The message is more than a year old but Roy Williams won’t delete it. He can go into his home office, he says, and “I can press that button right now and I can listen to it again.” He wants to remember there are those who don’t believe in him.
The voice mail is from the spring of 2015. Williams’ home number is unlisted but someone who knew it, or somehow found it, called him not long after Brandon Ingram, a player Williams had recruited for years, had announced his college decision.
“Told me it was going to be a cold day in Hades,” Williams says, reciting from memory, “when the Carolina people are going to be satisfied with the job that I was doing because Brandon Ingram signed at Duke.”
Somebody left that message, Williams says again, “for my wife to hear.”
Williams lets the story hang in the air, his arms folded while he sits behind his desk in his office at North Carolina. Stuff like that voice mail, he says, and “the John Wayne in me comes out.”
“Because I would like to tell that guy exactly what I think,” he says, “and show him exactly what I think. ... How dare somebody call my home phone and my wife have to listen to kind of junk.”
Williams keeps that number, like he saves that message. All around his office at UNC there are reminders of success – pictures from celebrations after his two national championships, memorabilia from so many victories and moments over 13 years.
His office is like a smaller version of UNC’s basketball museum, just down the street. And yet for some it hasn’t been enough. He picks up where he left off with the voice mail, the one that still waits for him at the press of a button.
The man who left it, Williams says, “said that he hoped that I was either on my way to the airport or all the way to Atlanta to recruit Jaylen Brown because the Tar Heel nation wasn’t going to stand for Coach K signing Brandon Ingram instead of coming to North Carolina.”
We had a pretty good year last year. With 4.7 seconds, we’ve still got a chance to win the national championship. Three-hundred fifty-one teams started the season. So I’ve kept that the whole time. And when I quit, I will call the guy and have a discussion with him.
Roy Williams on a voice mail he received after Brandon Ingram signed with Duke
“And you know,” Williams says, “we had a pretty good year last year. With 4.7 seconds, we’ve still got a chance to win the national championship. Three-hundred fifty-one teams started the season. So I’ve kept that the whole time. And when I quit, I will call the guy and have a discussion with him.”
He has no plans to quit. Not after this season, or after the next, or after the next, or after the next one after that. For years, Williams had said he planned to coach six to 10 more years. At the end of last season he adjusted the timeline: five to nine more years.
Now he’s in his 14th season at UNC, his 29th overall. He will coach his 1,000th game on Nov. 30, at Indiana. He is in his final years – however many there will be – though there will be no long, slow walk into the sunset of his career, no fading away into a life of grandkids and golf.
Williams says he doesn’t think about the end, his final game, and he doesn’t look or sound like he is. He has a new right knee, his same old-school philosophy. The passion to coach that drives many into his profession, but far fewer to grand success, is still there, and “maybe even more so,” Williams says.
Being asked about retirement
Seven years ago, after the Tar Heels won the national championship in 2009, Williams’ wife, Wanda, tried to talk him into retiring. Williams remembers her argument: You’ve won two of these now, eight seniors are leaving, what’s left to do, or to prove?
“When you get to be 60, I think your partners start thinking about how many years are left,” Williams says, “and what you want you do, and there are still some things that they want to enjoy. And it’s stressful. No doubt it’s stressful. And she sees the stress that the basketball coach at North Carolina goes through. But she also knows how much I love doing what I’m doing, so it’s a battle for her, too.”
Williams is 66, the same age his mentor, Dean Smith, was when he retired in 1997. For Williams, the retirement questions arise every now and then, more often as the years go by. Sometimes he bristles at the retirement talk, loses his patience for it.
He did more than seven months ago, when members of the national sports media asked him about it at the Final Four. And he’s bristling now, in a more subdued way, while he sinks into a big chair behind a big desk in the biggest office at the Smith Center.
“I’m not looking down the road,” Williams says of retirement. “I’m really not. I don’t consider it, don’t think about it. I think if you spend time thinking about that all the time, it’s time to do that. So I don’t do that. I really don’t. I enjoy what I do.
“I’m serious – I answer that question from you more than I do all the other people in the world put together. I’m being truthful. … What do we have in the country, 300 million people? You have brought that question up more than all the other millions of people in the world put together. I’m serious.”
I’m not looking down the road. I’m really not. I don’t consider it, don’t think about it. I think if you spend time thinking about that all the time, it’s time to do that. So I don’t do that. I really don’t. I enjoy what I do.
Williams on retirement
These haven’t been easy years for Williams, the success of last season notwithstanding. Personally, he has lost mentors and close friends. The deaths of Smith and Bill Guthridge weighed on him, as did that of his friend and neighbor, Ted Seagroves.
Professionally, he has to put up with things like the voice mail – “It’s happened before,” he says – while defending his integrity amid a long-running scandal of phony African Studies courses, which began 10 years before he came back to his alma mater to become UNC’s head coach in 2003.
The NCAA’s original Notice of Allegations found that UNC athletes, including men’s basketball players, had received impermissible benefits over several years in the form of “preferential access” to fake classes within the African studies department. In the NCAA’s amended NOA sent to the school in April, men’s basketball was not named.
Like the voice mail, Williams remembers the things people have said about him, the questions they’ve asked, the inferences that have been made. Even one of his former players, Rashad McCants, said Williams knew about those classes.
“We had somebody in this campus that said if you think Roy Williams didn’t know what was going on, you think pigs can fly,” he says. “I’ve never seen that guy in my entire life. He has no idea what he’s talking about. But, wouldn’t that make you skeptical?”
He’s talking about how he’s changed, how “the junk” – as he describes the scandal and its fallout, including the ongoing NCAA investigation – has altered him. Used to be, Williams says, that he trusted people. He’d walk into a press conference, he says, and think, “There are some good guys in here.”
“Now I walk in with skepticism,” he says. “I used to talk to everybody, whether it was media or just people, and right now I’m skeptical of everybody in the world. And that’s not the way to live your life. And so I have to fight that off all the time.”
Last year, basketball became his salvation. His team became his antidote after three long years of personal and professional strife. On UNC’s senior night in March, he stood on the court at the Smith Center and spoke of his love for his players. They had become his most treasured team ever, he said.
In some ways the experience rejuvenated Williams. He had two bad knees throughout last season.
He hobbled around in practices, had to sit down on the court about every 30 minutes or so because of the pain. The memories of “having people shove microphones under my face,” Williams says, “and say, ‘Do you think you’re going to survive?’” were still fresh.
And yet for the first time in a while, going to work felt good.
He spoke often last year about wanting to win for those players, and in particular wanting to win for a senior class of Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James. Williams had coached better players but perhaps he hadn’t coached any that meant more to him.
At the Final Four, those three, and others, spoke of wanting to win for Williams. One of his assistants, C.B. McGrath, hoped the run to the Final Four would change perceptions surrounding Williams, particularly that he was being outdone by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and others.
“I hope we do it for coach,” McGrath said then, days before UNC’s 77-74 loss against Villanova in the national championship game, “because I would like go on the biggest Twitter, social media rant in the history of rants.”
He did, anyway – sort of. On a random day in May, McGrath posted a comparison on Twitter between Williams and an unnamed but obvious enough ACC rival. The coach he didn’t name hadn’t won an ACC regular season championship in six years “despite all the hype,” McGrath wrote.
And then: “Oh wait – my Coach has 6 in the last 10 years!”
Williams didn’t see it because he doesn’t go on the Internet, he says. Yet he understands that sometimes the people closest to him take the criticism of Williams more personally than he does.
“I’ve had some people, whether it’s C.B. or anybody else, always try to come to my defense,” Williams says. “And I say, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’ I’m doing what I want to do.”
Rising above circumstances
Ask him now about why he has no plans to leave and Williams’ first answer will be about his love for what he’s doing. And “why should you stop,” he asks, “if you enjoy something?”
The simple pleasures of coaching aren’t the only thing keeping him around, though. His inspiration goes deeper. Williams grew up hard in western North Carolina, outside of Asheville. His mom went without so she could give him a dime to buy a Coca-Cola everyday.
Williams wrote about that in his book, “Hard Work.” He also wrote about the time when, at 14, he kicked his father out of the house for good. His dad, Williams wrote, had come back drunk and angry after he’d been ordered to pay child support. And so Williams knows about struggle, about fighting.
He doesn’t know, though, if those experiences helped steel him for what would come 50 years later when, after decades of success, he felt as though he had to prove himself all over again.
“That’s probably getting into Roy Williams’ brain too deeply, and I never try to do that,” he says. “I think when you do that, you try to build a picture that’s not there.
“Nobody lived my life at that time. Nobody lived my life right now. And, to be honest with you, I don’t think that many give a darn about how I felt at that time or how I feel right now.
“But you guys got to write something. You ought to print that.”
I don’t want to spend my time worrying about some things that are being said by people that have no information. And I don’t have a Facebook. I don’t have any of that stuff.
Williams on staying disconnected
A desire to rise above his circumstances has always been there, though. It was that way when he was younger, when he turned down a scholarship to Georgia Tech to go to UNC to chase his dream of becoming a coach. And it’s that way now, nearing the end of challenges he’s determined to vanquish.
Williams stands and searches for something. He digs through some papers on a side desk and there it is: a laptop. It’s blue and chunky and looks like it’s thick enough to have come from the 1990s.
“Hasn’t been opened in eight years,” he says.
He received the computer nearly a decade ago, when he moved into what was then a new office. He picks it up, showing it off to demonstrate how disconnected he tries to be from a world where nasty tweets, uniformed message board posts and, yes, scathing newspaper editorials, are always waiting.
He does use another laptop to watch film and scout. But that’s it, he says.
“I don’t want to spend my time worrying about some things that are being said by people that have no information,” he says. “And I don’t have a Facebook. I don’t have any of that stuff.”
What he has is family and his closest friends, his team and his motivation, which is in some ways different now than it was before “the junk.” Williams says he was never necessarily driven by the desire to prove people wrong, by the thought of, as he puts it, “I’ll show you.”
“And I’m more driven by that fact now than at any other time,” he says.
Working through ‘the junk’
The experiences of the past few years, the unresolved NCAA case, the lingering questions – if those things have done anything they’ve strengthened Williams’ resolve to succeed and to stay. Outsiders in recent years might have wondered: Why put up with it? Why deal with the stress, the questions?
Recruiting has changed, Williams acknowledges. The job is more challenging, perhaps, than it’s ever been. Some of the best players have changed, and are no longer as enamored with going to a place like UNC, or anywhere else, as they are with reaching the NBA as quickly as possible.
In some ways the college basketball environment of today is unrecognizable compared to what it was when Williams became an assistant coach on Smith’s staff in 1978. Perhaps the most important thing, for Williams, remains unchanged, though, and ultimately it’s what keeps him going.
I’d like to think that when I leave, things will be in pretty good shape, and there won’t be any questions, won’t be doubts. But the reason I’ve stayed is because I want to coach.
Williams on staying at UNC
“I don’t want there to be any doubt about how much I love the program,” he says. “I don’t want there to be any doubt about the willingness I have to work through the junk.
“I don’t want there to be any doubt about the fact that I was not involved in any of the junk, and have never been involved, never will be involved. But the competitive side is, why would you want to leave when things aren’t as rosy as they can possibly be?
“I’d like to think that when I leave, things will be in pretty good shape, and there won’t be any questions, won’t be doubts. But the reason I’ve stayed is because I want to coach.”
It’s days before the start of the season. In a few minutes, Williams has an appointment with Alexander Julian, the fashion designer, to pick out some new suits. There’s a practice later, the first game in a few days and who knows how many seasons ahead.
Whenever it ends, Williams will have a phone call to make, a message to return. He doesn’t forget.