Marcus Paige has heard these stories about Roy Williams becoming mellower over the years and more relaxed, maybe not as intense – or crazy, as some coaches tend to be – as he once was. C.B. McGrath, one of North Carolina’s assistant coaches, was telling Paige this recently.
And then came the Tar Heels’ first practice here on Thursday, two days before their game against Syracuse on Saturday night in the NCAA tournament national semifinals. UNC had arrived in Houston the night before and checked into its hotel at around 10:30.
Williams had instructed his guys to go to bed, get some rest. Thursday, he knew, would be a long day.
And yet once practice began it didn’t take long, Paige said, for Williams to find dissatisfaction, and for the fire to come out.
“He still has moments,” Paige, the Tar Heels’ senior guard, said on Thursday. “Like even today, he got on us at practice – first five minutes of practice, because he’s just the intense coach that he is.”
It was another reminder, as if Paige needed one, that Ol’ Roy, as Williams sometimes calls himself, is still Ol’ Roy. And yet he has evolved amid a coaching performance this season that has to rank among the best of Williams’ Hall of Fame career.
“I don’t think there’s a coach in the country that could have done the job that coach Williams has done this year,” said Hubert Davis, in his fourth season as one of Williams’ assistant coaches. “I don’t think there’s a coach in the country that could have run this program any better the last three years.”
Shaped by events
The past three years have been the most difficult of Williams’ coaching career, and among the most difficult of UNC’s storied basketball program. They have been years filled with losses – both on the court and off – and drama and turmoil.
And yet without the past few years and everything that has come with them the success of this season – another trip to the Final Four, UNC’s 19th in school history – might not have been possible. The past few years shaped this UNC team, and for better or worse they’ve helped shape Williams, too.
“He has mellowed in terms of he lets less things really bother him,” said McGrath, who played for Williams at Kansas and has been one of his assistants at UNC for 10 years. “You know, like let’s say the bus being a little late. He doesn’t worry about (it). He doesn’t sweat the small stuff as much.”
Likely because there’s been so much big stuff to worry about it. All of it has changed Williams, in ways big and small.
The Roy Williams of today isn’t the Roy Williams of 1991, when he led Kansas to the Final Four for the first time in his 15-year tenure there. The Williams of today isn’t the Williams, even, of 2005, when he led UNC to a national title that came in Williams’ fifth trip to the Final Four.
Williams, 65, isn’t even the same as he was two or three years ago, before all “the stuff” and “the junk” – his go-to phrases to describe a long-running NCAA investigation into suspect African Studies courses – and before other off-court problems and before he endured one loss in his personal life after the next.
McGrath and Davis and Steve Robinson, Williams’ longest-tenured assistant coach, have perhaps had the best perspective of what these past few years have been like for Williams and a program that means so much to him that defeats sometimes move him to tears. Williams’ assistants have been around for one of the roughest rides in school history – and now one of the most satisfying.
“Since I’ve been here, it’s been four years,” Davis said on Thursday inside the UNC locker room. “He’s lost his best friend. He’s had surgery where he thought he might have had cancer.”
And Davis continued on down the list: the health problems that Williams’ wife, Wanda, has experienced, and Williams’ bad knees and the death of Dean Smith, and then Bill Guthridge, and, amid all that, all the off-the-court drama and turmoil, which never seems to end.
“It’s been a lot of stuff going on,” Davis said.
And so Williams has changed, but how? Perhaps he’s more grateful now, though he has always said he’s grateful to coach at UNC, where Williams sometimes says he has the best job he can imagine. Perhaps he’s more relaxed, in some ways.
Davis, McGrath and Robinson – the men who perhaps know Williams best these days – all said the same thing here on Thursday: that amid the so-called “junk” and “stuff” Williams has discovered a greater appreciation for success. Coaching is as fun as it has been in a long while.
“Everything that has gone one through his life through the last three or four years has changed him a little bit to where I think he’s trying to enjoy this team a little more,” McGrath said. “Not that he hasn’t in the past.
“But we’ve got a great group of kids. And they’re worth enjoying.”
Always a coach
Williams doesn’t walk as much as he used to. His workouts consist, mainly, of upper-body exercises. His knees required two surgeries last summer and he might need another one after this season ends.
He sometimes looks as though the past few years have worn him down.
This season, it seems, he has faced more questions than ever about his future. Will he retire? How much longer does he have? During an interview on the “Dan Patrick Show” earlier this week Williams suggested he could coach another 10 years.
Everything that has gone on through his life through the last three or four years has changed him a little bit to where I think he’s trying to enjoy this team a little more. Not that he hasn’t in the past.
Assistant coach C.B. McGrath
He said during a press conference in Houston on Thursday that his various health problems – the knees, the continued bouts with vertigo – wouldn’t force him to go anywhere. Neither, he said, would the NCAA investigation.
Could Williams coach another 10 years? Davis wouldn’t be surprised. He smiled at the thought on Thursday in UNC’s locker room, after the Tar Heels’ shootaround at NRG Stadium.
“I can see him coach (for a while),” Davis said. “And then he dies.”
Davis busted out laughing. He knew what he’d said had sounded worse than he intended it to sound.
And yet the point behind it, he said, was true: What else would Williams do besides coach?
“I don’t think he can stop,” Davis said. “That this is who coach is. He’s a basketball coach. Yeah, he’s a husband, he’s a father. He’s a great man. But he’s a basketball coach. And this is what he loves to do.
“And so what I was saying is I just can’t him being retired. I just don’t see that. He loves practice, he loves relationships, he loves kids. He loves competition.”
Williams didn’t love the past few years, though. He didn’t love the injuries that derailed UNC in 2012.
He didn’t love the growing pains that a young, inexperienced team endured the next season.
He didn’t love what came after that, when a promising 2013-14 season started to go bad, from the start, when P.J. Hairston, the team’s best returning player, couldn’t stay out of trouble. Williams didn’t love having to bid farewell to Hairston amid an impermissible benefits case that cost him his eligibility.
And then last year – well, last year was great compared to the previous two. But at UNC it’s difficult to love a lot about a season that ends without any kind of championship, and ends with another defeat in which the Tar Heels couldn’t hold on and couldn’t finish.
That was one of the off-season priorities: developing the toughness to hold leads. And then came defeats in February at Notre Dame and against Duke when UNC, again, surrendered a significant lead and lost.
Williams questioned his team’s toughness after the loss at Notre Dame. He became emotional and spoke with tears in his eyes after the defeat against Duke. The loss left him “devastated,” McGrath said, but not for especially long.
Robinson put it another way: “He attacked it,” he said of how Williams responded to the Duke loss.
“We talked about it,” Robinson said. “We discussed all the different things that went on and transpired through that game, as any time. We knew we had played well and we fell short. So we had to make sure that we did some things better moving forward. And I think it certainly caught our guys’ attention.
“You have a choice: You’re either going to work a little harder, try a little harder, or you’re going to give in because you lost that one game. He is so good at getting kids to respond and challenging them to respond.”
This team has responded to Williams. Its journey to the Final Four is proof enough of that.
And yet Williams has still bemoaned how underappreciated a team it has been. Those around Williams could – and do – say the same thing about him, too, and how underappreciated they believe he is.
Williams’ place in the national coaching hierarchy is a sore spot among his assistants, none of whom believe their boss receives the credit he deserves. McGrath, especially, said he has to censor himself at times lest he lash out against Williams’ critics.
Though Williams might not pay attention to what’s out there about him, his assistants do. They know when the fans turn against him after a difficult loss or when Williams is blamed for the no-show class scandal that began a decade before he arrived at UNC.
McGrath joked, perhaps only a little, that he’d like “to go on the biggest Twitter, social media rant in the history of rants” to combat some what’s been written, and said, about Williams.
“I appreciate him,” McGrath said. “I think all the former players except for probably one appreciate him. And that’s all you can control. The people that know what he does, and work for him and have played for him – As long as he has their respect, that’s what he does it for.”
And yet Williams has remained as competitive as ever, too. He hasn’t mellowed that way.
Williams has said that this season hasn’t provided any vindication, because he feels no need to be vindicated. And yet this run to the Final Four has been different for him.
He knows it. His assistants know it.
“Not vindication.” Davis said. “I would say justification. And I would say that we’ve always done things the right way.”
In an age of one-and-done players who remain just long enough to complete one basketball season, Williams has led UNC to the Final Four with a team that looks like it’s from a bygone era, one built on the strength of juniors and seniors. It’s fitting in a way, this old-school team and its old-school coach.
Williams has caught flak for that, too. For not being adaptive or modern.
His offensive philosophy is the same as it ever was. He remains stubbornly loyal to Dean Smith, and to the Dean Smith way of doing things – which is why, in part, Williams didn’t call a timeout at the end of that home loss against Duke.
In those ways – the big, defining ways – Williams hasn’t changed. Yet in others he has. He’s having more fun. He’s mellowed, in some aspects, and he has found greater appreciation in his work amid what might just be the most rewarding NCAA tournament run of his career.
“You can see it in his face, you can see the way that he interacts around us,” Davis said. “That this place has been his time away. His sanctuary.”
“This place,” as Davis described it in that moment, was UNC’s team locker room. He could have been talking about a basketball court or the Smith Center or the Tar Heels’ team lounge or anywhere else, really, where Williams has found time to escape his troubles and coach.