Dad-gum it, Roy, really?
April Fool’s Day 2021 felt too much to me like Oct. 9, 1997, when Dean Smith retired after 36 seasons as the head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, not only my alma mater, but my father’s and two sisters’ as well. I remember sitting in my car in the parking lot at work that day, listening to Dean on the radio and wondering if my good luck as well as the Tar Heel Nation’s had hit midnight.
I am wondering the same thing as I write this.
The announcement by Roy Williams on Thursday that he is retiring as UNC’s basketball coach saddened me in different ways than did Dean’s because — unlike his mentor — Williams leaves with two subpar seasons to punctuate his 18 years. I have a feeling I can’t shake that this isn’t the way Ol’ Roy wanted to exit Stage Right.
Let me do a full disclosure: I am an unabashed and unapologetic fan of Roy Williams, the coach and the person.
Of course I like the fact that in 2003 he left Kansas and returned to his alma mater, which he had said no to three years prior, to rescue a program in disarray, and in the interim he has won 485 games and three national championships. He did so while compiling a 33-5 record against N.C. State, a program that made my teenage years less enjoyable, and having defeated Dook twice in his final season, which was a nice parting gift.
Consider this: Roy, with a record of 903-264, won one more game than did Bob Knight while losing 107 fewer, and — I know this is sacrilege to say — fashioned a slightly better collegiate career than did Smith, winning 24 more games while losing 10 more, the three national titles to Smith’s two being the tiebreaker.
Roy would bristle at that suggestion, and insist that Dean was not only a better coach but a better human being. I’m calling that a tie.
I love that Roy is a genuinely good human being, some might say corny. He loves his alma mater, won without scandal, never extorted UNC for additional money when the NBA would call and it did so frequently, has given the university millions of dollars to fund the education of young people, and always had a kind word to say about the opposing coach and players following a loss. His motivation to coach was squeaky clean: He loved to mentor kids and to see them succeed.
All that was ample for me to overlook the fact that he retires with an estimated 3,000 unused timeouts and that he had an aversion to playing zone.
In making the announcement, Roy, in typical Roy fashion, took all the blame for anything that went awry at UNC during his tenure, and almost none of the credit for what went well, insisting that his coaching during the last two seasons had been to blame for mediocrity. His decision, Roy said, was because he no longer felt he was “the right man for the job.” It was the first time I have ever felt that he was a bit insincere.
Dad-gum it, Roy.
I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am, that some fans of UNC basketball welcome Roy’s decision to retire, their memories obviously short, and their wish for a home-run hire unlikely to be granted. They offer the tired refrain that “the game has passed Ol’ Roy by,” arguing that in the four years since Roy took UNC to the back-to-back Final Fours, winning the title in 2017, that he has forgotten how to coach.
Roy shows no signs of dementia, and from my recliner looked to be working as hard as ever on the sidelines during this year of COVID, unlike his counterpart eight miles away on U.S. 15/501 who only got out of his chair to lower his mask and bark obscenities at the refs. What I think has changed is the players of today, who care more about the name on the back of the jersey than on the front of it, and who hang around just long enough to cash in. I am sure that rubs Roy the wrong way.
If you remember, Roy’s championship teams of 2005, 2009 and 2017 were veteran squads that collectively made the decision to stay around long enough to hang a banner in the Dean Done and perhaps a jersey as well. The more recent UNC team had the talent to have delivered Roy No. 4, but elected instead to be a mere footnote in UNC’s glorious basketball history.
I think that is why Ol’ Roy said enough on Thursday, and not because he doubted his ability to fix this team.
I am often wrong, and I hope I am again, but I fear that in a few years those who felt it was time for Ol’ Roy to fade away will be wishing that he hadn’t and will understand that the success that he shared with all of us is in no way guaranteed.
Unlike when Dean retired, I don’t see a Roy Williams in the wings.
Sorry Roy, but I think you remain the right man for the job. That said, hit it straight and enjoy Wanda, the kids and the grandkids, and the baseball games. You have earned that and more, including my thanks.