Some folks found that touching. His detractors thought it insincere. (His detractors were, and are, merciless.) In basketball circles, the word you heard most about Williams was “phony,” a tag that assumed extra oomph when, after Kansas lost narrowly to Syracuse in 2003 final, he told CBS, “I could give a (flip) about North Carolina right now.” The UNC job was open, Carolina having fired Matt Doherty, who’d succeeded Guthridge, who’d succeeded Deano.
One week later, Williams took the UNC job. (To be completely fair, he’d rebuffed his alma mater three years earlier, which was how Carolina wound up with Doherty.) Williams had won big in Lawrence, but now he was moving next door to Duke, where Mike Krzyzewski had taken three championships over 11 seasons, the first at Williams’ expense. Here, though, is the count of NCAA titles since Williams took over in Chapel Hill: Ol’ Roy 3, Coach K 2.
I know some Carolina alums. (Everybody does. They’re everywhere.) They’ve always bemoaned Williams’ game management: He never calls timeout because Dean always saved his; he gets outcoached by Krzyzewski as a matter of course. The not-calling-timeout part was true; he and I had a respectful exchange of ideas after Carolina blew a lead and lost to, ahem, Duke in the 2017 ACC semis. The always-getting-outcoached was not. Another fun fact: Over his 18 seasons in Chapel Hill, Williams’ teams made five Final Fours; Coach K’s made three.
(To his credit, Williams said this to yours truly that night in Brooklyn: “I’m dumb enough to think that, if I die and I have more timeouts left than anybody else, I’ll get something for it.” I LOL’ed.)
Many teeth were ground to nubs after the NCAA failed to drop the hammer on Carolina basketball for the school’s apparent staging of faux classes. Let’s face it, though: Carolina under Williams never became a one-and-done repository the way Kentucky and, yes, Duke did. Over Williams’ first 11 UNC seasons, the Heels had two one-and-dones – Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright. Over that span, Georgia Tech had three.
Williams never got the credit he deserved for having every team play the exact same way, meaning fast, also meaning without fear. You’ll recall Carolina beating Kentucky – which had three one-and-dones that year – in the 2017 South Regional final. Malik Monk tied the score with a trey with 7.2 seconds left. The Heels inbounded before Kentucky could call timeout. (As we know, Williams wasn’t about to call one himself.) Theo Pinson pushed the ball and fed Luke Maye, whose jumper won it. Say this for Ol’ Roy, who bestowed that folksy nickname on himself: He let his players play.
The list of coaches with three or more NCAA titles: John Wooden, Krzyzewski, Rupp, Bobby Knight, Jim Calhoun – and Roy Allen Williams. Of those, the latter is the only one about whom it was ever said, “You know, he really can’t coach.” But he really could, and he really did.
In the eyes of Tar Heels zealots, there’ll never be another Dean Smith. Funny thing, though: Dean Smith’s No. 3 assistant wound up winning more national championships than he did.