Sports Journalism Blog

By Jay Smith | @_SmithJ_

Sports Capital Journalism Program

HOUSTON — Roy Williams hasn’t been the most laid back coach in the country.  And the past two years have been anything but laid back for the North Carolina Tar Heels and Ol’ Roy.  Williams is coming off of two offseason knee surgeries.  He’s had a shoulder surgery.  He’s battled back spasms.  He’s had a continued battle with bouts of vertigo, with one even causing him to collapse mid-game. And the program has had to confront an NCAA investigation into academic fraud that has surrounded the university for almost two years.  But amidst the whirlwind, Williams has started to become more mellow than ever. 

“Every one of my former players say I’m more mellow,” Williams said.  “I used to coach by fear.  I would try to bury them, try to make sure we’d have three or four guys throw up.  I feel like the next day I didn’t have to threaten that anymore.”

Roy is even pulling pranks on his team in a time you would think is the most intensely serious of a season, the day before the Final Four.

“I did get them really good,” Williams laughed.  “I said, everybody on the end line.  We’re going to run five 33s.  Joel Berry is under his breath, ‘Why are we doing this today’?”

Williams pointed out the date: April 1.

“I said, ‘Gotcha,’” he remembered.

The Tar Heels have had to overcome another un-Carolina like trait, stretches with less than stellar defense.  Some might say that a switch flipped on that end of the floor after a wake-up call following the team’s meltdown against Duke in Chapel Hill, a game Carolina led by eight points with 6:49 to play before losing. North Carolina has a 12-1 record since that game. Berry believes a change took place during the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.

“All year coach has been relating us to them (the 2009 UNC national championship team),” Berry said. “When coach told them to buckle down on the defensive end, that’s when they got better. I think in the ACC Tournament, that was our time to buckle down.  That changed our whole season around.” 

The Heels have given up an average of 66 points per game in the ACC and NCAA tournament games after allowing 71 points per game in the regular season.

The more laid-back version of Williams has the chance to win a third national championship on Monday and join the likes of John Wooden of UCLA, Bob Knight of Indiana, Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and Jim Calhoun of Connecticut.

“I’ve never had thought of that, I really haven’t,” Williams said of the possibility of joining the three-time champion coaches.  “That’s company that is off the charts.  One of the greatest thrills of my life is I’ve had teams now that have taken me to eight Final Fours.  But what I’d really, really love is for these guys up here sitting on this dais with me (Berry, Kennedy Meeks, Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, and Justin Jackson) to get their first one. That would mean a heck of a lot more to me than any of that other stuff.” 

It hasn’t been an easy time for the Heels coach.  Not just with the health issues and possibility of NCAA sanctions, but with the loss of mentors and friends.

Late in 2014, Ted Seagroves, someone who Williams called his “best friend in Chapel Hill,” passed away. Shortly after, in January 2015, ESPN anchor and UNC alumnus Stuart Scott lost his battle with cancer.  And not even a month after Scott’s passing, legendary head coach and long-time mentor and friend Dean Smith passed away.

“He’s had as tough of a two-year stretch as anyone I’ve ever been around,” Paige said.  “He always reminded us that we were his bright spot.  I hope we do this for him on Monday.”

Maybe the mellower approach is paying off for Williams. His Heels are playing at a high level at the most important time of the season. 

“I really don’t have a thought process of how I would act if we were to be the fortunate one to win on Monday night,” Williams said.  “For me it would be a dream, a goal that we set at the start of the season.  Now we’re one of only two teams that still have a chance.”