Roy Williams announced his retirement as the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball head coach early Thursday morning at the age of 70, according to a press release from the school.
Williams learned the game from one of its most iconic coaches, the late/great Dean Smith.
After playing for Smith and then serving as an assistant on his staff at North Carolina, Williams took his first head-coaching job at Kansas in 1988. After missing the NCAA Tournament in his first season at KU when the program was on probation, he guided the Jayhawks to 14 straight Tourney appearances.
Williams took KU to four Final Fours and a pair of trips to the finals, losing to Duke in 1991 (after beating Smith and UNC in the semifinals) and to a Syracuse team led by a pair of freshmen (Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara) in his final game with the Jayhawks in 2003.
Kansas appeared in the Sweet 16 eight times on Williams’s watch.
Before the 1997-98 season, Smith abruptly retired and handed over the head-coaching duties to his longest-tenured assistant, Bill Guthridge. UNC gave Guthridge a five-year contract, and he took the Tar Heels to the Final Four in his first year on the job.
In his second season, UNC was sent packing in the opening round when a New Orleans product, Harold ‘The Show’ Arceneaux, dropped 36 points on UNC to lead 14th-seeded Weber St. past the Tar Heels. Guthridge would bounce back in Year 3, though, leading an eighth-seeded Carolina squad to the Final Four before losing to the Gators, who had also ousted Weber St. after its win over UNC in the 1999 Tourney.
After three seasons as head coach, Guthridge decided to retire in June of 2000.
During Florida’s run to the 2000 Tournament finals, I was in Winston Salem at Lawrence-Joel Coliseum to witness UF take it to Illinois and its former HC, Lon Kruger, in a Round-of-32 pimpslap. In the next game, I had the absolute pleasure of watching a barn burner between top-seeded Duke and eighth-seeded Kansas.
Obviously, there was zero love lost between Williams, the life-long Tar Heel, and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, and that friction was on full display in the first half. When Krzyzewski was talking to an official around the scorer’s table during a brief break in the action, Williams walked up to have a listen to the conversation.
Whatever was being said, Williams didn’t like it and a screaming match ensued between the two head coaches who had to be separated by the referees, sending the crowd into a frenzy. It was non-stop action the rest of the way, with Duke rallying from a nine-point deficit to win a 69-64 decision that was an extremely misleading final score.
(Side Note: Duke made 27-of-31 free-throw attempts, while KU was only sent to the charity stripe 14 times, making just eight.)
KU had led for most of the game thanks to the stellar play of a trio of true freshmen — Kirk Hinrich, Drew Gooden and Nick Collison. Hinrich (12 points and six assists compared to three turnovers on 4-of-7 shooting from the field) had completely outplayed Duke’s freshman point guard counterpart, Jason Williams, who was an atrocious 2-of-15 from the field with eight turnovers.
However, Hinrich’s look at a potential tying trey with seven seconds left bounced off the rim. The top-seeded Blue Devils lost to Florida by an 87-78 count at the Carrier Dome in the East Region semifinals the following week.
I only bring up that KU-Duke game to put an emphasis on what I thought was the wisest and classiest decision Williams ever made in his career. With Guthridge calling it quits, Ol’ Roy’s mentor (Dean Smith) came calling and badly wanted Williams to come home to Chapel Hill.
For an entire week, local media in North Carolina reported that a deal had been struck with Williams to return to UNC. In reality, Williams was torn between his loyalty to Smith and his love of Carolina vs. his loyalty to his players and love for KU.
After taking a long walk through the stranded KU campus on a hot afternoon in late June to “listen to what his heart tells him,” Williams informed his bosses to schedule a press conference for that night. With the cameras rolling and in front of a herd of national media, Williams sat down in front of the microphone in Lawrence and promptly said, “I’m staying.”
He led his trio of Gooden, Hinrich and Collison (all three would go on to enjoy solid NBA careers that spanned well over a decade) to three more NCAA Tournaments, losing to The ‘Cuse in the 2003 finals.
Matt Doherty had already been fired by UNC after three dreadful seasons, and the media hype of UNC making another run at Roy had been THE sidebar story of the ’03 event. After the heartbreaking loss to the Orangemen (Syracuse didn’t change its mascot to the Orange until 2004), CBS’s Bonnie Bernstein had to ask about Williams’s level of interest in the UNC job.
After initially keeping his composure and acknowledging that somebody was in Bernstein’s ear demanding that she harp on that question, Williams finally let loose, “I could give a shit about North Carolina right now. I’ve got 13 players in that locker room that I love.” Then he walked away.
Several days later, though, the second call from Smith and UNC came, and Williams couldn’t turn it down.
In just his second season, Carolina finished 33-4 and cut the nets down with a 75-70 win over Illinois in the finals of the 2005 NCAA Tournament. Williams won his second national title in Year 6 at the helm, as the Tar Heels blasted Michigan St. in the 2009 finals, one season after bowing out of the Final Four with a remarkable 36-3 record.
UNC won its third national championship on Williams’s watch by beating Gonzaga in 2017. The Tar Heels had lost to Villanova on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Kris Jenkins in the 2016 Tourney finals.
Williams only missed the Tournament twice in his 18-year run at UNC. The Tar Heels lost in the finals of the NIT to finish 20-17 in 2010, and they missed out on the postseason altogether last year with a 14-19 record.
In his 33-year, Hall-of-Fame career, the numbers for Williams are astounding. The one that really surprised me is this: In 30 NCAA Tournament appearances, Williams’s teams never once lost in the first round until this year’s blowout defeat against Wisconsin in an 8/9 matchup.
Williams is fourth in Division-I history in career wins with 903. He trails only Krzyzewski, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and former UConn HC Jim Calhoun, and Williams is one win ahead of Bobby Knight. He was the fastest of five coaches to reach 900 wins, doing so in his 1,161st game.
Williams finishes his career with a 903-264 overall record (77.4%), with a 485-163 (74.8%) ledger at Carolina. Only five coaches have better career winning percentages than Williams: Gonzaga’s Mark Few, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, UCLA’s John Wooden, UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian and UNC’s Smith.
The search for a new head coach starts today. UNC is known to keep it “in the family,” and there are four potential candidates from inside of the Dean/Roy tree. They’re Hubert Davis, Jerry Stackhouse, Wes Miller and Kenny Smith.
Davis played for Dean Smith and has been on Williams’s staff since leaving ESPN in 2012. He’s the most likely to get the gig IF the school decides against conducting a national search.
Kenny Smith is an NBA analyst for TNT whose name often comes up for GM jobs in The Association. He bleeds Carolina blue, is a class act with zero blemishes on his resume, but he has no head-coaching experience. I would think he’s a Doherty-like longshot at best (Plan D or E), but he’d do much better than Doherty did.
Stackhouse hasn’t had much success in two years at Vanderbilt, but those teams have been wrecked by injuries. The Commodores covered a lot of numbers down the stretch, though, and TV analysts rave about his offensive sets that Scotty Pippen Jr. thrived in this season.
Miller is a really intriguing option at the age of 38 with 10 seasons of HC experience already. Granted, that experience has come at a mid-major program in UNC Greensboro, but he played for Williams at UNC from 2004-07. In the last five seasons, Miller has won 25, 27, 29, 23 and 21 games, including a pair of trips to the NCAA Tournament and two NIT appearances.
If the search goes national, I think it starts at Villanova with Jay Wright. If that doesn’t work, it doesn’t hurt to make Gonzaga’s Mark Few say, “no thanks.” Next, I think you give Nate Oats a ring in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama AD Greg Byrne wisely inked Oats to a contract extension six weeks ago. However, I was a tad surprised that his raise only brought him to an annual salary of $3.225 million.
Only $3.2M and change, you ask? Indeed, I thought it should’ve been closer to $4M per if you wanted to show the man how much you want to keep him when other high(er)-profile programs inevitably come calling in the not-distant-at-all future. Oats’s buyout is believed to be North of $12 million, though.
With Texas hiring Chris Beard away from Texas Tech in other (legit) April Fool’s news this morning, we now have openings at UNC, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
Stadium’s Jeff Goodman reported this morning that Loyola-Chicago’s Porter Moser is in the mix for the OU opening left vacant when Kruger retired last week.