PHOENIX — Roy Williams is an emotional man to begin with. But just mention the name of his mentor and coaching inspiration Dean Smith and his eyes start watering as though he was watching the climactic scene from Old Yeller.
So you can imagine Williams’ reaction Monday when after his North Carolina basketball team defeated Gonzaga 71-65 at University of Phoenix Stadium for his third national championship, it was pointed out to him by CBS announcer Jim Nantz that he now had more titles to his credit than Smith.
“I think of Coach Smith, no question” Williams said through the tears. “But I don’t think I should be mentioned in the same sentence as him.”
It goes without saying that Smith is one of the all-time giants of his profession.In addition to his national crowns in 1982 and ’93, Smith took the Tar Heels to nine other Final Fours while winning more games at the time of his retirement than any other coach in college history.
He was also an innovator who came up with the Four Corners offense, huddling before free throws, the tired signal and the practice of tip-outs on the offensive boards like the two that saved this year’s team in its national semifinal win against Oregon.
And yet, for all that Williams is not, the numbers he has compiled over the past 29 years contradict the narrative both he and his detractors continue to perpetuate.
While Monday’s victory didn’t validate his career or suddenly raise him up to a greater level of prominence — he’s already in the Hall of Fame — it did help define it and call attention to one indisputable fact: Williams belongs in the conversation the best college coaches ever.
“You can win at the highest level and not cut corners, and not cut your value system, your morals,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said after the final game. “I’ve always been impressed with him both at Kansas and at Carolina. I couldn’t respect a guy more in this business.”
Williams has won 816 games and counting, his teams have earned 17 regular season conference championships and been to nine Final Fours while winning more national titles than anyone who has ever coached the game other than John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp.
But it’s a success that’s usually attributed more to the caliber of players he recruits than his ability to mold and nurture that talent into a winning unit. The knocks against him have been repeated so many times that they’ve become accepted as fact by many and are many of the same things for which Smith was criticized in his day.
He’s not a great game manager. He doesn’t run set plays. He doesn’t call timeouts when his team needs them. He shows too much loyalty to his upperclassmen at the expense of younger players.If nothing else, this year’s championship run may finally have dispelled at least some of those myths.
It was a key timeout, after all, that helped ignite the 12-0 finishing spurt that prevented the Tar Heels from a second round upset at the hands of Arkansas. Two games later it was an uncharacteristic switch to a zone defense that helped his team rally from a late deficit to beat Kentucky in the NCAA South Region final.
In that same game, he benched ineffective senior Isaiah Hicks for sophomore Luke Maye, who ended up hitting the shot that sent UNC to the Final Four.
Once in Phoenix, the Tar Heels showed their depth, versatility and grit by beating both Oregon and Gonzaga while shooting less than 40 percent from the floor and having at least one of their stars struggle to put the ball in the basket.Williams regularly deflects the credit for his team’s success to his players, saying that he’s “very, very lucky” to have gone along the ride with them all these years.
According to those players, their coach his greatly underselling his contribution to the process.
“He’s not an “I” guy, he’s a “we” guy,” junior guard Theo Pinson said. “It’s a total team effort. He lets us make plays. He picks his spots and puts us in the best position to win games.”
While Williams’ first two championship teams were “roll the ball out and let them play” type units, with rosters full of first-round NBA draft picks that overwhelmed the opposition with a fast-paced style, this year’s broke that mold and perhaps, finally, changed the perception of its often-misunderstood coach.
“I feel like most people on the outside looking in don’t get to see how good a person he is.” senior guard Nate Britt said, “and how much his leadership carries throughout the program.”
Britt, who started as a freshman, could have transferred to another school or become bitter as his playing time diminished over his final three seasons. But he didn’t because he trusted Williams when his coach told him he would still play a prominent role on the team.
Kennedy Meeks is another example of Williams’ leadership and his ability to read players and bring them along differently according to their needs and personalities.
Williams described his relationship with the senior center as “love-hate,” because of the way he’s pushed him publicly over the past four years. But what sounded like criticism to others was actually motivation for Meeks, who evolved from an overweight freshman to one of the nation’s best rebounders.
“He’s just trying to make me better as a player,” Meeks said.It’s the type of thing that’s often overlooked when taking stock of Williams’ legacy as a coach — an omission long-time assistant C.B. McGrath has a hard time understanding.
“I’m so happy for Coach Williams because of all the work he puts in,” said McGrath, was hired as the new head coach at UNC Wilmington the day of the Gonzaga game. “For some odd reason, nobody writes a single good thing about him.”
Perhaps that may finally change now that Williams has won a third national championship, passed his mentor Smith and earned a place among the truly elite of his profession.