North Carolina

Why Roy Williams is one of the best college coaches ever

The cumulative weight of achievement sets the extraordinary apart, as Roy Williams just proved in winning another championship at North Carolina. Unless, of course, you insist on narrowing your vision to find a different result.

A major topic of debate during the recently concluded NBA Finals was illustrative of such selective analysis, as pundits measured where LeBron James ranks in the pantheon of the greatest players in pro history. Frequently the criteria used were visits to the finals and whose teams won the most titles. Fixated as most commentators are on the present and immediate past, the discussion boiled down to evaluations that correctly left James short of Michael Jordan, widely touted as the best who ever played.

Meanwhile, the virtually unmentioned winner in both categories of comparison, and arguably the most dominant player of any era, was Bill Russell. The 6-10 center, a defensive wizard and a masterful outlet passer, anchored Boston Celtics squads that won 11 championships – compared to six for Jordan and three for James – and appeared in a dozen finals from 1957 through 1969. But Russell, rarely spectacular on offense, competed before the NBA recorded blocked shots and prior to the advent of ESPN’s ubiquitous hyperbole, making his greatness difficult to measure and easier to overlook.

College players aren’t evaluated like the pros, given the wider range of competitive levels among leagues and shorter career spans overall. Instead, in a game where the enduring personalities stalk the sidelines, it’s coaches that rate the comparisons. And it’s there, on the heels of his third NCAA title, that Williams emerged this spring as one of the best ever in his profession, if he hadn’t already reached that stature.

The inescapable fact of Williams’ excellence gripes some people, although the gripers surely are a diminishing contingent, even with the lingering questions about academic missteps affecting North Carolina’s athletic program, a matter under seemingly eternal adjudication by the NCAA. Not only is Williams adamant he did nothing untoward in guiding his players, he questions whether his alma mater’s missteps fall within the NCAA’s purview, a stance consistent with the school’s public assertions.

Even before the shadow-class scandal broke, an informal 2012 survey done by CBS Sports found nearly a quarter of Williams’ peers (23 percent) considered him the most over-rated coach in the country. A 2013 SB Nation article reached an opposite conclusion. Based on NCAA finishes and conference achievements, it said Williams was “College Basketball’s Coach of the Decade.” (The stats covered nine seasons, but why quibble when you’re trying to make a point?)

Williams, still thin-skinned at 66, says the denigrating survey “bothered me a little bit” and that the much-welcome coach-of-the-decade accolade was quickly forgotten, too. Yet, as with many of us, the sting of criticism lingers, even if he’s told himself “a million times” that, as swashbuckling Rhett Butler declared to Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind”: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Except Williams, known to use profanity on live broadcasts when angered, shies from uttering the curse word that completes the quotation.

“I do think I can coach,” Williams says. “I’ve always been comfortable with coaching. I’ve never been shaky, I’ve never been nervous with my coaching.” Such unvarnished statements are both Williams’ bane and his charm. Few other coaches or high-level professionals outside the White House would even discuss how good they are at their job; it’s not a topic given to graceful answers.

The opinions that matter to him, Williams said the other afternoon between sessions hosting about 800 kids per week at his summer basketball camp, are those of Buddy Baldwin, his high school coach in Asheville, as well as a few friends. “Most importantly, what my kids say by how they act, because they try to do what I say,” Williams adds of his teams. “My players give me the most confidence because they just try to do what I ask them to do. If they don’t have that confidence, then I’d have more concerns.”

Williams, a Dean Smith assistant with no college head coaching experience, took over at Kansas when it was on probation in July 1988. His talent-depleted teams immediately won, and haven’t stopped winning since. Williams’ Jayhawks and Tar Heels never had a losing record, never posted fewer than 19 wins in a season. Among active NCAA Division I men’s coaches his .791 career winning percentage (816-216) trails only Gonzaga’s Mark Few, whose team lost to UNC in the ’17 championship contest.

Clinching the argument for Williams’ coaching mastery, since returning to Chapel Hill in 2004 he’s taken five Tar Heel squads to the Final Four, more than any other coach over that span. He came away with three NCAA titles, tying for fourth-best ever with UConn’s Jim Calhoun and Indiana’s Bob Knight. Only UCLA’s John Wooden (10), Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (5) and Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (4) won more championships during their careers.

“When I first got to Kansas they said, ‘Goodness, he can really coach, but he can’t recruit a lick,’” Williams recalls, offering a favorite riff. “And then all of a sudden I got to where I could recruit but I couldn’t coach a lick.”

The notion that he simply gathers superior players, then aims them and lets go, made last season’s championship especially revealing. As a group, the ’17 club was comprised of talents a notch below his usual standard, recruited in the face of what Williams calls “the shotgun that everybody had” in citing imminent (if speculative) NCAA probation. Yet in the past three years the Tar Heels reached the Sweet 16 and two title games, winning one. “We have guys right now who are seniors,” he says of Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson, “who were told they’d never play in an NCAA game.”

Whatever his achievements or success confounding critics, Williams, who notes he’s gone recruiting on his wedding anniversary, is certainly not one to rest easily. During the summer following the 2009 championship Williams speculated he might throttle back and coach his grandchildren’s Little League baseball and basketball teams. But while he fondly recalls starting to play organized baseball at age 11, Aiden and Court, seven and five respectively, already are Little League participants. “I didn’t realize they could start so early,” says Williams, who’s limited his coaching to showing Aiden how to properly make a layup in the family backyard. “I loved that,” he admits.

Williams says he has no plan for leaving the bench permanently, vagueness he more or less shares with the other five ACC coaches of Social Security vintage. Still, mortality whispers in a photo of Williams posed between an aged Smith and Bill Guthridge, Smith’s longtime assistant, that’s perched on the counter in the basketball office reception area, as well as via the treatment table in the corner of the coach’s spacious Smith Center office used for palliating his painful stenosis.

The immediate future appears bright, though, promising a new perimeter-oriented style dictated by his personnel, a sharp departure after a career relying on an inside-outside offense. “It will be a fun way to play,” Williams says somewhat convincingly. “It’ll be a fun thing for me to see if I can change my own mind.” Having already changed others, that is.