CHAPEL HILL — There were days when Roy Williams felt like he was failing Dean Smith, and failing the North Carolina basketball program. That is the burden he carried when North Carolinas season appeared to be falling apart, a burden Williams tried to conceal.
During his 19 years as an assistant on Williams coaching staff at Kansas and North Carolina, Steve Robinson has come to know Williams as a man who routinely expresses outward confidence, and one who rarely allows players to detect his stress.
He exhibits a great deal of confidence, a great deal of Im going to where my next task is, and Im going straight forward and Im going at it, Robinson said last week. And (Williams) says a lot of times, Yeah, but underneath Im like a duck Im paddling like heck.
Robinson laughed at that line while he sat in his office, recounting a season unlike any other in the history of UNCs storied basketball program. The Tar Heels begin play in the ACC tournament on Friday as the No. 4 seed and ranked among the top 20 teams nationally.
They enter with victories in 12 of their past 13 games and with a record (23-8, 13-5 ACC) that might have been expected if there hadnt been so many challenges and so much adversity so much that Williams has described this as the most difficult season of his coaching career.
On the surface, Williams hasnt appeared that much different. During games, he has been as demonstrative as ever, exhorting his team to play with more urgency.
During his weekly radio show downtown at Top of the Hill packed, as always, during Williams appearances he has continued to crack colloquial one-liners and speak with a frankness people appreciate.
Williams has remained Ol Roy, even in this long season, and sometimes he refers to himself that way Ol Roy, the coach with a drawl and a way of saying things straight out of his roots in the North Carolina mountains.
This season, though, has aged Williams. His best player, P.J. Hairston, never played a game and left school because he received impermissible benefits. Williams only scholarship senior, Leslie McDonald, missed nine games because of a similar impermissible benefits case. Then in December, police cited Will Graves, a former UNC guard, for possession of marijuana, which authorities discovered in a house Graves was renting from Williams. It was another embarrassment.
On the court, the Tar Heels started 0-3 in the ACC for the second time. They were 1-4 for the first time. And now here they are on the other side of those struggles, entering the postseason after one of most dramatic turnarounds in program history.
He should (have been) ACC coach of the year, Hubert Davis, another UNC assistant, said of Williams. For what he has done for this program. You cannot put into words what he has done.
We are where we are because of him. His leadership, his direction. His ability to gather all the players and the coaches and his program, and just stay the course keep working hard. Its just been amazing.
Working to find the answers
The notion of hard work is an old, worn-out sporting cliché. It also happens to be the title of Williams autobiography. In it, he writes about how he was scared to death intimidated, really when he became a UNC assistant in 1978. It took him three years to be comfortable enough to suggest a play call to Dean Smith.
Williams became successful enough to earn the head coaching job at Kansas in 1988 and then returned to UNC as head coach in 2003. Since then, not many days have passed without Williams asking himself: What would Smith think of the job Im doing?
During darker moments this season, Williams felt as though he was failing Smith. Memories of national championships UNC won under Williams in 2005 and 2009 were becoming more distant by the day, just as the Tar Heels circumstances seemed to be growing direr.
After a home loss against Miami on Jan. 8, the Tar Heels were 0-3 in the ACC. Williams spoke with tears in his eyes.
When you go to school here and you coach here as an assistant and you come back and coach here, its a feeling of ownership and its a feeling of pride, he said then. And right now were not doing a very good job with this basketball team. Thats the hardest thing there is Ive ever had to say.
That night, Williams said he had never felt worse mentally. The Tar Heels split their next two games and returned home after a loss against Virginia with a 1-4 record conference record.
It didnt look good, Davis said, before repeating it again. Didnt look good.
Williams looked tired. He appeared, in some ways, to be defeated as if the stress of the Hairston drama and the losses had taken their toll. UNC announced on Dec. 20 that it wouldnt seek Hairstons reinstatement. Williams described that as the most difficult time of his coaching career.
On the outside, Williams appeared beaten in late December and the first few weeks of January. On the inside, he questioned himself and searched for ways to salvage the season.
The more difficult the task, the harder hes going to work, the more hes going to put into it, Robinson said. And at times he probably went days with little or no sleep. And during the course of the year, he really always doesnt sleep great, anyway.
And then you add this to it, and youre trying to figure it out, I think he probably went with a lot less.
Clemson game the turning point
The day after the loss against Virginia, Williams met as he always does with his assistants Davis, Robinson and C.B. McGrath. It was tense. A home game on Jan. 26 against Clemson, which had never won in Chapel Hill, was next.
Youre worried, Davis said. Youre disappointed. Youre motivated. Youre confident that we can turn this around. Theres so many things. And to be honest, you hope for the best but you dont know how its going to turn out. I mean, I dont think theres anybody could have expected us to win 12 games in a row.
Thats what happened, though. The Tar Heels responded to their worst ACC record with a 12-game winning streak.
Williams credits the streak, which ended Saturday at Duke, to increased urgency and desire. He convinced his players to give more, and he coaxed something out of them that was lacking.
Behind the scenes, the days before the Clemson game might have represented a turning point. During the coaches meetings, Robinson said, Williams and his assistants went back and forth, asking questions and going over hypothetical scenarios.
The stress level had reached a crescendo. Early-season victories against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky the top three teams in the preseason top 25 seemed like eons ago.
Youre 1-4 and youre at the University of North Carolina and everybody understands the pressure that comes, Robinson said. But you know what, we put a great deal of pressure on ourselves to try to be the best team that we can be.
And that pressure internally from us is far greater than the pressure that we may see or feel from all our fan base.
Before the Clemson game, Williams did something he usually avoids: He looked backward. He showed players film of what they did well in those high-profile victories.
You know, after a loss you show things that you didnt do well, Davis said. He said, You know what, lets show them things that we have done well. It was a five-minute clip of us winning, and making winning plays against Louisville. And then Michigan State, Kentucky.
It was the perfect move, because guys were like, OK I had forgotten. We were 1-4, and I had forgotten that I am good.
The ultimate comeback
At times Williams might have forgotten, too, that he had won two national championships and hundreds of games that he had entered the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2007. The losses seem to hurt him more than the victories heal him.
Hes sensitive to slights and, though he says he doesnt read things written about him, he seems to know it when UNC fans are critical of him, or when someone writes something he doesnt like. The Hairston and McDonald impermissible benefits cases provided Williams critics with ample material.
Sometimes, Robinson said, laughter is the best medicine, and during some rougher moments Robinson and the other assistants attempted to keep Williams stress in check maybe try to make him laugh or feel like he wasnt being crushed by the weight of everything going on around him.
I always tell him, Youre not on this island alone, Robinson said.
Ultimately, though, Williams is. He has the big office at the Smith Center, and when things go poorly, Williams receives the blame.
He receives the credit, too, but like with the victories, praise doesnt seem to register as loudly as criticism.
I think coach wants to be liked, Davis said. And I think just everything, this whole year.
Davis trailed off, searching for the words. This is a season that sometimes has left Williams and his staff without them, good or bad.
He talked the last couple of (victories) in the locker room about how they said this was the first Carolina program that was 1-4 (in the ACC), Davis said. And every time he says that, he almost starts to cry. Because he says that hurts him. And to see where we are now, then he starts almost crying again.
Davis played for Smith from 1988 to 1992, and his freshman season was the first one after Williams left for Kansas. Twenty-six years after his final season on Smiths staff, Williams is still trying to please his old boss his first boss, as a college coach.
You know who he really wants to say, Well done? Davis said. Its coach Smith. He wants coach Smith to look at him and go, youre doing a good job. Thanks for taking care of this program.
I think thats in his brain, in the back of his mind all day long: Am I running this program, am I serving this university in a way that coach Smith would approve?
Before January, the last time UNC started 0-3 in the ACC was 1997. Smith led the Tar Heels to the Final Four that season and then retired seven months later. Those Tar Heels were 3-5 in the ACC and then won their next 16 games.
That turnaround is considered the greatest in school history, and the one Williams has led this season is the best since. It wasnt long ago when the Tar Heels were 1-4 in the ACC when Williams felt like he was failing the program.
Nearly two months later, his most difficult season has also featured his best comeback.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter