By Adam Lucas
Dean Smith was always unattainable.
You didn’t really aspire to be Dean Smith. He was too good at too many things. He enacted social change and he remembered names and, oh yeah, he could also coach a little basketball. None of us could do that. We couldn’t be a Dean. We just couldn’t.
But Roy Williams…we could do that, couldn’t we? He’s told us from the day he came back to Carolina in 2003, “Ol’ Roy ain’t that good.” And most of us believed him.
We could be a Roy, couldn’t we? We could let a “dadgum” (or maybe worse, on rare occasions) slip every now and then or we could toss a jacket. He just seems like, well, he seems like one of us.
If you saw Dean Smith walking down Franklin Street during his coaching career, it was like a visit from the Pope. If you see Roy Williams walking down Franklin Street tomorrow, it’ll just be part of his daily walk around campus.
We’ve gotten used to him, quite honestly. He grew up in North Carolina, and he went to Carolina, and he was an assistant coach, and then he went to that other place for a while, but then he came back because...well, of course he came back. Why wouldn’t he?
The way most of us remember the story now, it was seamless. Coach Smith left, and Coach Williams came back, and he just picked up what Coach Smith had already started.
It didn’t happen that way. It seems natural now that we walk into the Smith Center on a June or July afternoon and find a dozen NBA players running up and down the court alongside the current Tar Heels. It wasn’t like that when he first came back. You could always count on Shammond Williams, and probably Brendan Haywood, but there were far fewer regulars then than now.
“You know what he did?” said Sean May, who was on Williams’ first Carolina team and also on his first national championship team. “He invited everyone back for the reunion. That set it off. That’s what bridged the old with the new. The older guys knew he was a Carolina guy, but I think there was that uncertainty about whether they were still welcome. That reunion showed them it was still their program, and that’s continued until today.”
And beyond. It was fitting that Nick Collison was part of Monday night’s celebratory 800th victory video. You’ve probably forgotten this, but when Williams first came back to Carolina, the two people he talked about most often were Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison. Hinrich and Collison did this. Hinrich and Collison did that. You started to wonder if he knew the names of any of his current players.
And now, there’s a whole legion of Tar Heels from the Williams era who have taken over that same Hinrich/Collison job as the role model to the next generation of Williams’ players. There was a time we thought he might never start talking about our guys as his own, and now there are almost too many to choose from. I could never love a player more than Raymond Felton…unless it was David Noel or Wayne Ellington or Tyler Hansbrough or Danny Green or Kendall Marshall or Tyler Zeller or Marcus Paige or Brice Johnson or…let’s just stop naming people, because someone is sure to be left out.
He’s made it a very, very successful basketball program. You know that video they play right before tipoff at the Smith Center?
Thirty regular season ACC titles—and seven of them have come in the past 13 seasons.
Nineteen Final Fours—and four of them have come in the past 13 seasons.
Six national titles—and two of them have come in the past 13 seasons.
Williams is the second-winningest active coach anywhere in college basketball, trailing only Mark Few. He has a higher winning percentage than John Calipari, higher than Mike Krzyzewski, higher than Tom Izzo.
But all those guys are winners. Lots of coaches win. What makes Williams unique is that he’s done more than just win. He’s made this a home for 13 years worth of Tar Heels. Multiple Tar Heels from the Williams era at UNC, including both of the Most Outstanding Players from Williams’ championship teams, have bought houses in Chapel Hill and now call it home. They’ve been in each other’s weddings. Deon Thompson grew up idolizing Sean May and Marvin Williams on television. Kennedy Meeks used to wear a May Bobcats jersey to school. Vince Carter once threw a sweatband to Marcus Paige at an NBA exhibition game, and a decade later was in the stands watching Paige wear Carolina blue in the national championship game. Somewhere, the next great Tar Heel is amazed by Joel Berry or Justin Jackson, and one day they’ll be competing against each other at the Smith Center and then going out to dinner afterward.
Dean Smith laid the foundation for all of this. But Williams has figured out a way to continue it. It's infinitely harder than any of us realize to maintain, and it's even more difficult to maintain while also winning at the highest level of college basketball.
May now works beside the head coach in the Carolina basketball office. “What I’ve realized is that this is his life,” May says. “He really, really loves practice. He used to say that to us when we were playing, and I didn’t really understand it. He loves it. He loves making the practice plan. He loves getting out there on the court every day and really getting into it and coaching.”
Williams loves his wife, Wanda, and his kids, Kimberly and Scott, and his grandsons, Aiden and Court. Most of us have forgotten this now, but as the head coach at Kansas, in the middle of the season, Williams used to fly halfway across the country just to watch Kimberly dance for the Carolina dance team, then fly back to Lawrence to get his team ready for their next game. He hides Easter eggs on the morning of a regional final. He goes to the beach.
But everything else in his life is his team—no, his program. He knows nothing about your favorite TV show. He hasn’t seen that movie everyone is talking about. He doesn’t know what’s hot on the radio. He knows about his family…and he knows about the Tar Heels. That’s it. That’s his life.
On Saturday, Carolina beat a top-10 team at the Smith Center. It was draining just to watch. How did you celebrate? Dinner, perhaps? The head coach of the Tar Heels got on a plane and flew halfway across America to go recruiting, spending less than two hours on the ground, then flew back, landed in the middle of the night, and had practice on Sunday.
He loved it. You can’t work that way if you don’t love it. But that doesn’t mean any of us could do it.
I need to tell you something: Roy Williams isn’t one of us. Roy Williams is singular. The only reason we aren’t totally awed by him is that we already had Dean Smith. But if we’d never seen Dean Smith, we would be completely amazed by Roy Williams, by the 800 wins and the two national titles and the regular spot among the nation’s elite, even while battling unprecedented negative recruiting.
(My favorite is when some people argue both that he can’t recruit and he can’t coach. Well, given the results, it’s not possible that he can’t do either, is it? How are the Tar Heels winning all those games?)
Tonight, because it’s a milestone win, we appreciate him. But later this week, we’ll see him walking across campus, and we’ll say, “There goes Roy!” and by the next home game, we’ll be back to wondering why he doesn’t call more timeouts.
We don’t fully understand what a difficult job he’s done, because he’s made it a point to be one of us. He’s gone to women’s soccer games and baseball games and been there when the Kenan Stadium crowd storms the field.
Carolina Basketball is your life and it’s my life because it’s how we measure all the important events in our life. I was this old when the Tar Heels won it in 1993 and I watched the 2005 game with these people and in 2016 I cried on that friend’s shoulders.
But, really: it’s his life. Roy Williams has given his life to Carolina, and to his players…and in a way, to us. We get to celebrate nights like this because he brings all of this together.
“It’s almost,” May says, “like Carolina Basketball is one of his kids, and that’s really saying something for Coach Williams, because his kids are everything to him. He protects the program, and he wants to see it grow. He’s so conscious of doing the right thing and doing it the right way. He feels like his father, Coach Smith, passed it to him, and he treats it as the most important responsibility he could have. It’s everything to him.”