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Friday May 7th

'Right man' or not, Roy Williams retires as a UNC icon and college basketball legend

UNC head coach Roy Williams tears up during his retirement announcement  press conference in the Smith Center on April 1, 2021. "I no longer feel that I am the right man for the job," said Williams on the decision.
Buy Photos UNC head coach Roy Williams tears up during his retirement announcement press conference in the Smith Center on April 1, 2021. "I no longer feel that I am the right man for the job," said Williams on the decision.

Well, daggum.

What other words to capture the gravity of this moment — for Chapel Hill residents, for fans of UNC athletics, for anyone who follows college basketball? What other words to grasp one of the biggest seismic shifts in the sports landscape in recent memory?

And what other words to capture the feeling of head coach Roy Williams, on the court bearing his name, seated between Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and backgrounded by UNC’s NCAA title banners, announcing that he was no longer fit for one of the most prestigious jobs in college basketball?

“I’m not gonna say the ‘best’ man, because I never thought I was the best at doing things,” Williams said, dressed in a pink tie with a Carolina Blue blazer. “Fifteen years at Kansas, I felt that I was the right man, and this time at North Carolina I felt that I was the right man. I no longer feel that I am the right man for the job.” 

Yes, after 33 seasons, 903 wins and three national championships, the head coach and forever Tar Heel announced his retirement on Thursday, closing the book on a legendary career, beginning a new era of UNC athletics and ending perhaps the most fruitful stretch in basketball program history.

In some ways, the April Fools' Day press release seemed like a joke until the very moment the 70-year-old Hall of Famer walked out of the Dean E. Smith Center tunnel — flanked by members of the program and his wife, Wanda — to a standing ovation from boosters and former players. It took nearly the entire hour-long press conference to realize that yes, it was here, and yes, it was now, and yes, the words "Roy Williams, current head coach of UNC basketball" would never again be accurate.

"The only thing I've ever wanted to do is coach ... it's all I've ever done," he said. "I'm scared to death of trying to do something that's not coaching."

Williams’ career spanned nearly a half-century, beginning at Owen High School in Black Mountain, N.C., and taking him everywhere from Lawrence, Kan., to Final Fours across the country to the very summit of the college basketball world.

It included the third-most victories of any coach, the sixth-highest winning percentage in NCAA history, a National Coach of the Decade award and three national championships, in 2005, 2009 and 2017.

In between, too were his countless Royisms — utterances of “darn” and “friggin,’” oblique cultural references and GIFable locker room dances, plaid sport coats and crisp Air Jordans alongside the requisite claims that he had no idea which pair of kicks he was wearing, exactly.

“That’s what made Roy Williams unique,” Cunningham said. “His ability to run an incredible program and be so down-to-earth to students, to fans and to players has been remarkable.” 

And yet the most prominent constant was always the shadow and influence of Dean Smith, the progenitor of Tar Heel hoops and “the perfect picture of what a college basketball coach should have been,” Williams once said. 

Smith is the man who gave Williams his coaching start in earnest, allowing him to sit in and scribble furious notes during North Carolina practices and, later, return to his alma mater as an assistant coach from 1978 to 1988. He’s also the man who believed in Williams and endorsed him vociferously, helping him land the job as head man at Kansas and telling him before his departure, “Just be yourself. If you be yourself, you're gonna be one of the great coaches.”

And, to his credit, Williams took Smith’s advice, eventually putting his own spin on the North Carolina system and making dominant big men and fast break-inclined point guard play the modus operandi and a blueprint for national dominance.

“To our students, he is Carolina basketball, but he’s not just Carolina basketball,” Guskiewicz said. “He’s as much a part of campus as the Old Well or the low stone walls, forever cherished by all.” 

Claims of the game passing Williams by became louder by this year, especially as UNC floundered in 2019-20 and only snuck into the postseason in 2020-21. Already his own biggest critic, Williams said he started to become “really bothered” by his own mistakes, to the point where continuing was no longer an option.

“This morning I talked to the team, and it was really difficult,” he said. “I came in and I saw the former players in the lounge — that was really difficult. And when I realized that I was gonna walk through that tunnel for the last time as a coach, that was very difficult.” 

That, above all, is why Thursday afternoon felt so unbelievable: the idea that Williams, one of the five most successful coaches in the modern game by any stretch, still hadn't done enough — for UNC, for Chapel Hill, for Dean Smith.

Still, no matter how much Williams deflects praise or absorbs blame, he won't — can't — erase his greatest accomplishment: matching, if not eclipsing his mentor, passing Smith in both national championships and all-time wins and leaving a legacy that’s as gargantuan as any in college basketball.

So, yes — Williams was the right man for many years, and for many players, and for many teams. And as he looks toward a new chapter, all the rest of us can hope is that he knows that himself.

@ryantwilcox

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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