If Michael Jordan is the most famous North Carolina Tar Heel and second place goes to the legendary coach Dean Smith, then somewhere in the top five lies Roy Williams’ mouth.
Williams was an assistant under Smith and coached Kansas for 15 seasons before returning to North Carolina in 2003 and coaching the Tar Heels to three national titles and five Final Fours — including this year’s. North Carolina beat Gonzaga on Monday for its latest title.
But in addition to his coaching acumen, which has earned him a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Williams is known for his thick regional accent and a roster of five-star colloquialisms. It seems that he has — as he once said of “desire” — more folksy sayings in his little finger than all of the dadgum Carolina fans in the world.
“He’s as genuine as the day is long,” said Byron Bailey, who played varsity basketball under Williams at Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain, a small town in the Swannanoa Valley a little east of Asheville. “It’s the same way he talked to us. It does make me feel good that he hasn’t changed.”
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In 2003, asked about those who wanted to know whether he would take the job as North Carolina’s coach (which he did), Williams said, “I could give a flip about what those people want.”
Last year, asked whether he was surprised when North Carolina was assigned a late tipoff time in the NCAA Tournament, he declared himself: “Surprised and very disappointed. I mean, Jiminy Christmas.”
Last week, when his team doused him with water after it had punched its ticket to the Final Four, he said, “Best daggum bath I’ve ever had with my clothes on.”
Williams’ elocution (he might ask a waiter for “whaht rahce” when he wants white rice) can sound extreme to an outside ear, and his “Roycabulary” of euphemisms for curse words — “flip,” “blankety-blank” and, above all, “daggummit” — has inspired a parody Twitter account, @DaggumRoy, which states in its description, “Ol’ Roy is a daggum gotdern Winner!”
Some of the euphemisms are simply ways to avoid profanity, Williams said Thursday: “I tried not to set a bad example for players and cursing all the time.”
“But other than that, I’m just being Roy,” he added. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But I’ve never tried to be anybody else.”
At dusk in the western part of North Carolina, it becomes obvious why the nearby Appalachian foothills and national parkway are known as the Blue Ridge. To speak with those who have been around for a while is to hear Williams’ style of speech as ordinary.
“He doesn’t have an accent,” said Lloyd Cuthbertson, a longtime city councilman in Williams’ birthplace, Marion, North Carolina. “You have an accent.”
“It’s mountain speak,” added Brad Daugherty, whom Williams recruited out of Owen High School to UNC in the early 1980s.
“Boy, I used to catch heck about my accent,” added Daugherty, who went on to an NBA career and is now a commentator for ESPN. His children, he said, make fun of him for it.
Carl Bartlett, who administers Owen High School’s hall of fame, said of Williams, “I knew him when he was as ragged as a can of kraut.”
What Williams’ vocal style perhaps reveals is a fundamental comfort with where he came from and who he is. In the placeless sport of college basketball, whose most famous coaches have tended to come from someplace else — UCLA’s John Wooden, like current UCLA coach Steve Alford, was from Indiana; Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is from Chicago; Smith was a Kansan — Williams speaks the way he speaks in part out of a sense of where he was from.
“I can tell you from having been around him — we worked side by side for two months on that book — and there’s no other Roy Williams,” said Tim Crothers, who collaborated with Williams on the 2009 autobiography “Hard Work.” “He was a mountain kid. He grew up speaking like the other mountain kids, even when he moved to the cosmopolitan world of Chapel Hill.”
To someone with knowledge of Southern dialects, Williams’ speaking style is like a GPS device for locating where he is from.
“Clearly a Southerner, clearly a North Carolinian and clearly a foothills rather than a Piedmont or Coastal Plain guy,” said Walt Wolfram, a sociolinguist at North Carolina State. For instance, while natives of Tobacco Road might pronounce time “tahme,” Wolfram said, only those from the western part of the state “unglide the ‘i'” as frequently as Williams does.
And “daggum” is not arbitrary verbiage, Wolfram said, but an “intensifier” of the kind frequent in Appalachian dialects — hence the region’s self-described “good ol’ boys.”
Though today Asheville conjures images of drum circles and microbreweries, Williams’ childhood in its Shiloh neighborhood was hardscrabble, to put it lightly. One side of his family traces to the Hatfield-McCoy rivalry, he said in “Hard Work.” Neither of his parents graduated from high school, and his father was an alcoholic who was physically abusive to his mother until the two split. He found solace in basketball and a father figure in his high school coach, Buzzy Baldwin, who remains a close friend.
“To me, Roy Williams is just like he was when I knew him in high school,” Baldwin said.
As a student at UNC, Williams effectively studied under Smith. After graduating, he returned to the Asheville area and took the basketball coaching job at Owen High School, where he also coached golf and was a football assistant coach.
“He’d never coached football in his life,” said Kenny Ford, a former Owen High School football coach. “I think we all learned real fast that his calling was in golf and basketball.”
His players from the time recalled him as intense and determined.
“There was something special about the guy, even at 22 years old,” said Tim Raines, now Owen High School’s girls basketball coach.
Williams drove a Mustang in Carolina blue. Yet it surprised many when he decided to leave Owen, where he had turned around the basketball program and also become athletic director, to become a part-time assistant to Smith in 1978. The move involved a pay cut and uprooting his family — his wife, Wanda, is also from the area — which included a toddler.
There followed a decadelong apprenticeship under Smith, then the Kansas job and, in 2003, the return to UNC.
Williams’ accent wavered during his time in Lawrence, Kansas, according to Steve Robinson, who began as an assistant under him in 1988.
“When I first met him,” Robinson, now a UNC assistant, said Thursday, Williams’ accent “was really Southern — ‘daggumit.’ It was really heavy. He spent those years in Kansas, lost a little bit of it, but he’s gaining it back fast.”
What never deserted Williams, though, was stubborn pride in his origins.
Napoleon Spencer, known as Porky, played for Williams at Owen High School, and Williams had him out to Kansas to help with summer basketball camps. Spencer, who now works at a Coca-Cola distribution facility on the outskirts of Asheville, recalled Williams having a disagreement with someone in a Kansas weight room. Williams, who is slight even for a point guard, stood his ground, Spencer recalled.
“I might be little,” Williams said, “but I’m from western North Carolina. If you want to go outside, we’ll go outside.”
These days, even many of Williams’ players from North Carolina tend to hail from no farther west than Charlotte. They are also nearly a half-century younger. The colloquialisms and even the accent are Greek to them.
“We never ask him about what it means,” said Joel Berry II, a junior and the team’s starting point guard. “We just go with the flow. We just laugh it off. Coach, sometimes he can be funny, sometimes it’s corny, but we let him get his moments.”
Williams has been known to call Berry a “tough little nut.” Berry may not know exactly what those three particular words in that particular order precisely mean, but he does know what Williams is trying to say.
“Tough little nut,” Berry said. “That’s one thing I pride myself on.”