Roy Williams had answered questions about Isaiah Hicks and Justin Jackson, had talked about how North Carolina tried to counter Syracuse’s zone defense and had tried to describe the moment – winning his 800th game as a head coach. Now he looked past the cameras toward the man in the back of the room.
“Does anybody else got a question?” Williams asked on Monday night, after his team’s 85-68 victory against Syracuse, and when no one said anything he went on. “All right, I’ll leave it with this – back here is coach Buddy Baldwin. And that was my high school coach.
“And if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be a coach today.”
It had been an emotional scene earlier. When the final seconds expired on the Tar Heels’ 17th victory of the season – and their fifth consecutive, after that stunning New Year’s Eve defeat at Georgia Tech – a celebration began. Williams had accomplished, with his 800th career victory, what only eight other coaches in NCAA Division I men’s college basketball history had ever done.
There was a montage that played high above the court, on the video boards in the upper corners of the Smith Center: Players Williams had coached over the years at Kansas, then at UNC, giving thanks, telling Williams how much they appreciated him. There was Raef LaFrentz, the Kansas forward. And Marcus Paige, who helped lead the Tar Heels to the Final Four a season ago.
There was Milt Newton, who was on Williams’ first team at Kansas. Nearly 30 years and 799 victories later, Newton spoke of how proud he was to have been a part of Williams’ first victory as a college head coach. The tributes went on. More than once it looked like Williams wiped something away from his eyes. UNC presented him with a commemorative jersey, some souvenir shoes signed by Michael Jordan. Players wore shirts with “800” on them.
Williams turned to his players, the ones who solved the Orange’s 2-3 zone and then withstood a couple of Syracuse rallies in the second-half before pulling away late. Hicks finished with 20 points, the first time at UNC he’d ever scored at least 20 in consecutive games. Jackson finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds; Kennedy Meeks with a double-double, too: 15 points and 12 rebounds.
“It was never a dream of mine to win 800 games,” Williams said, holding a microphone and addressing his players as much as those who’d remained in their seats. “But it was a dream of mine to coach guys like this.”
Baldwin, the old high school coach, was standing in front of his seat – first row behind the Syracuse bench. He sits there often, he said, and provides Williams with support, vocal and moral.
Williams played for Baldwin back in the mid-to-late 1960s at T.C. Roberson High in Asheville. Williams had never encountered a man like Baldwin, and Baldwin, 76, perhaps had never encountered a high school kid like Williams.
“Special,” is how Baldwin on Monday described this, watching Williams win his 800th game.
“It really was,” Baldwin said in a hallway in the Smith Center not far from the Tar Heels locker room. “I’ve known Roy since 1965, and he is just a special person. I coached him, I loved coaching him. A great competitor. And we have been best of friends for many years. We play golf together, we do a lot of things together.
“And tonight was special for him, and special for me, too.”
Williams joked about that later, about his relationship with Baldwin. The way Williams tells it, Baldwin inspired him to become a coach, turned him onto golf and taught him how to shoot craps, too.
“So Wanda thinks he’s 0-for-3,” Williams said, referring to his wife.
If Williams, who was raised mostly by his mother, hadn’t encountered Baldwin in his high school years, he might not have been standing there on the court at the Smith Center in the aftermath of his 800th victory. There might not have even been a first victory, or a life in coaching at all.
Williams, after all, was set to attend Georgia Tech on an engineering scholarship. Yet his time with Baldwin inspired him to consider another path.
“I knew he wanted to be a coach,” Baldwin said, “and I thought he was going to Georgia Tech to be an engineer. And I said Roy, if you want to be a coach – I went to school here – I said, ‘Go to Carolina. Get with coach (Dean) Smith.’ And he came down here, and the rest is history.”
By years, Williams became the fastest coach to win 800 games. He reached the milestone in the second-fewest games anybody ever has, only behind Adolph Rupp. Afterward somebody asked Williams how he’d changed between victory No. 700, which UNC gave him with a win against Villanova in the 2013 NCAA tournament, and No. 800.
The four years and 100 victories between those milestones had been some of the most difficult of his life: the death of close friends and mentors Smith and Bill Guthridge; the death of his neighbor and best friend Ted Seagroves; the never-ending NCAA investigation and all the baggage that has come with it.
“From 700 to 800, the kids have been my salvation,” Williams said. “You guys know the junk that’s been going on. I’ve taken a lot of it personally, and I was not involved.
“But if it wasn’t for the kids, and the way they’ve made me feel – they’ve made me really enjoy coaching, enjoy life every day. That’s a special thing.”
Williams didn’t mention the stakes before Monday. He didn’t tell his players that a victory against Syracuse would place him on an esteemed list of coaches in college basketball history.
He didn’t want his players feeling any sort of pressure. They knew anyway, though, said Theo Pinson, the junior forward.
“We all knew about it,” he said, “so we tried to do everything we could to take care of business.”
Joel Berry, the junior point guard, said he was “honored” to be a part of it. He and his teammates crowded around Williams and shared the moment on the court on Monday night. The video tribute played on high above. In the front row Baldwin took in the scene, 52 years after the start of a relationship that changed his life, and Williams’, too.