Roy Williams Was 'The Right Guy For The Right Time' Who Helped Save UNC Basketball
North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams retired Thursday after 18 seasons as coach of the Tar Heels. Williams’ decorated career as a head coach includes three national championships, more than 900 Division I wins, and nine ACC regular-season championships — and that’s just at Carolina. He also led Kansas to four Finals Fours after spending 10 seasons as an assistant at North Carolina under his mentor, the legendary Dean Smith.
With WFAE's "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn to discuss Roy Williams’ legacy is Langston Wertz Jr, a longtime sportswriter for The Charlotte Observer.
Gwendolyn Glenn: So, Langston, where were you when you heard the news about Roy Williams retiring?
Langston Wertz Jr.: I was getting ready to go get my second Pfizer COVID-19 shot and I texted my boss. I said, "Is this real?" Because April Fool's Day, right? I'm thinking this it's an April Fool's joke. I saw a tweet from a college basketball writer and I texted him and he said, "No, this is real." And in like two seconds after that, Carolina released an official statement and I was just blown away.
I mean, I suspected it when he kissed the floor during the regular season. But at the same time, when it hits, it's like, wow. I mean, you really just can't believe it happened. I remember when Dean Smith retired, kind of the same thing. I just can't believe that.
Glenn: And besides that kissing the floor, do you think that Williams showed any signs, other signs, of possibly retiring this season?
Wertz: Not really. I mean, he seemed to want to kind of make up for the last couple of seasons. They haven't had typical Carolina seasons the last two years. And he seemed like he wanted to make a run at trying to make them real good.
He talked the point guard into coming back, Caleb Love. And Armando Bacot was coming back. So they looked like they had the core of a really good team. He was in the transfer portal trying to get guys. So it's just a surprise that I don't think anybody saw this coming.
Glenn: OK, well some credit Williams with saving the program in Chapel Hill. Do you believe that to be accurate?
Wertz: Yeah, Carolina was in a bad spot before Roy Williams was hired, so, yeah, definitely. I mean, you talk about a guy who won 418 games in Kansas. He'd been to four Final Fours. He'd beaten Dean (Smith) in the Final Four, everybody remembers, in '91. So he was a proven commodity.
He was a guy they originally had wanted before they hired Matt Doherty, he turned it down. And then three years later, Carolina was in such a bad spot, he just said, "It's time to go home." And two years after he got there, they were cutting down the nets. So he did a pretty good job.
Glenn: And one refrain that was going around before Williams took the job in 2003 was that he would never be able to escape the shadow of his mentor, Dean Smith. Do you believe he's done that?
Wertz: Yeah, I do. He revered Dean Smith when he was in college at Carolina in the '70s. He worked Dean Smith's basketball camps, and he modeled his first high school program up in the mountains at Owen High School after Dean Smith. But I do think he built his own brand, his own name.
Seventy-seven percent winning percentage in the NCAA tournament, three national championships. Nine hundred three wins. He's the fastest coach to get to 500 wins. The fastest coach to get to 900 wins. He's a Hall of Famer. You know, he could be on Mount Rushmore of all time. I definitely think Roy Williams has made his own name.
Glenn: And one thing that was notable about Williams' tenure in Chapel Hill was that the camaraderie of former players would always return to run camps, coaching positions. How do you think he cultivated that kind of culture?
Wertz: Matt Doherty was a former coach at Carolina, he admitted in his book "Rebound," that he'd done some things wrong in Carolina — which included kind of flushing all the people that were in the basketball office out. And all the basketball players had come to revere that familiarity.
And Roy kind of, he reinstated all those things. He brought back the Carolina family, the Carolina way. And there's a reason why everybody calls him "Uncle Roy." He just has that personality about him. He's your favorite uncle. He shakes everybody's hand. He's just a natural politician. He's kind of an old Southern gentleman. He just was the right guy for the right time. He just has a type of personality that people want to be around.
Glenn: And his style of coaching, his tenure at Chapel Hill, how would you describe it?
Wertz: His style of coaching is old-school. You know, he believes in the two big men and three guards, which is kind of the antithesis of what's going on right now in college basketball which is four-out or five-out. But his way worked for a long time.
I think the last couple of years it didn't work. And I think he was going to try to maybe even reinvent himself. I'm not sure. But you can't argue with the success the man's had. You can't argue with the results. Great man, great program, great career.
Glenn: And Langston, what's the one thing you think you'll miss the most about Williams not being there to coach the Tar Heels?
Wertz: Carolina hasn't had a lot of coaches. And, if you think about the program, they really kind of associated with two coaches: Dean Smith and Roy Williams. And so now you're going on to the next chapter.
And you're just used to seeing Roy on the sidelines with his arms folded and his glasses on his nose, his water on the table. You're just used to seeing those mannerisms, that familiarity. It's going to be different not to have him there.
But Carolina needs to hire pretty fast because a ton of kids are in the transfer portal. They're gonna need to fill some spots and it's a big job. So this is going to be a very interesting hire for (Athletic Director) Bubba Cunningham and the Tar Heels. It's one they need to hit a home run on, they can't repeat the Bill Guthridge to Matt Doherty situation over again.
Langston Wertz Jr. is a longtime sportswriter for The Charlotte Observer.