Why Roy Williams, despite his flaws, is a top-five men's college basketball coach of all time

Roy Williams won his third national championship in 13 seasons Monday night with a 71-65 victory over Gonzaga. (Getty)
Roy Williams won his third national championship in 13 seasons Monday night with a 71-65 victory over Gonzaga. (Getty)

Roy Williams has never been much of a numbers guy. Not publicly, at least. “I like a little dose of it,” he has said of analytics. He admits he’s not a big fan.

But as Williams stood atop a podium in Glendale, Ariz., on Monday night with fluttering confetti clinging to his plaid sport coat, a few simple numbers were inescapable.

Three national championships.

Nine Final Fours.

Seventy-six NCAA tournament wins.

The three national titles are the second-most among active men’s basketball coaches, tied for second since Williams got his first head-coaching gig in 1988, and the most since Williams arrived at North Carolina in 2003.

Of the 76 tournament wins, 56 have come after the turn of the century. Those 56 are the most among men’s coaches in the time period since. Nobody else comes within 10.

There are other numbers, too, such as Williams’ 17 regular season conference titles in 29 years — nine in 15 years at Kansas, eight in 14 at Carolina. Those figures, among coaches who lasted at least a decade and a half in major conferences, are matched only by Bill Self in the modern era, and only by Self and Adolph Rupp in men’s college hoops history.

Yet when Williams’ place in that history gets brought up, an uneasiness or hesitancy is often brought to the table. His coaching comrades, five years ago, voted him the most overrated in the profession. The suggestion that he might have a place alongside John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski on the Mount Rushmore of men’s college basketball coaches is written off as blasphemous. Williams himself doesn’t even want to be mentioned alongside his mentor, who also has a claim to one of those four spots. “I don’t think Roy Williams should ever be put in the same sentence with Dean Smith,” Williams said Monday night.

But why not?

Williams’ critics will tell you without hesitation. Their discrediting, and sometimes even disparaging, of him has never been about stats or numbers. It’s about how he’s accumulated them. And it can be boiled down to three things.

One: He only wins because he gets the best players.

Two: He doesn’t make adjustments, and isn’t a good in-game coach.

Three: The academic scandal.

The third point is the most valid of the three, and must occupy an awkward seat toward the side of the room in any discussion of Williams’ standing among the greats of his profession. For two decades, UNC athletes, including men’s basketball players, enrolled in and passed “classes” that weren’t really classes at all. It was a reprehensible institutional failure that has dogged (and should continue to dog) the university ever since it was uncovered. It is a massive stain on the school’s athletic department, and could be much more if and when the NCAA drops its hammer in the form of sanctions.

The question as it pertains to Williams’ legacy is about his role in the fraud — what, if anything, did he know, and what, if anything, did he encourage or enable? Williams has fiercely denied wrongdoing, and has referred to the scandal as “junk.” He’s used several similar terms to refute the validity of the allegations against him and his program. Only he and a few others know the full truth. The most likely answer is that he did his best to remain unaware, and thus innocent, but therefore indirectly enabled the fake class scheme. But again, we just don’t know. You can review the independent investigator’s report and decide for yourself.

But the idea that Williams was directly responsible, the idea that he is the only Division I coach to ever take a questionable attitude toward academics, and the idea that this automatically precludes him from claiming a place among the top five men’s college hoops coaches of all time are somewhere between logically dubious and irrational. They are question marks, not slashes struck through his records, and not even asterisks — at least not yet.

The other criticisms of Williams are less debatable and more foolish. Yes, Williams has had good players. Have other great coaches not? Has Krzyzewski won with scrubs? Did Wooden pick kids off Westwood playgrounds? Of course not. He had future all-stars and Hall-of-Famers. The track record of Williams’ Carolina players in the NBA is actually far worse than those of former Kentucky, UCLA or Duke stars currently in the professional ranks. The top two Tar Heels in the league at the moment are Harrison Barnes and … Marvin Williams?

Plus, recruiting is a sizable chunk of a college basketball coach’s job description, and a significant portion of the foundation for a legacy. Why should a coach be considered inferior for doing his job well?

That Williams wins almost exclusively on the back of his recruiting is also one of two great misconceptions about Ol’ Roy. He’s had two one-and-dones in 14 years at Carolina. Once his 2017 class enrolls, he’ll have signed more three-star recruits (five) than five-star recruits (four) since 2012. The effects of scandal-induced uncertainty are taking their toll, yet Williams and Carolina continue to win.

They continue to win because Williams and his excellent assistant coaches have run an outstanding developmental program over the past five years. (Constructing a staff: also in the job description.) Joel Berry, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, averaged 4.2 points per game as a freshman in 2014-15, but improved year over year and transformed into a championship-caliber point guard. Williams and his staff have wooed highly-regarded recruits who needed time to blossom, and have facilitated that blossoming process extremely well. All that is part of the job description, too.

The second misconception is the last point of criticism: That Williams is a substandard in-game coach. The perception likely arises from his occasional unwillingness to make adjustments, and from the Tar Heels’ lack of structure on offense. But the lack of structure isn’t really a lack of structure at all; it’s just a lack of set plays. Williams drills his players on a motion offense, which is essentially a set of principles for mid-play decisions, and bestows them with responsibility to make those decisions, many of them in transition with the defense on its heels. Similar philosophies have led coaches like Mike Brey at Notre Dame to be considered offensive geniuses. Williams does what most coaches can’t bear to do: He cedes control to his players, and benefits because of his willingness to do so.

Does Williams have his flaws? He does stick to his tried and trusted formulas, and can be slow to adopt new methods or consider new ways of thinking. The public disregard for analytics is somewhat of a red flag, even if the Tar Heels, like other teams, use data more than their coach lets on. And Williams has never been known as an X’s and O’s guru. So yes, he has flaws.

But if coaching greatness requires perfection, the Hall of Fame would be empty, and college basketball Mount Rushmore would be a faceless mass of granite. If it doesn’t require perfection, then why do we harp on imperfections rather than celebrate the attributes that allow coaches to overcome them?

For every edge Williams loses because of his supposed tactical shortcomings, there is something he does exceedingly well that allows him to win anyway. And he’s won at a higher rate than any other active coach aside from Mark Few at Gonzaga. His winning percentage is better than Dean Smith’s, and far better than Bob Knight’s. He ranks in the all-time top five in national titles and Final Fours, and, should he coach for four more years, should pass Knight for No. 3 on the all-time wins list. And he’s done this, remember, at two different schools, the second of which had endured back-to-back poor seasons when he arrived.

It is impossible to argue with the results. It is foolish to argue about the process by which they’ve been achieved, unless you consider the scandal inseparable from that process, and consider Williams complicit in it. Because that’s a reasonable stance, the Mount Rushmore sculptors can hold off for now.

But Williams’ success should place him on any list of top five men’s college basketball coaches. As Williams would probably tell you, numbers can deceive. In this case, they don’t.

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