Phil Ford misses the practices. Teaching players. Inspiring players. Watching them get better.
That’s why the former North Carolina All-America — fired alongside the rest of the Charlotte Bobcats’ coaching staff more than a year ago — can sometimes be found at the Smith Center these days, watching his alma mater prepare for its next game.
“I just love to watch Coach [Roy] Williams practice,’’ Ford, the second-leading scorer in UNC history, said in an interview this week. “Its been great, for me, just to be able to be near the game … and in a place I love.”
Ford, who starred at UNC from 1974-78 (where he was maestro of the Four Corners offense), and was also an assistant coach for the Tar Heels from 1988-2000, moved to Raleigh after serving as a Bobcats assistant coach for more than three seasons.
He stays busy on the speaking circuit, is involved in vitamin sales and is developing the Phil Ford Foundation, with which he wants to help fight childhood obesity.
“I had a basketball camp last fall, and there was a kid there that was really overweight, and I got really close to him … and after talking to people and doing a lot of research, I just think that’s a humongous problem in our country today,’’ he said. “And I think helping find a solution is the right thing to do.”
Still, coaching is never far from his mind — or his heart.
“That’s in my blood," he said. ”… I didn’t want to take a break, but this is the profession I’ve chosen, and this happens from time-to-time. Most coaches have gone through what I’m going through right now. But hopefully something will open up.
“I love the pro game and I love the college game. That’s a good asset for me, to have coached at both levels, because the game is so different … and I’m just hoping for the right situation.”
In the meantime, the former Wooden Award recipient and Olympic gold-medal-winner often stops by Chapel Hill, visiting with his son and daughter (who both attend school at UNC), dropping in on coaches (he and Larry Brown, who was passing through town recently, had lunch with former coach Dean Smith earlier this month), watching the Tar Heels develop at practice.
“I love this team," he said of the current Tar Heels. “First off, let me say, the expectations for a Carolina basketball team is always going to be off the charts. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. … But I think all of the players on this team are great guys; they’re all great people. And they’re one of 10, 15 teams right now that could win a national title.”
As a former star point guard, he also has a special affinity for sophomore ballhandler Kendall Marshall, one of the national leaders in assists: "I’ve just never seen a young basketball player with the vision that he has. He has great court vision, great court awareness. It’s fun to watch him play.”
Ford, who also worked for UNC’s Educational Foundation (Ram’s Club) as a fundraiser for several seasons, said he would be open to returning to his alma mater, if the right opportunity opened up.
But first and foremost, he still wants to coach again — and get back on a practice court, where he can teach and inspire and help players improve.
“Anybody that knows me knows how much I love North Carolina, and what this school means to me," he said. “So if I’m not coaching, this is definitely the place to be.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.