By John Bauman
April 4, 2021
Photo: Paul Sancya / AP
For the longest time, Dean Smith was Carolina basketball.
Coach Smith, as he was known around the program, was the men’s basketball coach for 36 years at North Carolina. He won 879 games and two NCAA Championships, building the program into the blue-blood that it is today. After his retirement in 1997, people understood that there could never be another like him. He was a larger-than-life figure, revered as much off the court as he was on it.
Then came a three-year stretch when Bill Guthridge was head coach and another three-year run, led this time by Matt Doherty. While Guthridge steadied the ship and helped the Tar Heels to two Final Fours, the program teetered towards mediocrity under Doherty. But along came Roy Williams in 2003, the prodigal son and protegé taking over to return the program to glory.
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) April 3, 2021
In the 18 seasons since taking over as head coach at North Carolina in 2003, Williams did just that. He had a 485-163 overall record while at UNC. That included three NCAA championships, three ACC Tournament championships and nine ACC regular-season titles.
On Thursday, April 1, 2021, Roy Williams announced that he was retiring from his position as head basketball coach at North Carolina. In an emotional press conference, Williams explained that he wanted to step away after feeling he was no longer the right man for the job. He’ll now spend more time with his young grandkids and his wife Wanda, in addition to playing a few more rounds of golf each year.
The common theme throughout Williams’ time as a head coach— 15 years at Kansas and 18 years at North Carolina— was a deep respect for his mentor, Smith. Williams first learned from Smith as a member of the freshman team while a student at UNC. He would later coach for him as an assistant at UNC for 10 seasons. Smith created the concept of pointing the passer to give credit for an assist, and then Williams made sure every single one of his players did so after a bucket.
After 33 years as a Hall of Fame head coach, our beloved Tar Heel Roy Williams is announcing his retirement.
Thank you for all you have done and meant to everyone who plays and loves our game.
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) April 1, 2021
Even their retirements were similar. Smith famously retired before the start of the 1997-98 season. The announcement came as a surprise to many, but it was a humble way to go out. Williams conducted his retirement in the same way, announcing the news with no warning on April Fools Day. Only after many tweets and a few hours did it truly set in that Williams was stepping away and a new coach would come in to lead the program.
In an era of social media and self-promotion, Williams’ retirement didn’t come from a tweet or even from a “retirement tour.” Instead, the news came via press release and Williams shared stories and tears with assembled players in his retirement press conference on Thursday in the Dean E. Smith Center.
The press conference took place on Roy Williams Court, the court that was officially announced in an August 2018 ceremony for the then-current head coach at UNC.
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) April 1, 2021
It’s symbolic that Roy’s court will forever live on in Dean’s arena. Roy Williams likes things that way. But it’s also an important symbol that shows how Williams has elevated himself to a higher plane in the pantheon of North Carolina basketball.
His name will forever be associated with North Carolina basketball, right up there alongside Dean Smith. In his 18-year run as head basketball coach at UNC, Williams had on-the-court triumphs but displayed great character off of it and expected the same of his players. For that reason, he’ll forever be enshrined with his mentor.
Here’s a look back at his best moments with the North Carolina Tar Heels:
March 6, 2005 – #2 UNC beats #6 Duke in the Smith Center
After losing his first matchup as UNC’s new head coach against Mike Krzyzewski on February 4, 2004, Roy Williams wanted to not only beat Duke but help his Tar Heels secure their first outright ACC regular-season title since 1993. The game was a battle back and forth until the end, when Duke led 73–64 with 3:07 left: a commanding nine-point lead.
From there, the Tar Heels stormed back, narrowing Duke’s lead. The run culminated with Marvin Williams’ famous putback after a missed Raymond Felton free throw. The basket and ensuing free throw put the Tar Heels up 75–73. After JJ Redick’s missed 3-point attempt, the Tar Heels would win the emotional ballgame and secured that elusive ACC Regular Season title.
April 4, 2005 – The Tar Heels win the 2005 National Championship
After an emotional regular season, the Tar Heels were in search of their first national championship since 1993. The journey took them through Charlotte, Syracuse and ultimately St. Louis for the Final Four. On April 4, the opponent was Illinois and the stage was set for the national championship game.
Sean May, who would later be named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, scored 26 points to pace the Tar Heels. North Carolina had a 40-27 lead at the half, but Illinois fought back hard in the second period of play. UNC would ultimately prevail with a 75–70 victory over the Fighting Illini. It was Roy Willliams’ first national championship.
April 6, 2009 – North Carolina dominates on way to 2009 Title
Four years later, the Tar Heels returned to the mountain top of college basketball. In 2005, the Tar Heels needed a late run to pull away from Bruce Weber’s Illinois team. This time, though, things would go a little bit differently for the Tar Heels in the championship game.
At the half, UNC led 55-34 over the Michigan State Spartans. The final score, 89–72, wouldn’t reflect the gap between the two teams that day and really between the Tar Heels and the rest of college basketball that season. Led by Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green and Ty Lawson, that 2009 Tar Heels team proved to be one of college basketball’s all-time greatest teams. The championship also cemented Roy Willliams’ status among the best coaches in college basketball.
Feb 29, 2016 – Marcus Paige senior day
This moment makes the list not for its on-the-court importance, but for what it meant to Roy Williams and the UNC Basketball program. All through an NCAA investigation into the North Carolina athletic department, Roy Williams found peace in the games and the players he coached. Two seniors in particular, Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, had a very strong bond with Williams that grew over their four years in Chapel Hill.
Paige opened up his heart in a senior day speech in 2016, sharing just how much Williams meant to him and, by extension, to the Tar Heel faithful. There was not a dry eye in the house as Paige spoke to Williams, and Williams would later jump on the mic to share just how much this group meant to him.
April 3, 2017 – Redemption and another banner in 2017
After a heartbreaking loss in the 2016 national championship game, the Tar Heels retooled and returned to face Gonzaga for the championship one year later. The Zags were up two points with 1:52 remaining, but this time North Carolina was able to prevail.
Joel Berry had 22 points, Kennedy Meeks had ten rebounds and a key block late to help seal the victory and the Tar Heels had their third national championship under Roy Williams. It would be Roy Williams’ third and final National Championship: a capstone on an amazing 48-year run as a basketball coach.