On My Mind: Roy Williams, The Pain Of Losing, And The Pain Of Letting Go
The one time I interviewed Roy Williams, his office was as dark as an undertaker’s basement.
This was back in 2013. The night before, his North Carolina basketball team had played little Belmont University. It was supposed to be an early-season tune-up for the powerful Tar Heels. Instead, Belmont had beaten UNC — in Chapel Hill.
I was there to talk to Williams about his mentor, former UNC coach Dean Smith. If we hadn’t been talking about Smith, I’m not sure Roy would’ve let me in the door. The only light in the room was a little desk lamp, and he was slumped sideways in his chair.
At one point he talked about all the good advice Smith had given him over the years, one piece of advice being: Don’t take the losses so hard.
"How’s that working out?" I said.
He sort of laughed and said, "Not so good."
Williams retired last week, after 18 years as the Tar Heels’ head coach. He first came to Chapel Hill as a freshman in 1968. Smith hired him as an assistant coach 10 years later. Williams left in 1988 to be the head coach at Kansas, where his teams went to four Final Fours. In 2003 he came back home, and under Williams, UNC won three national titles, the last one just four years ago.
But the last two seasons have been far below the Tar Heels’ standards. Last season the Tar Heels went 14-19 – the only time as a college coach that Williams had a losing record. This season they were 18-11 and got blown out by Wisconsin in the first round of the ACC tournament.
Williams said over and over in his retirement press conference that he didn’t think he was the man for the job anymore. College sports are changing – players have more power now, and there are legal challenges to the NCAA system that would let college athletes make money from the sports that make so much money from them. One of Williams’ top freshmen from last season has already decided to transfer out. UNC also struggled with an academic scandal, although the NCAA decided not to penalize the school. Maybe, at 70, Williams decided he can’t connect with the new generation of players.
But my guess is it’s simpler than that. It just hurts him too much to lose.
Many of us are wired that way — we feel the pain of losing more deeply than the joy of winning. It’s one reason so many people in all stripes of life work ridiculous hours and grind themselves into dust — just to stave off that pain.
Williams won so much — 903 games in his career — that he was able to keep the pain at a distance. Until the last couple of years. If you see more of that ahead of you, and you don’t have to keep doing it, why would you?
Lately, for him, there have been a lot of mornings in the dim light. And when that happens, maybe the best thing to do is turn out the light and go home.
Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at firstname.lastname@example.org.