But an 11-0 run, helped along by a pair of jumpers from Robinson, put North Carolina in the driver's seat. And when a late Yale rally came up short — guard Azar Swain's game-tying three-point attempt missed at the buzzer — the only thing Williams could think about was ... his escape route?
"I didn't wanna stay out there," he said. "[Senior associate athletic director Steve Kirschner] sort of insisted. I could've said no if I wanted to, if I'd out-quicked him to the locker room."
Instead, Williams stuck around on the court to receive an honorary plaque, with a picture of himself and his mentor and "879" emblazoned at the bottom. Though a portion of the crowd had already left, the moment earned perhaps the loudest cheer of the night.
Williams, as he is wont to do, was quick to downplay the moment — "It's a number," he said initially. "It means I've stayed around a long time, probably longer than some people wanted me to stay."
"I knew what he was gonna say as soon as they announced it after the game," Robinson said. "He was gonna be like, 'This wasn't about me. It was about guys like you.'"
But all the pomp and circumstance after the fact was enough to make Williams reflect — on his career, on Smith and on the UNC basketball family.
The 69-year-old Hall of Famer insisted he would've been satisfied being Smith's assistant, then Bill Guthridge's assistant, then Eddie Fogler's assistant, until retiring to the golf course. As it happens, Williams took the head coaching job at Kansas in 1988, guiding the program to four Final Fours and 418 wins in 15 seasons.
None of it happened before a few words of advice from his mentor.
"Just be yourself," Smith said on the eve of Williams' departure for Lawrence. "You're good enough. Just be yourself. If you be yourself, you're gonna be one of the great coaches."
It's the ability to incorporate Smith's teachings while simultaneously forging his own path that's made Williams' Chapel Hill tenure so successful. In difficult situations, many ask themselves, "What would Jesus do?" But Williams insists he has his own version: "What would Coach Smith do?"
It's that question that's helped Williams to three national championships at North Carolina — one more, it should be noted, than Smith — and a spot on the college basketball Mount Rushmore alongside his mentor.
How fitting, then, that one of the people there to present Williams with his plaque was Scott Smith, whose father died in 2015. The younger Smith had a few simple words of his own for Williams: "'Dad would be really happy,'" Williams remembers. "And uh ..."
Here, Roy Williams can't help but get emotional while recounting the story. He pauses.
"I think he would be."
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