guys I could recruit at UNCW, and find them quickly.” He talks about his incoming players at 40:15 of the podcast.
McGrath has already made himself known in the Wilmington community. He’s attended several charity functions, spoken in front of civic groups, and taken part in events as a representative of the university. McGrath developed a relationship with Special Olympics while on Williams’ staff in Chapel Hill, and plans to continue that work in his new role, which he hopes will last a long time.
“You go out in the community they say, ‘how long are you going to stay?’,” McGrath says about Seahawk basketball fans. “Just because other coaches haven’t stayed (at UNCW) very long, or whatever the reason is, there is no job that I’m thinking about other than UNCW. This is just where I want to be.”
My conversation with C. B. McGrath covered many other topics and issues. Among them, his transition from being an assistant coach to running his own college basketball program, his thoughts on what makes a good college recruiter, whether college athletes should be allowed to transfer if their head coach leaves for another job, and how the move to Wilmington is impacting his family. I think you’ll enjoy learning more about him.
You can listen to the entire interview with C. B. McGrath on the free “1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast:
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