Every time Roy Williams describes the North Carolina locker room at the end of last season, the feeling of inadequacy that overcame him when he tried to find the words, he does so with tears in his eyes.
And so it was again on Sunday, the day before the Tar Heels play against Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament national championship game. Williams, as he so often has during this long postseason run, traveled back in time in his mind. It’s a place he only goes, he has said, when someone else sends him there.
Lately, the invitations, the questions, have come often. Almost exactly a year ago, his team endured perhaps the most excruciating defeat in NCAA tournament history.
UNC’s Marcus Paige made an improbable 3-pointer to tie Villanova with 4.7 seconds left in the national championship game. And then Villanova’s Kris Jenkins made a 3-pointer of his own as time expired.
And then, for Williams, the inadequacy. What to tell his team? How to comfort his players?
“I’ve told these guys this before, too, in the locker room was the most – it was the most difficult time I’ve ever had as a coach because I felt so inadequate,” Williams said on Sunday, the emotion cracking his voice. “What was I going to say to my guys? And that’s the part that – that was really hard.”
And now UNC is back. Williams is back.
He will coach his 100th NCAA tournament game on Monday night – a round, even number. It is a milestone number, one that invites perspective. If the Tar Heels win on Monday night Williams would win his third national championship.
He would surpass Dean Smith, who for so long was Williams’ mentor and close friend, and Williams would join a select, small coaching fraternity. Fourteen Division I coaches in college basketball history have won at least two national championships, as Williams has.
Only five of them have won at least three: UCLA’s John Wooden (10), Duke Mike Krzyzewski (five), Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (four), Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun (three) and Indiana’s Bob Knight (three). Those men are among the most revered in the history of the sport.
Wooden is widely considered the greatest college basketball coach of all time. Krzyzewski the greatest coach of his era. Rupp, Calhoun and Knight the greatest coaches in the history of the schools with which they’re most closely associated.
Then there’s Williams. He’s in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He has won two national championships in his 14 seasons at UNC.
And yet, to some, he hasn’t done enough. His players hear the criticism “all the time,” junior point guard Joel Berry said two days before UNC’s victory against Oregon in the NCAA tournament national semifinals.
“From just going out to eat, we hear it from fans, we hear it from just a lot of people,” Berry said.
How do Berry and his teammates handle it? They laugh. They become angry.
Sometimes they ignore it. Other times they speak out.
“You hear stuff like he doesn’t call timeouts, or why are certain people in the game, or who should start,” said Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward. “For all those people, never in a million years would they ever be a Hall of Fame coach.
“Never in a million years would they ever be to these Final Fours, and I honestly, honest to God, I’ve never met a more hard-working person than Coach. I feel like he never sleeps. He eats basketball. He sleeps basketball.”
Hubert Davis, one of Williams’ assistants, tried to answer on Sunday a question that Williams would want nothing to do with himself. It was a question about Williams’ legacy. What it should be when he retires one day. How Williams should be remembered.
Davis, who spent 12 seasons playing in the NBA after he spent four playing for Smith at UNC, was quick to say that he didn’t think Williams “cares about his legacy.”
Even so, Davis said, “I’ve been around a lot of coaches, and I’ve been around a lot of great coaches, and coach Williams is the best. I’ve been around all of them. I’ve been around coach Smith, coach (Bill) Guthridge, Pat Riley, Jeff Van Gundy, Doug Collins, Don Nelson. All of them.
“Nobody is better, on and off the court, than coach Williams.”
There might not be a better coach, though, who receives more grief from his own supporters. During an interview before the season, Williams passionately described an angry voice mail he received at home – not his office, but his home – from an angry fan, upset with Williams because Brandon Ingram chose to go to Duke instead of UNC.
Less than a month ago, Williams decried the know-nothing “plumber that’s putting something on Facebook,” criticizing his coaching style, and his preference for not calling timeouts. Williams then seemed amused by it all. He was asked here on Sunday about how he has handled the critics.
He used one of his older lines.
“Two easiest jobs in the world is a basketball coach and a golf course superintendent,” Williams said, “because everybody that plays the golf course, they say: Why did he do that? Or why did he do this? And they couldn’t tell the grass from a grain of sand.
“And that’s the way I feel like it is in basketball.”
And so it will be on Monday night. The Tar Heels will play for the national championship.
All around the country, people will gather in front of their screens, and they might question why Williams didn’t call a timeout here, or why he put Stilman White in the game there, or why he did this thing or that.
The Tar Heels might win. If they do, Williams will join esteemed company with his third national championship. They might lose, like they did last year. To Davis, not much will change, regardless.
“Whether we win tomorrow or not, coach Williams is coach Williams,” he said. “And he’s the greatest coach that I’ve ever been around.”
UNC vs. Gonzaga
When: 9:20 p.m. Monday
Where: Glendale, Ariz.