Williams, UNC head to Memphis with great expectorations

Tar Heel coach Roy Williams ritual of spitting into the Mississippi River for luck began in 1982 when he was an assistant to Dean Smith getting ready for the national championship game against Georgetown in New Orleans

Christine T. Nguyen—North State Journal
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams speaks during a press conference for the NCAA Final Four at the NRG Stadium in Houston

CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams is the kind of coach that doesn’t like leaving anything to chance. So once he gets his North Carolina basketball team settled in upon its arrival to Memphis on Wednesday in preparation for its NCAA South Region semifinal against Butler, the Tar Heels Hall of Famer will take a quick trip down to the banks of the Mississippi River. And when he gets there, he’ll spit into it. It’s a ritual that began in 1982 when Williams was an assistant to Dean Smith getting ready for the national championship game against Georgetown in New Orleans. “I’d never heard this before, but some guy on the street said ‘Coach, have you spit in the river.'” Williams recalled. “I was like, what are you talking about? He said it’s always good luck to spit in the Mississippi. I can be coached.” Williams was skeptical. But not wanting to leave anything to chance, he figured it was worth the time to visit the riverfront and hock a loogie into the water just in case. “Everybody was laughing at me,” he said. “But we beat Houston (in the national semifinal) and the next morning I leave and I’ve got 10 or 12 Carolina people that just came from the river.” The Tar Heels went on to win the national championship, Smith’s first after several near misses, when a freshman named Michael Jordan made a baseline jumper with 16 seconds left. Because of that success, Williams has made it a point to spit into the Mississippi every time he’s taken a team to play in a city on its banks. He made his whole team do it in 1993 when he was in St. Louis with Kansas before the Jayhawks beat Indiana for the NCAA Midwest Regional championship. He did it in 2005 when UNC returned to St. Louis for the Final Final, where it won Williams’ first national title, and again four years later when his Tar Heels were in Memphis for the South Regional on the way to their 2009 national crown. “I’ve gotten a little more famous for spitting than I’ve ever done anything in my life,” he said. To date, Williams’ tradition has only involved the Mississippi River. But given the success he’s had there and the pitfall UNC encountered at the recent ACC tournament in Brooklyn, he might be open to expanding his expectorations to other famous waterways in the future. “If you’d have told me it was good luck to spit in the East River or the Hudson or whatever it is,” he said, “I’d have been there.”