CHAPEL HILL — Within the span of eight hours last Friday, the North Carolina basketball team learned that it no longer had to fear the threat of NCAA sanctions while also publicly unfurling its latest national championship banner from the rafters of the Smith Center.
While the latter occasion was met with great celebration at the Tar Heels’ annual Late Night With Roy event, the reaction to the earlier, more significant development was met with a much more private and subdued reaction.
Especially from the man most affected by the long-awaited news.
“It was strange,” coach Roy Williams said Tuesday in his first public statement since the NCAA delivered the final report from its seemingly never-ending investigation into UNC’s African and Afro-American Studies department. “I did not jump up and down. I did not scream. I didn’t gloat. I went over to a corner of the room and just stood there by myself for a second and tried to collect my thoughts.
“It wasn’t any big show of emotion thing, because that’s not the way I felt. I was happy it was over with. I did a lot of thinking about what’s happened the last four, four-and-a-half, five years.”
While this latest NCAA probe centered around UNC’s entire athletic department and how it fit into the academic scandal that made national headlines, Williams’ basketball program was the one that drew the most attention from the media and fans of opposing schools.
That’s because the national championship banners from 2005 and ’09, won during the 18-year run of questionable AFAM courses, were perceived to be in jeopardy of coming down if the NCAA decided to drop the hammer down on the Tar Heels.
Williams didn’t let the uncertainty affect his team’s play on the way to two straight national title game appearances. But some of the joy from that success was clearly tempered by the cloud hovering ominously above and the fact that the Hall of Fame coach was constantly forced to defend both himself and his program on the public stage and in the living rooms of prospective recruits.
He insisted all along that he and his staff were innocent of wrongdoing, pointing to the fact that none of them were directly mentioned in any of the three Notices of Allegations issued by the NCAA over the past two years.
Even though Williams was proven right on Friday when the NCAA’s involvement with UNC ended without any penalties being levied, he said he doesn’t necessary feel a sense of vindication.
“I think that was more early, when people asked me if I was going to be able to keep my job and shoved a camera in my face and said, ‘Do you think you have the support of your administration?’ Williams said. “Needless to say I didn’t necessarily like it every time there was an article about (the investigation), it always showed my picture.
“I kept saying forever and ever that I was not involved, nobody from our office was involved. Whether it was vindication or not, that never came to mind.”
As hopeful as he was that he and his program would ultimately emerge from the investigation unscathed, Williams admitted that his confidence was tested on numerous occasions throughout the process — especially after he was called to appear before the Committee on Infractions at a hearing in Nashville in August.
“I don’t think you can be confident and scared to death, which is what I felt like when I was in the infractions hearing,” Williams said. “I felt innocent, but at the same time it’s not a court of law. It’s what those people think. They’re very honorable people. But I’ve never been involved (with an infractions case), so I didn’t have any experience.”
Williams said he’s looking forward to the positive impact the end of the NCAA’s case against UNC will have on his recruitment of top players, something he’s struggled with during the past few years.
On the court, it’s business as usual for the Tar Heels as they begin the work of defending their title, although senior point guard Joel Berry said there’s a noticeable difference in the atmosphere surrounding the team now that the threat of sanctions has been lifted.
“The weight of the world is off our shoulders and we can get past that now,” Berry said. “I’m just glad that nothing came out and hurt us, because a lot of recruits were saying that’s the reason why they didn’t want to come here.
“That just goes to show that they didn’t trust coach and what he was saying. I did and now we have a national championship and that stuff is behind us.”