By Lauren Brownlow
Former East Carolina football coach Steve Logan once said that the worst thing a coach can do early in the tenure of a rebuilding project is win unexpectedly. Logan was talking about a different sport, of course, but the point still holds. The rationale goes that the fans will start to expect more and more each year, and you've set yourself up for failure.
But ten years ago, when Roy Williams came back to Chapel Hill to take the head coaching job at arguably the top program in college basketball, he knew that those rules didn't apply to him. At UNC, the fans already expected winning anyway, no matter the circumstances. Sure, he might get leeway for a few years, but not many.
Turns out, Williams didn't even need that. And ten years after he accepted the job, Carolina basketball is as good as it ever was. Maybe even better, some might argue.
Not Williams, of course. He'd scoff at the notion that his name belongs in the same breath as his mentor, Dean Smith. Even though he already has the same number of national championships that Smith had (two) in just ten years at North Carolina.
While he reveres Smith, as most UNC folk do, Williams is certainly not a Smith clone.
Smith would play zone. Williams hates zone. Smith valued seniors to the point of playing them above his sometimes more talented underclassmen, while Williams does not hold hard and fast to that rule (to be fair, Smith was starting to bend on that one towards the end of his career, and as we've seen in college basketball, it's kind of necessary).
Like Smith, Williams will often try to deflect the blame from his players to himself and will rarely draw attention to any coaching adjustments he's made. With all the innovations Smith made, it was hard for him not to be appreciated for his basketball mind. But Williams is okay with his players getting the credit, even when adjustments he's made have been huge. The way UNC defended Oklahoma's Blake Griffin in the 2009 Elite Eight game, for instance. Or switching on screens against Duke on more than one occasion. Just to name two.
While Williams has carried on a number of Smith-created traditions, he has plenty of his own, too. He doesn't mind letting his players have a little bit more fun on the bench than perhaps Smith would have been comfortable with, like letting guys dance before the opening tip-off.
And in general, that's one of the bigger changes Williams has brought to UNC basketball. He's OK with his guys having a little bit of fun. He understands that the younger generation has a different idea of fun than he, someone who often mixes up the names of various social media outlets, does. And he's made the image of the program a little bit less buttoned-up and stiff and a bit more fun-loving and loose.
He'll jump around in the locker room after a tough road win. He'll joke around with reporters. He'll poke fun at himself during the "Late Night with Roy" skits, and the event itself has become a key Williams tradition as well. It's generally a scrimmage preceded by skits and introductions that takes place in front of a packed house, and it's almost always a fun time had by all.
Which is perhaps what's made him such a great recruiter over the years. So a look back (and, potentially, forward) at...
TEN YEARS OF RECRUITING
One thing Roy Williams has always been known for--and likely always will be, sometimes to the detriment of his coaching acumen--is recruiting well.
When Williams has four or more five-star recruits on the roster, he's reached at least the Elite Eight every time and won the national championship twice. So...hmm.
And developing said five-star players? Check.
Every five-star player that Roy Williams signed since he's been at UNC is on an NBA roster right now (ratings per Scout.com). That's right--of the 11 five-stars that have moved on from UNC, all 11 are on NBA rosters. There are three currently on the team at UNC (James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston and Isaiah Hicks). Their future remains to be seen, but that's a pretty remarkable statistic.
Overall, 12 of the 14 five-star recruits Williams has coached at UNC are on NBA rosters too, counting Raymond Felton.
And yes, there's one four-star on an NBA roster too--Danny Green. Speaking of which, Williams' record with four-star recruits isn't too shabby, either.
Four of the 19 four-star Williams recruits transferred, but almost all of the ones who stayed had an impact and were a success story of sorts. Williams' guidance--and the hard work of the players, of course--created success stories out of guys like Green, Reyshawn Terry, Quentin Thomas and Deon Thompson. And it's not like guys like Bobby Frasor, Marcus Ginyard and Dexter Strickland weren't important.
This year's team is full of those types of players: Leslie McDonald, Brice Johnson, Joel James, J.P. Tokoto, Kennedy Meeks and Marcus Paige. And we're already seeing what a year of Williams' tutelage is doing for Paige.
And one of the most important parts of Williams' recruiting acumen is his ability to get the talented players to accept roles and to play within a team concept. Even when he was coaching "someone else's recruits" in the 2004-05 season, he had to get them to buy in to what he wanted out of them, and in some cases, he had to build them back up again. He did that, because he is as good as it gets in terms of understanding the psychological needs of his players, even if outsiders often don't understand what he's trying to do at times. His decisions are almost never made in a vacuum.
Which has, of course, led to...
TEN YEARS OF RESULTS
From 1998 to 2003--six seasons of UNC basketball in the post-Dean Smith Era--the Tar Heels went to the Final Four twice, missed the NCAA Tournament altogether twice and missed any sort of postseason once. That 2002 season marked the first time UNC had missed the postseason since 1966, Smith's fifth season. UNC's record in that span was 133-71.
In Williams' ten seasons since, the Tar Heels have a total of 80 losses (and 284 wins).
Oh, and they've reached the NCAA Tournament in nine of the ten seasons, winning two of those and reaching the Final Four three times and the Elite Eight six times. UNC has won at least one game in the NCAA Tournament every year under Williams and has won three or more postseason games (including the NIT) in seven of the last ten seasons.
That's not to mention the success in the ACC, where the Tar Heels have won six regular-season titles in ten seasons and have finished in the top five nine times (and the top three eight times). And the Tar Heels have won at least one game in the ACC Tournament in eight out of the last ten seasons, winning two titles and getting to the championship game five times. In ten years.
But perhaps most impressive of what Williams has been able to do is the consistency of it. Even when the Tar Heels are "down," relatively speaking, they have had just one "bad" season, and that was the 2010 NIT season, when they still finished 20-17.
Williams won 76 games in his first three seasons. In the four seasons prior to his arrival, UNC won a total of--you guessed it--76 games. And in his next three seasons--from 2007-09--Williams won 100 games. Between Smith's retirement and Williams' arrival, UNC won a total of 133 games.
He's had to make adjustments the last few years, and even during the course of a season. He's lost point guards to injury--sometimes for good and sometimes temporarily--and he's been able to make do, nearly finding a way to knock off Kansas in a virtual home game for the Jayhawks with a two-star recruit at point guard in 2012.
He was able to reshape a team without a real big man last season. He took a 2005-06 team filled with freshmen and lesser-regarded recruits that was coming off of a national championship to a second-place finish in the ACC, somehow.
In his seasons most widely regarded as "failures"--2010 and 2013--he made the finals of the NIT one year and the second round of the NCAA Tournament in the other. Other than Duke, almost every other ACC program would tab that as one of their better years in the last ten seasons.
For most ACC teams, a season of ACC and/or NCAA Tournament success is temporary and fleeting. At UNC, it's expected year in and year out. Williams understands that, and has always understood it.
But he loves nothing more than a good challenge, and he seems as energized as he ever has at age 63. Williams has said that he promised Smith he wouldn't retire as early as he did (age 66). A cancer scare last year notwithstanding, Williams seems as healthy as he's ever been. He's got plenty more years left in him, and plenty of more challenges to meet. The exciting part will be wondering which recruit that seems like a marginal player now will emerge and become the next Danny Green, or Reyshawn Terry, or Deon Thompson.
We don't know who. We just know it will happen. Because it always does.