Roy Williams’ retirement as North Carolina’s basketball coach didn’t come completely as a surprise.
He hinted at his intentions a few weeks earlier when, after beating archrival Duke on Senior Night, he knelt reverently onto the court named in his honor and kissed the logo of his beloved alma mater before heading to the locker room.
When asked at a press conference last Thursday what made him decide it was time to walk away after 18 seasons, three national championships and induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Williams gave an answer that was anything but expected.
“I no longer feel that I am the right man for the job,” he said with an emotional crack in his voice.
Only time will tell if former Tar Heel star and assistant coach Hubert Davis, the man that has been hired as Williams’ successor, is.
But at least he’s inheriting a program that, even with the disappointments of the past two seasons, is in far better shape than it was when Williams arrived from Kansas in 2003 to clean up the mess left by Matt Doherty.
Williams actually took the UNC job three years earlier.
He agreed to it on a handshake with his mentor Dean Smith and then-athletic director Dick Baddour, only to change his mind upon returning to Lawrence and attempting to break the news to his Jayhawk players.
“I had promised Nick Collison that I would be there his entire career, and I never could come to grips to the fact that I would leave without doing what I told that kid,” Williams said. “I know it’s corny as all get out, but that’s what it was.”
That sense of loyalty, almost as much as the recruiting and coaching ability that helped produce his 903 career wins and those three championship rings, is a trait that best defined Williams’ success over the years.
And it’s eventually what brought him back to Chapel Hill, where he played on the freshman team and cut his coaching teeth at the side of fellow Hall of Famer Smith.
“It was a different decision,” said Williams, who stopped making promises to recruits about his future coaching plans. “Coach Smith said, ‘We wanted you the first time, but we need you now.’”
The Tar Heels were one year removed from their worst season ever — an 8-20 disaster in 2001-02 — when he slipped on his first Carolina blue Alexander Julian argyle jacket. Two years later, he cut down nets for the first time as a national champion alongside holdovers such as current assistant Sean May, Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Jackie Manuel.
Williams proved to be “the right man for the job,” not only by returning UNC to its familiar status among the college basketball elite but by keeping it there through a yearslong NCAA investigation that adversely affected recruiting and threatened to cripple the program.
He did it with a passion, honesty and a team-oriented philosophy that was handed down to him through a lineage that can literally be traced back to the first peach basket hanging from the wall of the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts.
It started with Dr. James Naismith, who as coach at Kansas taught Phog Allen. Allen, in turn, passed his knowledge on to another generation of Jayhawks, including Smith, who then served as Williams’ inspiration.
Each coach added his own personal touch to the foundation, but the tenets have remained the same, which made it a near certainty — despite speculation to the contrary — that athletic director Bubba Cunningham was obligated to keep things in “the family” when hiring the Tar Heels’ next leader.
It’s a reality verbalized by Davis during an interview with ESPN hours after his hiring.
“I believe in the way Coach Smith (and Williams) play the game,” he said. “It’s the right way to play. In terms of the foundation of who Carolina is, that won’t change.”
Despite his pedigree and the experience that comes with playing 12 seasons in the NBA, Davis’ hiring is something of a gamble since the UNC job will be his first as a head coach.
As Doherty proved, the words “North Carolina” don’t automatically guarantee success. Had it not been for the safety net Williams’ willingness to return provided, the Tar Heels could easily have fallen into the same kind of rut that has rendered former blueblood Indiana into an extended stretch of national irrelevance.
And it could still happen if Davis doesn’t live up to expectations.
But there’s at least one reason to believe that it won’t. It’s the fact that Williams loves UNC and the basketball program that represents it too much to leave it in the hands of just anybody.
As the now-former coach noted during his farewell press conference, “I’m giving my opinion very strongly about what I want to happen with the program.”
It’s an opinion that likely wasn’t based on loyalty, although Williams’ loyalty to those around him is well documented. Rather, it’s that when it comes to keeping the Tar Heels among college basketball’s best, he believes that Davis is the right man for the job.