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It probably is hyperbole to say only Roy Williams could have saved North Carolina basketball. There were others capable of cleaning up the mess Matt Doherty made and averting catastrophe, even if they may have not been the obvious heir apparent Williams was in 2003 — and had been in 2000.
Hyperbole was, though, as much a part of Williams’ tenure as Alexander Julian couture, golf metaphors or the secondary break, so such a statement is an appropriate tribute to Williams’ considerable accomplishments in 14 seasons at North Carolina, as well as the manner in which they were achieved.
Everything was the best and the worst and the greatest in Williams’ portrayal, and sometimes it actually was. Even Tuesday, as he wiped away tears watching Hubert Davis’ coronation as his successor, Williams said he was “as happy as I’ve ever been in my life watching this.” He was, and remains, a master of the form.
Still, it’s an open question whether the program really needed saving in 2003. Could Larry Brown or George Karl have returned and put North Carolina right back on its feet? Their ties to North Carolina and to Dean Smith were as strong as Williams’ were at the time, even if Brown had baggage and Karl lacked college coaching experience. Their coaching chops were beyond reproach.
Either way, there is no doubt that Williams was the correct answer. He was the right man for the job at the right time, something he would remain for almost two decades and three titles, until he came to the conclusion this month that he no longer was. Even that lament had a tinge of hyperbolic self-flagellation, just as his final declaration as Kansas coach on live television that he “could give a shit about North Carolina right now” was as grandiose as it was false.
Some of the wounds from that period of time — his initial refusal to leave Kansas to take over for Bill Guthridge in 2000, the scatalogical bon mot to CBS after losing the national title game to Syracuse, the Kansas sticker he wore at the Final Four after his Tar Heels were run off the court by the Jayhawks in the semifinals in 2008 — never really healed. Even today.
Just as Williams called his 2016 team the “most criticized, least appreciated really good team I’ve ever had” — actually, not hyperbole — he was probably the most criticized, least appreciated coach ever to serve an alma mater he adored as the protege of a legend he revered. Everyone was a critic: Carolina fans loved to debate his system, his timeouts, his recruiting, his personality.
“For some reason,” Marcus Paige said in 2016, “I feel like he has a shorter leash than other coaches.”
And while some of that was strictly snobbery — Williams often called out the bankers and lawyers who thought they were basketball experts, perhaps sensing how they still looked down upon the dirt-poor kid from the mountains — there was also the original sin.
Some North Carolina fans never really forgave Williams, even three titles later, for putting the program in a position where it even needed saving. Williams was supposed to take over for Guthridge in the natural order and lineage of things. It was as right and proper as the sun rising in the east. To many, Williams’ time at Kansas was an apprenticeship, a graduate course in coaching to prepare him for his eventual return home.
Williams, though, never looked at it that way. At Kansas, he became part of a lineage as proud as North Carolina’s, one that went right back to the beginning of the sport. Just as he walked past Smith’s grave on game days in Chapel Hill the past few years, he used to jog past the Lawrence resting places of James Naismith and Phog Allen on game days there.
A Kansas man himself, Smith understood, if few else in Chapel Hill did, that it was possible to immerse oneself in that program just as much as the one Smith built here. (They still sell T-shirts that say, “Kansas: The birthplace of North Carolina basketball.”)
“It’s not immoral to love two institutions,” Williams said in 2000 after he arrived back in Lawrence, and again in 2013 long after Kansas forgave him for leaving. Kansas’ Final Four win over UNC and national title in 2008 went a long way toward that; by the time North Carolina and Kansas played in the 2012 regional final in St. Louis, the sharp edges had long ago worn off any hard feelings.
That season could easily have delivered Williams a fourth title at North Carolina; if Kendall Marshall hadn’t been injured in the second round, if John Henson had been fully healthy, the Tar Heels were at worst a coin flip to beat Kentucky. As it was, he hung more banners in the Smith Center than Smith himself did.
The first was the most triumphant, vindication not only for Williams but everyone who wanted him back.
The second was the most emotional, captained by a player in Tyler Hansbrough who to this day embodies everything Williams believes is right about basketball.
The third was the most redemptive: A university enmeshed in scandal, a team still stinging from Kris Jenkins’ shot a year earlier, a coach swatting away his critics.
If Williams proved everyone right in 2005, he proved everyone wrong in 2017.
The program he turns over to Davis now is not in as strong a short-term position as what Smith left Guthridge — Smith handed over the keys to a muscle car with a full tank of gas, and Guthridge drove it to the Final Four twice in his three years — but it is in a stronger long-term position. There were no guarantees that what Smith built could or would outlive him, and Doherty’s tenure called that into question.
It’s clear now that it has, and that Williams leaves behind his own generation of acolytes, just as Smith did.
“The burden I felt when I came back is I’ve got to get everybody back together again,” Williams said a few years ago. “I knew I had to win, because I’d be fired if I didn’t. But that second thought is I had to get everybody back on board again, the family, the history.”
Williams not only restored what his mentor left behind, he grew and strengthened it. Whether North Carolina needed saving, there’s no question Williams saved it anyway. And that’s not hyperbole.