CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — However much the decision to retire may have been weighing on Roy Williams for the past two weeks, it didn’t stop him from breaking 90 twice at Augusta National a week before the Masters. He may harbor doubts about his ability to coach college basketball, but at least his golf game is OK.
It wouldn’t have been an hour with Williams if there wasn’t a golf analogy or two in there somewhere, and even he chuckled at how his press conferences had sometimes gone off the rails in recent years. But his farewell Thursday was something else entirely, a remarkably human spectacle as he openly wrestled with the same doubts that led him to step down.
“I no longer feel that I am the right man for the job,” Williams said, over and over again, a powerful, accomplished coach publicly acknowledging his vulnerability.
There was an easy way out of this, to thank everyone and reel off a bunch of names to put a nice polish on an amazing career. The three national championships he won since he returned to North Carolina hung above him as he sat at center court. There’s nothing left for Williams to prove. He’s earned whatever farewell he wants.
That wouldn’t have been Williams’ way. Instead, he spoke openly about the toll the past two years took on him. He repeatedly bemoaned his inability to connect with his most recent players. He left no mystery about the insomnia and agony that had filled his days since the loss to Wisconsin as he came to the conclusion that he was no longer capable of doing the only job he had ever wanted.
Williams said these thoughts crossed his mind last summer, but he didn’t want to go out on that sour note. He also wasn’t willing to wait around for what he called “strike three.” He had the chance to say the game and players changed on him, was even asked a direct question about that, and he wouldn’t have been wrong if he said the ground rules have changed. They always do.
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.
Williams just shook his head. It wasn’t the players. It was him. Only him.
“I just never got the team, this year, where I wanted them to go. I just didn’t get it done,” Williams said. “I didn’t get them to buy in and focus on the things that I think are really big in the game of basketball. We got better, but not to the level some of our teams have been. I didn’t push the right buttons.”
He paused there and exhaled, deeply. The Smith Center, which so often had wrapped Williams in rapturous noise, was so silent his sniffles echoed.
The last two years have aged Williams, as he openly admits, and the pictures above him on the video boards, of a much younger man from not all that long ago, would have driven home the point even if he had not. He used to say he would coach as long as his health allowed him, but he’s now a man of 70 who admits he’s scared of what’s now staring him in the face.
“I don’t know what’s in the future,” Williams said. “I know I won’t coach again.”
There was a rawness to this, the tearing off of an emotional scab, that only underlined how difficult this decision really was. Not merely walking away from his dream job at the university he loves as much as anyone, but walking away because he admits he can’t do it as well as he used to. Williams held nothing back, not even his pain at suddenly feeling inadequate at the job he fought so hard to make his own.
“I thought it was Roy,” former ACC commissioner John Swofford said afterward. “I think Roy is a genuine guy, emotional. He says what he feels and he said it well. I thought it was Roy, simply put.”
Williams stepped off the stage, at center court, and turned toward the crowd. Wanda, his wife of 47 years, was waiting for him there. She had twice asked him to retire, after the national championships in 2009 and 2017. Now she had her wish.
“We did OK,” Williams said he told his longtime consigliere Steve Robinson this morning.
“We did a lot better than OK,” Robinson replied.
Williams took Wanda’s hand and they walked slowly toward the tunnel toward the locker room together on the Carolina blue carpet as his friends and former players applauded. Then Williams walked through the black curtains for the last time as a basketball coach and the first time as a full-time grandfather scared of whatever comes next.