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COLUMN: Has Roy Williams surpassed Dean Smith as the greatest UNC basketball coach ever?

Roy Williams honors Dean Smith's legendary concept of pointing to the passer during the memorial service for Smith on Sunday in the Smith Center.
Roy Williams honors Dean Smith's legendary concept of pointing to the passer during the memorial service for Smith on Sunday in the Smith Center.

When Dean Smith left his post at North Carolina in 1997, he retired as perhaps the greatest coach in college basketball history. With 11 Final Fours, a pair of national championships and 879 wins, then an NCAA Division I record, Smith etched his name on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball minds.

As it happens, though, Smith protege and current UNC head coach Roy Williams will soon surpass Smith – in at least one metric, that is.

Williams' ninth victory in 2019-20 will be his 880th all time – one more than Smith, under whom he served for a decade as a Tar Heel assistant. 

Of course, 418 of those Williams wins came at the University of Kansas. Still, on the eve of that momentous occasion, it seems like a good time to ask: has Williams surpassed Smith as the greatest UNC basketball coach ever?

I must preface by saying that trying to figure out who is the better coach is like trying to figure out who's the most hatable Blue Devil. It's just not possible.

(OK, fine, it's Christian Laettner.)

Still, even if we could somehow come to a consensus, the answer to the question truly doesn't matter. It's bar conversation, the kind of thing that a college journalist might wonder about on a slow news day.


In any event, here're the relevant numbers. Williams has made nine Final Fours – five at UNC – to Smith's 11. Williams has nine ACC regular season titles to Smith's 17, and three ACC Tournament titles to Smith's 13. Williams is also a two-time ACC Coach of the Year, an award that Smith earned eight times.

Granted, it was a lot easier to dominate the conference when there were a lot fewer teams in it. Still, in nearly every metric, Smith has Williams licked – except the most important one.

Williams has three national titles to Smith's two.

Williams's third NCAA championship, which came in 2017, solidified his legacy as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball, current or former. The only others to have cut down the nets more than twice: John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun and Bob Knight.

Does that make Williams better than his mentor? Not quite, I would argue.

Williams has accomplished about as much as Smith did on a national level, and he's done it in a lot less time (Smith helmed the Tar Heels for 36 years; Williams has been doing it for just 16). But Smith was largely responsible for creating what we know today as North Carolina basketball, a culture of excellence that lives on today.

Pointing to the passer upon a made basket, instituting a culture of selflessness, the famous "Carolina Way": that's what Smith brought to Chapel Hill. Not to mention his support of civil rights early in his career. By all accounts, that's the kind of man Smith was, on and off the court.

And Williams will be the first to tell you: he picked up where Smith — and Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty, who came between the two icons — left off.

"I'm 64 years old and everything I do with our basketball program and the way I deal with the University is driven by my desire to make Coach Smith proud," Williams said upon Smith's passing in 2015. "When I came back to Carolina, the driving force was to make him proud and I still think that today."

Williams is a proven recruiter, an excellent developer of talent and has a sharp tactical mind. But give credit also to Smith for laying the groundwork that has allowed ol' Roy to enjoy his remarkable run in Chapel Hill.

As Williams continues to pile up accolades, it's important that members of Tar Heel faithful – especially the young ones – don't forget how Dean Smith help set up Roy for success.

Pointing to the passer, in true UNC fashion.


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