By Barry Jacobs
February 7, 2014
UNC Head Coach Roy Williams is fired up when talking to his bench during their road game against the Syracuse Orange in Syracuse, N.Y. on Saturday, January 11, 2014. Syracuse won 57-45. (Corey Lowenstein/News & Observer)
There are bright spots, to be sure. Time at home with his family, especially the young grandsons whose large framed photos adorn the front edge of the desk in his Smith Center office, facing the door as if their innocence might ward off the woes besetting the North Carolina basketball program and the university it represents. The friendly intrasquad wager on the Super Bowl winner, resulting in those who picked Denver, including the silver-haired, 63-year-old head coach, running sprints amid what he called “a lot of hooting and hollering and laughing.” The simple “salvation” of practicing with his 11th Tar Heel squad, safely tucked behind closed doors.
“They’ve been able to help me through a tough time period,” Roy Williams, relaxed in a checkered, earth-tone shirt, said of his team and coaching staff. “Which probably says how blessed I’ve been, because I haven’t had many time periods like this at all. Haven’t had any. You can take the ‘m’ off of many and say any – I haven’t had any time periods like this.”
Williams is an admittedly emotional man. During a rare 57-minute interview, he choked up several times as he discussed his team, coaching, and the travails of former player P.J. Hairston. As a Dean Smith disciple and proud UNC alumnus, Williams expressed hurt and anger, most of it directed at critics, regarding revelations and allegations of academic misconduct involving classes taken by Tar Heel athletes.
Williams’ essential nature is most evident following games. Other coaches are apt to comment analytically, or in generalities, when their teams struggle. Williams shares his frustration and uncertainty openly. That was particularly true when this season’s inexperienced squad spiraled to an 0-3 start in ACC competition – a stumble matched only once previously in program history.
“It’s a game, it’s entertainment, but it is me,” said the Hall of Famer with two NCAA championships (2005 and 2009), five Final Four appearances, and 715 career victories at Kansas and Carolina. “So I can’t just turn it on and turn it off. But I can’t go home and kick the dog. I’m bad enough because I pout and I sulk and I’m quiet and all those kind of childish things.”
Following a Jan. 8 home loss to Miami in which the befuddled Tar Heels trailed for most of the game, Williams agonized publicly over his own performance. He was so agitated, it sparked quiet speculation he must be contemplating retirement.
“I’ve felt more vulnerable than I’ve ever felt,” Williams conceded the other day. “Coach Smith told me one time his biggest worry about me as a head coach was that the losses hurt me so much as an assistant, and he said it gets a lot worse. And he was right. As usual. This time it’s just been, I’ve felt like a punching bag at some times, the things that I’ve had to put up with. And on top of that, some losses. Some poor play. Some bad judgment. Some simple things like free throws that don’t go in, and those kind of things.”
This remains UNC’s worst unit in modern times from the foul line (.619) and 3-point range (.321). But the team’s efficiency has improved, thanks to recent lineup shuffles and predictable player evolution. Williams inserted freshman Kennedy Meeks as the starter in the low post and senior Leslie McDonald at second guard. The changes facilitated a return of the Tar Heels’ best player, Marcus Paige, to a role where he has the ball in his hands much of the time. The most telling result: five wins in the past six games.
Still, this is the second straight season that personnel limitations forced Williams to eschew his preferred offensive tempo, intended to create 100 possessions per game and more time on the floor for more players.
But playing style, even wins and losses, have often taken a back seat since June, when Hairston, a rising junior and the team’s top scorer, ran afoul of the law. Other incidents followed. McDonald had his own difficulties. Meanwhile, the larger issue of academic integrity provided a troubling backdrop, and continues unabated.
Perhaps a victim of his own optimism, Williams held firm to belief in the return of Hairston, “the best player” through more than 40 practices during the fall of 2013.
“I really thought we were going to get him back. I honest to gosh thought it was going to be five games. Then it drug out and I knew it was more than five games because it went past five games. And then, when we started getting a little more information from the NCAA, it started really hitting me that it wasn’t going to be, and that was hard,” Williams said, voice quavering.
“I hated it for our program and our school because we’ve had some tough times around here, and I didn’t want another circumstance that made it any more,” he said. “It was just the most – you don’t want to say devastating because devastating really has some higher connotations, you’re talking about some more serious things than basketball – but basketball is pretty serious to us. It really is.”
Harmed the university
In fact, Williams claimed he has stifled his characteristic urge to bare his soul when it comes to the current situation at UNC. “There’s been so many emotions that I’ve been tempted, but I’ve tried to do my best,” he said.
That best includes having faith in those higher in the university hierarchy, and accepting a subordinate role. “I have my own opinion but, this is going to sound really corny, I try to be a great team player. I’ve always wanted to be on a team. I loved, when I was in Little League, I’m the guy that did put my uniform on in the morning. I’ve always wanted to be a good team player and yet sometimes it’s hard because it’s almost like they’re attacking you or what you respect to the highest degree.”
Those criticisms have “harmed the reputation of the university” and “hurt us tremendously in recruiting,” the coach said. “A lot of articles have been sent to prospects.”
Yet the difficulties have not dampened Williams’ appetite for coaching, or derailed his plans to coach for six to 10 more years. “I feel good – physically. Mentally I’m a wreck,” he said, laughing. “Coach Smith one time made me promise. He said, ‘I quit too early. I quit at 66. You can’t quit at 66. You’ve got to go past that.’ I said, ‘Coach, what happens if I’m getting my tail beat?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about that.’ ”
Williams does worry, of course. When the 2010 team struggled with injuries, and was relegated to the NIT a year after losing most of the nucleus of an NCAA championship squad, a sense of obligation to past players weighed on Williams. “What drives me probably more than anything is, I don’t want to embarrass the program,” he said.
Obligation to that same program, and to Smith, was a factor in Williams leaving Kansas to return to Chapel Hill in the spring of 2003, and will likely be a factor in his ultimate decision to retire. “I really believe this, but who knows if it’s true or not, the day that I stop getting those cold chills I’ll quit the next day,” he said of walking through the tunnel onto the Smith Center floor. “Because then I will feel like I’m cheating, and nobody can say I’m cheating this university or my team.”