It happened Saturday afternoon, finally, after 1,124 career games, five consecutive false starts and ten losses into the most tumultuous season in a decade for the Tar Heels. It came after what seemed to be UNC's only hope was forced to the sideline, an uncanny home win streak was snapped and team veterans wondered what could possibly come next.
For one afternoon, though, or at least one moment, all that could have been briefly forgotten. Months worth of catastrophic injuries, missed opportunities and blown games all felt like distant memories.
For the head coach of North Carolina basketball, it happened.
Roy Williams, 880; Dean Smith, 879. Williams had, by at least one metric — career wins — eclipsed his mentor, good for fourth all-time among Division I coaches in college basketball history.
It happened in a late January game against Miami, perhaps the only team more undermanned than North Carolina this season. The hamstrung Hurricanes trotted out just six scholarships players and were without leading scorer Chris Lykes, allowing the Tar Heels to cruise to a much-needed 94-71 win and snap a six-game ACC losing streak.
It happened because of Brandon Robinson, who had a career-high 29 points, and Armando Bacot, who added 19 points in the rout. It happened after consecutive losses to Georgia Tech, Pitt, Clemson, Pitt (again) and Virginia Tech, which might have dulled the sheen of the accomplishment, but not by much.
"I'd have been just as happy if it happened four or five games ago," Williams said, continuing, "I desperately wanted (win) number nine for this team."
Elsewhere, the Hall of Famer — who promptly jogged off the court after the final buzzer, to little fanfare — was rather cool about the subject. But if you asked him to sit down and really reflect on the achievement, he’d undoubtedly say it happened because of everyone but himself.
Maybe Roy Williams would start here: It happened because of Buddy Baldwin, his coach at Roberson High School, who Williams “grew up wanting to be like.” Or it happened because of Owen High School, where Williams got his coaching start at 22.
It happened because of former Kansas athletic director Bob Frederick, who took a chance on Williams in 1988, then former UNC athletic director Dick Baddour, who convinced him to return to his alma mater in 2003.
Of course, Williams might say, it happened because of his time with the Jayhawks, in which he reached five Final Fours and won 418 games.
Then, though, it happened because of the championship mettle of Sean May, Tyler Hansbrough and Joel Berry II — but also the unforgettable talents of Marcus Paige, Harrison Barnes and Coby White.
It happened because of people like Steve Robinson, Hubert Davis and Brad Frederick, plus Jonas Sahratian, Doug Halverson and Eric Hoots. It happened because of his wife, Wanda Williams.
Most of all, though, Roy Williams surpassed Dean Smith because of Smith himself.
Smith was the man who allowed Williams, then a UNC student, to sit in on the coach running practices, then hired him as an assistant in 1978. The man who might as well have patented the North Carolina brand of basketball, what with its insistence on making the unselfish play and pointing to the passer after a basket. (The Tar Heels finished with 32 assists on 40 field goals Saturday afternoon.)
Smith was the man who told Williams, on the eve of the latter’s departure for Lawrence, “Just be yourself. If you be yourself, you're gonna be one of the great coaches."
It happened after Smith died in 2015 at 83, at which point Williams called him "the perfect picture of what a college basketball coach should have been.”
It happened after 17 seasons and change at the helm of North Carolina, where we’ve seen Williams do the electric slide before the start of a new season and cry on Senior Night like clockwork.
It happened after Williams captured three national titles in Chapel Hill, one more than his mentor, and submitted perhaps the most successful decade in Tar Heel basketball history.
It also happened after an academic-athletic scandal that served as an existential threat to UNC sports as we know it; after sweeping changes to the hoops recruiting landscape; after big-picture questions about amateurism and the soul of college basketball.
It happened after an incalculable number of ‘daggums’ uttered and timeouts not called, after scores of players come and gone, fast breaks executed and buzzers sounded. It happened after the man became a GIF-able figure, an ACC fixture, a face on college basketball's Mount Rushmore and one of the two best coaches in Tar Heel history.
Roy Williams surpassed Dean Smith, and it’s just the latest in a long line of things that has happened to Roy Williams. Only the basketball gods know what comes next.
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