A North Carolina Legend
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Though the North Carolina Tar Heels suffered a devastating defeat to the Wisconsin Badgers in the first round of the 2021 NCAA tournament, their greatest loss of the season came when their head coach for 18 years, Roy Williams, announced his retirement on April 1. Williams, a Hall of Famer with 903 total wins, nine Final Four appearances, and three national championships, has built a truly legendary legacy from his 33 seasons of coaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Kansas. In order to fully comprehend the significance of Williams’s retirement, one must first understand the immense impact he had on college basketball as a whole.
Williams’s first coaching stint was in 1973 at Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain, North Carolina. There, he coached boys’ basketball and golf for five years before moving to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, his alma mater, to serve as an assistant for the illustrious UNC coach, Dean Smith. Williams’s stretch from 1978 to 1988 as an assistant coach included memorable moments such as the 1982 NCAA championship match, a game between UNC and Georgetown that featured a freshman named Michael Jordan—whom Williams had actually helped recruit—hitting a game-winning jumper to give Smith his first title. Williams’s time as a UNC assistant coach was an invaluable learning experience. However, his dream was always to become a head college basketball coach. After 10 long years of assisting the Tar Heels, he finally got his chance at the University of Kansas.
Williams left North Carolina in 1988 to become the head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks. He coached at Kansas for 15 years (from 1988 to 2003), during which he had a record of 418-101. This statistic put him second on Kansas’s all-time wins list behind Phog Allen, though he has since been passed by current Jayhawks coach Bill Self. Under Williams, the team had several notable runs in the NCAA tournament, including four Final Fours and two national championship appearances. Kansas was the most victorious team in the 1990s, boasting a record of 286-60. “He won an insane amount of games and put us on an upward trajectory,” former KU guard Greg Gurley said. “Kansas fans should be indebted to [...] Williams forever.”
Williams was offered to return to North Carolina in 2000, when former UNC coach Bill Guthridge left the head coaching position vacant. Williams declined the first time, as he had grown attached to the Kansas Jayhawks. However, he couldn’t resist a second offer three years later and came home to his alma mater in 2003. Having already established himself as a high-caliber coach during his years at Kansas, Williams brought immediate success to the Tar Heels. Chapel Hill claimed the national title as UNC took down Illinois 75-70 in the NCAA finals in 2005. A year later, in 2006, Williams became the fastest coach to win 500 games, and in 2007, he was elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Continuing this pattern of success, Williams won two more championships with UNC in 2009 and 2017. He stayed with the Tar Heels until his eventual retirement and became the coach with the second most victories in UNC history. He is also the fourth all-time in wins among Division I coaches and has the sixth-highest winning percentage (.774) in NCAA history.
Part of Williams’s immense success can be attributed to his coaching style. The chief tenet of his system was to maintain a rapid pace on offense, giving the team as many possessions as possible in a 40-minute game. Pushing the tempo can unsettle the defense and lead to easier baskets, but it can also cause turnovers, bad shots, and overall inefficiency. Williams straddled this line between pace and efficiency better than most, if not all, college basketball coaches.
Arguably more important than his coaching system was his coaching philosophy and mindset. Williams was a fierce competitor who loved facing challenges and overcoming them. He always strived to be the best, and he instilled this competitive will in all his players. Williams’s work ethic was another factor that differentiated him from other coaches. He once said, “I tell every prospect I recruit that I’m going to try to outwork every other coach […] I like to ask prospects, ‘Who is recruiting you the hardest?’ If they don’t say [it’s] me, [I’ll be] mad, and I’ll go back to my staff and tell them we’ve got to do more.” Because Williams was willing to invest himself fully in his work and put in the necessary effort, he and his teams were able to enjoy success.
Though Williams was highly committed to winning on the court, he was equally passionate about his players off the court. He was a mentor who strived to build meaningful and lasting relationships with each and every one of his players. “What I will miss the most is building relationships with players,” Williams said. “Those bonds are always going to be there, and they are personal. They are not based on wins and losses but on something you gave them, something you tried to do for them, something you tried to establish in those kids that would affect their lives.”
Though he experienced the highest degrees of success a college basketball coach could ever wish for, Williams described himself as someone who was constantly bothered by losses and his own flaws. He admitted that this was the reason for his retirement, stating, “I knew that the only thing that would speed [my retirement] up was if I did not feel that I was any longer the right man for the job […] I no longer feel that I am the right man.” Williams’s feelings of inadequacy were likely boosted by the Tar Heels’ struggles over the past two seasons, one in which the team held a losing record and the other in which the team was eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the first time in Williams’s career. Though his recent struggles may have been the cause for his retirement, they should in no way taint his legacy. As Mike Krzyzewski, the current head coach of Duke, said, “Our sport was very fortunate to have [Williams] as long as it did. We have all benefited from his longevity in and commitment to coaching. His legacy is secure as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.”
Hubert Davis was officially announced on April 5 as the next UNC basketball coach, becoming the first African American head coach in program history. Davis, a first-time college head coach, looks to follow his predecessor’s steps and put his own touches on the program. “I don’t feel pressure because I’m not comparing myself to anybody,” Davis said. “Coach Williams is the greatest. I’m Hubert.” Whether or not he feels pressure, however, Davis certainly has a tough job ahead of him as he looks to overcome the Tar Heels’ recent struggles and return the program to its expected level of performance as a consistent championship contender.
Will Davis be able to reach the same heights Williams achieved or perhaps even surpass him? Maybe. But no one will ever replace Williams as the most iconic UNC coach.