The most curious thing about Roy Williams’ head coaching career is that he started at the top and worked his way toward the bottom — in terms of public perception — even though he earned more success, more respect and greater wealth with each day since July 8, 1988.
Williams’ work as head coach at Kansas in his first season was applauded widely, and when he reached the NCAA Tournament national championship game at the end of his third season, he was viewed as a rising superstar. And yet somehow, after he’d reached four Final Fours at Kansas and a second national title game, and after he’d moved back home to coach the North Carolina Tar Heels, he arrived at the 2005 title game against Illinois to a chorus of “Talent vs. Team.”
His Heels were not the “team” in that equation.
Don’t think he didn’t notice. He was too modest to say anything publicly, but he had every reason to be bothered.
And almost certainly he felt slighted again in 2012, when he was named the nation’s “most overrated coach” in an anonymous poll of college basketball coaches conducted by the staff of CBSSports.com and published on their website. Williams had two NCAA championships and seven Final Fours on his resume at that point, and still it wasn’t even close. He got 23 percent of the vote.
Here’s what is tricky: Although Williams has not appreciated those who dismissed him, he never would want anyone to elevate him above the late Dean Smith, who coached him at Carolina, who hired him to the Tar Heels staff, who recommended to the late Bob Frederick at Kansas that he hire Williams in 1988 to coach the Jayhawks even though Roy was, at that point, 0-0. So we won’t do that.
We’ll let the numbers do that for us: Williams, 70, retired Thursday from college coaching with more career victories (903), more NCAA championships (three), more NCAA Tournament appearances (30), NCAA Tournament wins (79) and regular-season conference championships (18).
To honor Roy’s wishes, we will take the statement no further than to say North Carolina never has had a greater basketball coach.
Williams’ win total ranks fourth in the game’s history, behind Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun. His nine Final Fours rank fourth, behind Krzyzewski, John Wooden and Smith. His three titles rank fourth, behind Wooden, Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp and tied with Calhoun and Bob Knight.
You see the names there, the men with whom Williams has kept company, and it’s jarring that none was ever disrespected in the way Williams has been, many times, particularly since returning to Chapel Hill.
The preamble to that 2005 title game is the most obvious example. The “Talent vs. Team” framing was ubiquitous, enough so that The Associated Press referenced it in the game story distributed after the Tar Heels’ 75-70 victory over the Illini.
It had been a ludicrous construct to say that they were not a proper team. Williams and his staff worked hard to make it so. Williams had to convince Marvin Williams, who would become the No. 2 pick in that June’s NBA Draft, to accept a sixth man role because he didn’t want to bench a talented, productive senior, Jawad Williams. He had to get volatile wing Rashad McCants to commit to his role in the offense and defense, and that was no mean feat. He had to build an offense around the overwhelming low-post scoring of center Sean May, when that approach rarely had been the central feature of his teams at Kansas.
Williams went on to win two more titles, in 2009 and 2017, with teams that were divergent in style and personality, and to reach two more Final Fours that did not result in championships. In 2019, his Tar Heels earned another ACC regular-season title and another No. 1 seed but were eliminated in the Sweet 16 by Auburn. His final game was as a No. 8 seed in first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, which the Heels lost by 23 points to Wisconsin.
Williams wept after that game, as he often did following the final game of a season. Most were defeats, because that is the nature of the sport, but the champion gets to finish with a win, and he did that more than most.
“The last game is extremely emotional,” Williams told reporters afterward. “I’ve been very lucky; I’ve been in the locker room four times — one as an assistant, three as a head coach, where the last game of the year was really emotional in a good way.
“My club, I didn’t do a very good job. It’s been a difficult year. But everybody’s had the problems with COVID that we’ve had. It’s been a hard year to push and pull, push and pull every other day to try to get something done. But how can you be any luckier than Roy Williams is coaching basketball?”
You could have been one of us, getting to watch him do it. Is that luckier? Who’s to say? Maybe the end of his career, though, will convince those who didn’t truly appreciate him to understand: There goes Roy Williams, damned close to the best there ever was in this game.