Inside the Dean E. Smith Center, the spirit of Roy Williams will always live.
Not just on the court, where his name is etched in cursive on both ends. Not just on the Jumbotrons hanging above the stands in all four corners, which flashed photos of the 33-year collegiate coaching veteran on Thursday.
Not just in the banners he helped hang, either, which signal the three times he led the North Carolina men’s basketball team to the pinnacle of his profession:
2005, 2009, 2017.
But because of the connections he made, the gifts he gave and the individuals he molded — the spirit of Roy Williams will forever live in the Dean Smith Center.
And after 18 years pacing those Carolina Blue sidelines, he walked through the stadium’s tunnel one last time to announce his retirement on Thursday.
“This morning I talked to the team, and it was really difficult,” Williams said, with a crack in his voice. “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.”
On Thursday, Williams was not alone.
His wife, Wanda, stood next to his players — both current and former — on the far sideline, where Williams spent his career roaming, screaming and directing his basketball orchestra. UNC’s director of athletics, Bubba Cunningham, and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz sat by his sides.
He thanked his players — Marvin Williams, Tyler Hansbrough, Kenny Williams — and he thanked his mentors. Names brought tears to his eyes, but he wiped them away, and said more thank-you's.
“Student-athletes, coaches and players have prospered under his leadership,” Guskiewicz said. “Many are on the banners floating above us today. Yet thousands of other students who never met Coach Williams have benefited from his and Wanda’s generosity.”
A week before his retirement, the Williams family donated $3 million to fund student scholarships at UNC. The family contributed $600,000 to fund athlete scholarships last spring, which gave some athletes from non-revenue sports the opportunity to compete for another season.
“Today is a day for us to celebrate you and your family, and the incredible generosity that you’ve gifted the community,” Cunningham said. “But many people don’t know that you give gifts annually, to almost every program we have.”
Forty-eight years. Nine-hundred-and-three college wins. Three national championships. From the time he was a ninth grader playing under Buddy Baldwin at T.C. Roberson High School in Asheville, Williams knew he wanted to dedicate his life to the game.
And that’s exactly what he’s done.
“It’s been a thrill, it has been unbelievable,” Williams said. “I’ve loved it. It’s coaching, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since the summer after my ninth grade year in high school. No one has ever enjoyed coaching the way I have for 48 years.”
Williams said he’s not the right man for the job anymore. Not the best man, he was careful to point out — he never considers himself the best at anything — but the right one.
But before he walked back through the tunnel, one last time, in the house that Dean built and the one he christened, he was sure to say one thing:
“I’ve been so, so lucky,” he said. “For the rest of my life, I’ll always say that I was a coach. And that’s the proudest moment of my life.”
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