When the news broke, after all these years, Roy Williams on Tuesday described the moment as “strange.” There was no immediate outward celebration, he said, when he learned last Friday that the NCAA Committee on Infractions had not penalized North Carolina.
Williams, preparing for his 15th season as UNC’s head coach, “did not jump up and down,” he said on Tuesday, during the Tar Heels’ annual preseason basketball media day. He “did not scream,” he said, as if he might after a dramatic, emotional victory. And there was no gloating, either, he said.
Instead Williams sought solace and space. He sought a few moments to himself, to think.
“I went over to a corner in a room, and I just stood there by myself for a second, tried to collect my thoughts,” Williams said. “It wasn’t any big show of emotion kind of thing, because that’s not the way I felt. I was happy that it was over with.”
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For years, Williams faced questions about his integrity, about what he knew about a long-running scheme of bogus African Studies courses that lacked integrity, according to UNC’s accreditation agency. The courses required only a paper, and featured no faculty instruction, or involvement.
Athletes filled the courses to an unusual degree, several investigations concluded. Kenneth Wainstein, the former federal prosecutor whose investigation UNC considered the definitive account of what happened, concluded the classes helped at-risk athletes maintain their eligibility, especially in basketball and football.
Williams, who became UNC’s head coach in 2003, a full decade after the questionable courses came into existence, maintained all along that neither he nor anyone associated with his program did anything wrong. He told prospects that he was recruiting that he didn’t believe his program would endure NCAA sanctions.
And yet he feared such measures. He wondered, like everyone, what the NCAA would do.
The NCAA Enforcement Staff charged UNC with five Level I violations in an investigation that spanned 3 ½ years. The NCAA’s case, though, was never about academic misconduct. Instead, the NCAA alleged impermissible benefits in connection with the classes at the heart of the investigation.
The infractions committee requested Williams’ appearance during UNC’s hearing in Nasvhille, Tenn., in mid-August. And so Williams attended, along with UNC football coach Larry Fedora and women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell, whose presence had also been requested. Williams spent years insisting he’d done nothing wrong, but he wondered whether the infractions committee would agree.
“I wouldn’t say I was confident,” he said. “I don’t think you can be confident and be scared to death, and that’s what I felt like when I was in the infractions hearing. But I felt innocent, but at the same time it’s not a court of law, it’s what those people think.”
The infractions committee, comprised of a seven-member panel, eventually ruled that it could not determine that UNC committed NCAA violations in association with the classes. The ruling became public last Friday, and so the case ended with no sanctions – no postseason bans or vacation of victories, or championships, which would have been considered severe punishment.
On the day the ruling became public, Williams remained quiet. He released a statement through UNC, but did not address the jubilant Smith Center crowd at the Tar Heels’ annual Late Night With Roy event, where UNC raised its 2017 national championship banner. Nor did Williams address reporters, as he usually does, after that event.
He saved his first public comments for his team’s media day on Tuesday. The first question he received, about his reaction to the news, was obvious enough. So, too, was the second: Did Williams greet the infractions committee’s ruling with a feeling of vindication? It had been a long four or five years, after all, with his integrity under regular scrutiny.
Williams said his feeling of vindication came years ago, when he felt details of the case, as well as several investigations, established that he did nothing wrong. And yet he remembered on Tuesday how “people would ask me if I felt I was going to be able to keep my job, and shove a camera in my face and a microphone and say ‘Do you think you have the support of the administration?’”
“Needless to say I didn’t necessarily like it when every time there was an article about it, it always showed my picture,” Williams said. “I kept saying forever and ever that I was not involved, nobody in our office was involved.
“So whether it was vindication or not, that never came to mind. I just felt like – is there an official length that we’re saying, four and a half years or 400 lifetimes – whatever time period it was, I was just happy that it was over with.”
Williams greeted reporters wearing a dark suit and a chunky national championship ring on his right hand, the one he received in September following UNC’s victory against Gonzaga early last April. Later, another question came about how the NCAA case had affected his program.
Williams had cited the investigation as one of the reasons why UNC’s recruiting had suffered in recent years. Amid the NCAA cloud, which Williams often described as “the junk,” he and his staff between 2015 and 2017 didn’t attract the caliber of prospects it once did.
Even so, the Tar Heels played in two consecutive national championship games – losing against Villanova on a 3-pointer at the buzzer in 2016, and then avenging that defeat last year at the end of an NCAA tournament run fueled by the idea of redemption.
Had the NCAA investigation, then, had that much of a dramatic effect on his program? Williams gave it a quick thought before forming his first reaction.
“Yeah,” he said in a matter of fact tone. “We’ve been all right.”