I’ve known Coach Roy Williams since 2005. I’ve never met the man, never talked to him. The closest I’ve been to him was about 25 feet away. Still, I know him. Everyone who loves Roy and Tar Heel Basketball knows him.
As a second grader in 2005, I didn’t understand a lot about UNC Basketball – ignorant of its rich history, of its outstanding players, of all the fierce in-state rivalries. I knew even less about Roy Williams. But watching Roy’s team run the table that year was enough to make me a fan for life.
Through the years I’ve come to know he’s a great man – kind, giving, compassionate to his university and community. I know he’s one of the greatest college basketball coach to ever live. I know he has produced a hoard of elite basketball players. I know how much joy, how much pride seeing him in his Carolina blue blazer on the sideline has brought me the last 18 years.
I know all this because I’ve watched it. Because I’ve heard the stories of Roy signing countless autographs at a baseball game without one complaint. The stories of him treating players, star and walk-on alike, as if they’re his own son.
Roy Williams was underappreciated during his time as coach of the Tar Heels. His ‘Aw shucks’ demeanor is endearing, but often people forgot there’s a brilliant and unique coaching mind behind that demeanor.
Roy Williams is a part of one of the strongest, oldest, most influential branches on the basketball family tree. Roy was the great Dean Smith’s pupil; Dean was the great “Phog” Allen’s pupil; “Phog” was the James Naismith’s pupil. Yes. That James Naismith.
But everyone was always too hard on Roy. And Roy was always too hard on Roy. But though his abilities were doubted often, they were never doubted by Roy himself. But people, fans and bitter rivals alike, would often say, ‘Oh, well, Roy’s a great recruiter but he can’t coach,’ or the classic, ‘The game has passed him by.’
Now, in a strange, sad turn of events, it seems Roy thinks that’s true, that maybe the game has passed him by. At his final press conference, it became clear he finally started to doubt himself.
Yet it was only two years ago that the Tar Heels were a top five team in the country.
That team was an embodiment of the Dean Smith’s Carolina Way: senior experience and talent (Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, Cameron Johnson), young stars (Coby White, Nassir Little) and excellent role players and glue guys across the roster. A number one seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, Carolina was poised to make a run.
Then the Tar Heels were run out of the gym by a hot, talented Auburn squad in the Sweet 16. In the post-game press conference, it was easy to see how the loss crushed Coach Williams, he made it clear he felt he let his team, his seniors down.
Since that fateful March evening, the program has had its ups, but, mainly, things have trended downward. Last season the Tar Heels had a losing record for the first time since the 2001-2002. This past season wasn’t all that much better.
It seems like Roy, sometime in the last two years, began feeling like he wasn’t living up to the standard he set for himself, that he couldn’t get his teams in the places they needed to be, that he wasn’t living up to the Carolina Way.
So, he stepped away.
Other coaches might not have done the same. Other coaches of Roy’s caliber might have thought it didn’t matter if the game had passed them by. If he has a contract that doesn’t end until 2028, and plenty of other great coaches have worn out their welcome, why shouldn’t Roy do the same?
Simple. That’s not who Roy is. It’s not about him, and it never has been. For Roy, it has always been about the players, about the university and the community, about the fans. It’s exactly how Dean did it, and how Roy always wanted to do it, even though he never felt like he could compare.
Roy Williams retired on Thursday with 903 wins (third all time), three national championships, won 77.4 percent of the games he coached in, and changed countless lives for the better. Although the greatness, the influence, the humanitarianism of Dean Smith can never be matched, Roy did as good a job following in his footstep as anyone could possibly hope to.
A simple ‘Thank you’ could never suffice. I, along with every other Tar Heel Basketball fan, could never begin to describe the joy and the pride Roy Williams brought us during these past 18 years.