CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams is usually locked in and focused exclusively on the task at hand in the moments leading up to his team’s games. On this occasion, though, the Hall of Fame coach was distracted by the happenings in Greenville.
Concerned about Jeff Lebo, who stepped down after eight seasons as coach at East Carolina earlier in the day, Williams took time out Wednesday to check on his friend and former player before sending his North Carolina basketball team onto the court for its 86-71 win against Michigan at the Smith Center.
“First time I’ve ever done this, I called him before I went out on the court tonight,” Williams said. “Usually when I come here for the game I don’t make many phone calls. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t his health. He’s just worn out.”
Lebo abruptly resigned six games into his eighth season with the Pirates, saying it was time for him to “pivot” to another chapter in his life after 36 years as a basketball player and coach. He said that his team’s 2-4 start, which includes losses to Radford, Central Connecticut and NC A&T, had nothing to do with his decision to walk away.
“It’s a sad day for me because the coaching profession lost a great guy,” Williams said.
Williams first came into contact with Lebo in the mid-1980s when he was an assistant to UNC coaching legend Dean Smith and Lebo was a McDonald’s All-American point guard out of Carlisle, Pa.
Their relationship continued to grow as Lebo finished a playing career in which he set school records for assists in a game and highest free throw percentage, and entered the coaching profession himself.
Williams and Lebo spent time together earlier this month when their teams participated in a preseason charity jamboree that also included UNC Greensboro and UNC Wilmington. The Hall of Fame coach said Wednesday that his young protege is a much better coach than his 116-122 record at ECU would indicate.
“I loved him as a player, he’s really, really good as a coach,” Williams said. “He’s the kind of guy I always like to talk to because I can learn a lot of things from Jeff. (He’s a) great kid, great family. I enjoyed the heck out of coaching him and enjoyed the heck out of him being such a friend for me.”