UNC's Roy Williams offers a porous defense

June 9, 2014 

North Carolina coach Roy Williams has again found himself defending the integrity of his basketball program.


As a basketball coach, Roy Williams demands that his players get back on defense. On Saturday, the University of North Carolina’s Hall of Fame coach did the same. Flanked by 11 former players, Williams sat for an interview with ESPN’s Jay Bilas to respond to former player Rashad McCants’ explosive claims about basketball players and academic fraud at UNC-CH.

In a Friday broadcast of ESPN’s show “Outside the Lines,” McCants said Williams discussed manipulating his transcript from the fall of 2004 to replace failing grades with passing grades from summer school courses to keep him academically eligible. In the next semester, McCants said, he was steered by counselors into four African-American studies classes that required no attendance. His grades improved from two F’s in the fall to straight A’s in the spring, according to a transcript obtained by ESPN.

It was a important for Williams and UNC that McCants stayed eligible. He was the team’s second-leading scorer and a key to the Tar Heels winning the 2005 national championship.

Williams responded to McCants’ claims – claims backed by a transcript – by saying, basically, I didn’t do it and I didn’t know.

That’s a response, but not a defense. On the issue of revising the transcript, it will remain a case of conflicting accounts until new information, if any, surfaces. On the issue of sham classes, Williams would seem to be at fault if he didn’t know or if he did.

If he didn’t know, it raises questions: How can a coach who is paid millions of dollars and provided assistant coaches and extensive academic support staff be unaware when one of his top players goes from borderline ineligible to the Dean’s List?

If he was aware of McCants’ academic transformation, didn’t the coach wonder whether the system was being abused? Shouldn’t he have asked questions and tried to protect the university from damage to its academic reputation and a possible NCAA investigation into the eligibility of players ?

And it wasn’t as if McCants got lost in the shuffle. Most of the team’s top players were taking no-show classes. Whistleblower Mary Willingham, who tutored athletes during that period, provided data to The N&O last week that show that five members of the 2005 team accounted for a combined 39 enrollments in classes that never met.

McCants, who left UNC after his junior year for the NBA, told ESPN that Williams and the athletic department knew “100 percent” about what was going on. “We had to run sprints for missing classes if we got caught, so you know, they were very aware of what was going on.”

Williams didn’t refute McCants. Instead, he turned to parsing language. He said he would never say, as McCants alleges, that grades should be “swapped out.” Williams said, “I know I would not have that kind of conversation. I don’t know what swapping out means, and I have never suggested that anybody take any course.”

And the coach said he was confused by what was meant by “paper” classes that required no attendance, only a final paper.

Nowhere in his response or throughout the years of this scandal has Williams expressed disgust or at least dismay that his players were not receiving a true education in return for the athletic skills they provided for the enrichment of UNC and Williams. Instead, the coach has fallen back on legalistic statements that the players “did the work” even when the sham courses required virtually no work.

In the end, Williams’ defense is an appeal for sympathy. He said of McCants’ statements about him, “As a coach, and especially a coach who has probably thin skin like I do, it’s hurtful, it’s harmful, it makes you think...”

Hurtful or not, Williams’ character has been questioned. He needs to provide better answers.

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