Lucas: The Program
Release: 01/09/2014

By Adam Lucas

At his very first press conference as the head coach at the University of North Carolina, Roy Williams said, "I was taught to run a program, not just coach a team."

He was taught, and taught well, by Dean Smith. Since that night in 2003 in Bowles Hall when Williams outlined his goals for the Carolina program, he has won two national championships and engineered the most successful period in Tar Heel basketball history.

But he has done something else, too. He has taken a summer pickup scene that had dwindled to perhaps one or two former players regularly returning, and turned it into a virtual Tar Heel summer reunion. It's not unusual for there to be so many former players in Chapel Hill in the months of June and July that it requires two courts of pickup games to hold them all--there are too many for them to stand on the sidelines and wait if just one court is used.

It's no coincidence that many players during the Williams era have made Chapel Hill and the Triangle their home. Not their metaphorical home; their actual home, where they get their mail. Jawad Williams, who was born in Cleveland, was given less than a week off from his team in France over the holidays. Where did he go? He went home--to Chapel Hill. 

That's what the head coach meant that very first night about building a program. He wanted to build a place where he could assemble players from all over the country--from Cleveland and from DC and from Iowa and from Indiana--and they would become so much a part of what he was doing, that they would never leave.

Williams wanted his program to be part of the community. So every winter, Special Olympians from around the state of North Carolina make a trip to Chapel Hill for the Carolina basketball team's annual clinic. It is almost always a season highlight. And the Special Olympians seem to like it, too. 

The program has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight cancer and given dozens of donations to local charities. The program has visited the hospital. The program has written hundreds of letters to people who are fighting illness and signed "just one more" autograph about a million times. The program has done those things, because that is what Williams thinks it is supposed to do, and that is how he thinks he should run it.

Williams memorably became infatuated with Marvin Williams while on a recruiting trip, when he watched the player foul out of a game, and then proceed to spend the rest of his game bringing his teammates water during the timeouts. That's the kind of player Roy Williams wants to recruit, and Marvin Williams has repaid that trust by diligently returning to Chapel Hill every single summer since he left for the NBA after the 2005 national championship to pursue his degree.

You can build a really good team with a player like Marvin Williams. But you can build a fantastic program with a person like Marvin Williams.

That's the type of person Roy Williams spends lots of winter nights trying to find for North Carolina. He wants to find them for himself, of course. Those are the people he wants to coach, and he wants to win games, too. So when he flies across the country on an in-season recruiting trip when he might otherwise send an assistant, he is doing that partially for himself.

But he is also doing it for the program, and for the person who taught him how to build the program, and for the institution that grabbed him out of the mountains of North Carolina and gave him an opportunity to be something other than an engineer at Georgia Tech (which could very easily have happened). Williams didn't arrive in Chapel Hill as a fantastic athlete or as an individual already ticketed for stardom in one particular field.

He arrived just like thousands of other freshmen do every fall, as someone who thinks they know what they want to do but is ready to see where Carolina might take him. It has taken him to unbelievable heights, to the top of his profession. Williams is responsible for those achievements, but so is the University of North Carolina, and so is Dean Smith. And his mother taught him to be thankful for what he has, and for that reason, he feels a tremendous sense of pride in Carolina. It has never, ever been just a very well-paying job for him. This might be the last time we ever have a coach like that here. 

Thursday he will try to figure out how to get the 2013-14 Tar Heels to take better care of the basketball, to play tougher defense, and to make more shots. Tomorrow will be about the team.

But after Wednesday night's 63-57 loss to Miami, he showed how much of his past few weeks and months have been spent worrying about the program. You could read his words here but it would be much more enlightening to watch them. Go to the 6:45 mark in this video.

That's not a person who is frantic over zone offense or rebounding. Those are temporary problems, ones that will be fixed--or not--in the film room and on the practice court. Either way, they're not lasting. Summer will come and the roster will reshuffle and they will throw the ball up again next fall. He would have had the exact same reaction to that particular question whether Carolina had won or lost a game against the Miami Hurricanes.

But it's the program, the one that's been such a point of pride for Williams over the last forty years of his life, that worries him right now. The program should outlast any single loss. This team is finite. By the middle of April, no matter what, this team will be over. The program, at least the way he wants to build it, is supposed to outlast that date, and maybe even survive in perpetuity.

It's not a familiar feeling to be worried about the program during the middle of a season. 

"I'm really proud of my kids," he said, and he's talking about this year's team, certainly. But in that sentence, he's talking about all the kids, the ones from Felton to Green to Henson. That's always been why he does what he does. He loves seeing them around the building during their offseason, or surprising them--he takes it very seriously that he wants it to be a surprise, to see their eyes light up--with a quick trip to see them play in the NBA during the season.

Negative comments about the program don't impugn Roy Williams. They impugn Tyler Zeller, and Marcus Ginyard, and Byron Sanders. And just a friendly word of advice: you don't want to impugn those people in the presence of Roy Williams, not unless you're ready to have an enemy for life.

Normally, the month of January is spent coaching a team. This particular January, he's having to spend more time than normal running a program.

It is exactly what he knows how to do, and what he was brought here to do. Thursday, it's a safe bet that he wakes up feisty. And ready to show everyone on that day and on every day going forward exactly what he was taught--by the best person who has ever done it anywhere in America--about how to run a program.

Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.


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