A legendary coach who walks away from his dream job of his own free will is likely to cast a golden light on his job. Accentuate the positive. Ignore the negative. Enjoy a greatest hits recitation and bathe in the glow of worship.
And then there’s what Roy Williams did on Thursday.
In announcing his retirement as a basketball coach in North Carolina, Williams gave us a raw, human, and sometimes painful goodbye. A coach who had all the answers for decades revealed that he was consumed with doubts and disappointment. It was a rare glimpse of what it’s like to a relentless winner when the agony of defeat outweighs the joy of victory. This was more self-flagellation than complacency.
An all-time great, winner of three national championships and more than 900 college games, he was so upset about his shortcomings that he himself described being expelled from the sport. “I no longer felt like he was the right man for the job,” possibly Carolina’s most suitable man for the job said. And he said it repeatedly, between sobs and pauses.
“The last two years have been very tough,” Williams said. “… I felt like I made mistakes. … I just never got the team this year where I wanted them to go. I did not do it. … I didn’t press the correct buttons. … I just don’t feel like I’m the right man anymore. “
Williams reflected on what one of his former assistants in Kansas, Jerry Green, once told him about his work there: “You’re getting these kids to pull your nails out of the ground.” Watching his teams play the last two seasons, he didn’t see the same fire from his players. “I didn’t get the message across well enough,” he said.
In 2019-20, Carolina had a 14-19 record, a complete disaster by the standards of that show. Williams, 70, said he wasn’t going to come off on a losing note, so he returned this season. The Tar Heels improved, but were still not up to Williams’ standards, going 18-10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and earning a No. 8 spot in the NCAA Tournament.
They were then defeated by Wisconsin in the first round, the third consecutive expulsion from the tournament by at least 17 points since I won the title in 2017. “I wasn’t going to wait for the third strike, that’s the conclusion,” he said.
After that game, a disheartened Williams acknowledged the end, some 12 years after his wife, Wanda, encouraged him to leave after the 2009 national championship. (She also urged him to retire after the third title, in 2017) . He called North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham last Tuesday to tell him he intended to retire. On Sunday, Williams met with UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, who urged him to take 24 hours to think about the decision.
Williams did and couldn’t change his mind. He went to play Augusta National on Tuesday and Wednesday (says he shot 88 and 87), but spent his time between shots thinking about breaking the news to everyone. Then he came home to drop this bombshell on college basketball on Thursday.
He leaves with only three coaches who have won the most national titles: John Wooden (10), Mike Krzyzewski (five) and Adolph Rupp (four). His nine Final Fours are behind only Wooden (12), Krzyzewski (12) and Williams’ mentor Dean Smith (11). He is third on the list of all-time NCAA tournament appearances with 30, behind only Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim (35 each).
Like almost all great coaches in a checkered sport, Williams leaves in glory and with consequent controversy. For many, the cloud of academic scandal that hung over North Carolina athletics but went unpunished by the NCAA will continue to be as much a part of Williams’ legacy as his offensive acumen and recruiting prowess. No one gets out of the sausage factory that is college basketball unscathed.
But Williams has a legion of fans that includes the vast majority of his former players and many of his competitors.
“Telling the current team was very, very difficult,” said Williams, who praised those of the 2020-21 team who attended his press conference at the Dean Smith Center, including those currently on the transfer portal. He also praised the older boys who were there. And he praised almost all the coaches who were either above or below him on an org chart. (With the certainty that Williams wants one of them – he did not mention names – to be his successor. “I have given my opinion very strongly about what I would like to see happen with the program.”)
In many ways, Williams is a product of a different era, and with pride. The sea change in college athletics is something that could make a 70-year-old man want to get out of the game. From the one-time free transfer rule that could be enacted this month to the impending name, likeness and image legislation, the balance of power is ultimately tilting more in the direction of players than coaches and schools.
Williams isn’t the only basketball coach looking at this new landscape and weighing his options. We are poised for a massive rotation at the top of the sport, given the ages of many of the best coaches. Mike Krzyzewski is 74, Jim Boeheim 76, Rick Pitino 68, Tom Izzo 66. Their time, collectively, is short. Their approach, collectively, is old-school.
Williams is as old school as any of them. Perusing the transfer portal and navigating an era of gamer commodification is as strange to him as TikTok and Clubhouse. Williams made some of her feelings known when she joked that she was “opting out” and went on to say, “That is the most ridiculous phrase I have ever heard in my life. Why don’t you just say ‘I quit’?
But he insisted his retirement is less about what’s coming than what happened in the past two seasons. Hoping that he himself was still winning championships and not doing so was enough to drive him into retirement.
“Ol ‘Roy is going to feel great about what we accomplished,” Ol’ Roy said. And old Roy will be very proud. But Ol ‘Roy is also selfish. I wanted more. “
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.