GLENDALE, ARIZ. — This moment deserves something spectacular. Grandiose. Orchestral — an “Ode to Roy,” if you will. But the man behind it warrants a more measured approach.
In this story, a perennial All-American and the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player are rascals and tough little nuts. Boxing out is mandatory and timeouts are optional. And another national championship — his third in 13 seasons — well, that’s just “sweet.”
There’s no room for long-winded assertions or exhaustive debates. Just one dadgum truth.
Roy Williams has won more games with different teams, coached better players and claimed other titles. But this is his greatest triumph.
It was no more than 14 years ago that he said he “could give a shit about North Carolina” after his Kansas team lost to Syracuse in the 2003 NCAA national title game. Of course, we know that wasn’t true. He needed to be there for his players.
Thirteen years later, he found himself in a similar position, but nothing could quite prepare him for this. When your team claws back and hits one of the most incredible shots in tournament history, only to have it effaced by an even bigger one 4.7 seconds later, how do you handle it?
“It was the most difficult time I’ve ever had as a coach because I felt so inadequate,” he said. “What was I going to say to my guys?”
Roy got through the night. Then the next. By the time he invited the team over to his place one August afternoon, 140 days had passed since Kris Jenkins’ buzzer beater.
The sting was still there, but he knew what he had. Those 15, they were ready to make right what went so, so wrong in Houston earlier that year.
“I told them ...” he said, “that I thought I had in front of me the kind of guys that could win a national championship.”
From there, the Villanova defeat was not just a memory of pain, but fuel for the fire. The feeling of having your heart ripped out of your body? They never wanted to experience that again.
This was as much for Roy as it was for his players. Sure, the loss was bad enough, but what preceded it was enough to break any person’s spirit.
In December 2014, Roy lost his best friend, Ted Seagroves, to pancreatic cancer. Two months later, he lost his mentor, Dean Smith. Three months after that, his colleague and dear friend, Bill Guthridge, died at the age of 77.
Three instrumental figures in Roy’s life were gone in six months. It was enough to make him want to quit coaching. But he found solace in his players. They became as big a part of his family as those three were, which made it that much more difficult when he had to tell them it would all be OK. And that much more important that he gave them another chance — one they made sure to capitalize on.
“Us playing together has been Coach’s outlet ...” senior Nate Britt said. “There’s nothing more we wanted than to go get him another national title.”
There were times this season when North Carolina looked more frightened than fierce, but what remained constant was Roy’s commitment to his game plan and belief that his players would figure things out.
When Kentucky tied the game with less than 10 seconds left in the Elite Eight, he trusted they wouldn’t need a timeout to get a good look. When they almost let Oregon come back in the Final Four, his constant emphasis on offensive rebounding helped them escape.
And when his team led by just two at the final media timeout against Gonzaga, he reminded them of that August day.
“If you would have told us that we were going to be in this situation the first day of school, meeting at my house,” Roy told them, “we would have all taken it.”
Many will wonder how in the blankety-blank Roy did it. How, in the weight of this moment, with so much on the line, he led his team to redemption. And if you were to ask him, he’d point you to his players.
“That’s all Roy Williams did,” he said of that final media timeout. “I didn’t do one other dadgum thing.”
No, Roy, you had everything to do with this.