CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Roy Williams has a Hall of Fame resume filled with more than 900 wins and three national championships in a career leading two of the most storied programs in college basketball.
So it came as a surprise Thursday when the 70-year-old Williams announced his retirement and said it was more because of what he doesn’t have: the conviction that he is still the right coach to lead North Carolina.
During a long, thoughtful news conference on the Smith Center court bearing his name, Williams described himself as a coach who was bothered by losses and by his own mistakes over the past two difficult seasons. One of those saw the only losing record of his career and the other, this season, saw Williams coaching a young group playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Williams had long said he would coach as long as his health remained good.
“But deep down inside, I knew that the only thing that would speed that up (was) if I did not feel that I was any longer the right man for the job,” he said. “I’m not going say the best man because I never thought I was the best at anything. But for 15 years at Kansas, I thought I was the right man. In this time at North Carolina, I thought I was the right man. I no longer feel that I am the right man for the job.”
The stunning news came two weeks after Williams closed his 18th season with the Tar Heels after a highly successful 15-year run with the Jayhawks. In all, Williams won 903 games in a career that included those three titles, all with the Tar Heels, in 2005, 2009 and 2017.
The last time Williams left North Carolina, he was a virtually unknown assistant who was getting his first shot as a college head coach at Kansas after 10 years under late mentor Dean Smith.
Williams had talked about how Smith — who Williams still respectfully calls “Coach Smith” after all these years — worried about how hard Williams took losses as an assistant. That much was apparent Thursday as Williams — often with his voice shaking as he fought back tears — recounted some of his own self-described coaching mistakes.
They were the kind of details he “was really bothered by” as he contemplated his future after a first-round loss to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament, his only first-round setback in 30 tournaments.
“Ol’ Roy’s going to feel pretty good about what we accomplished,” Williams said. “Ol’ Roy’s going to be proud. But the problem is, Ol’ Roy is selfish. He wanted more, and I didn’t think I could cheat my school and my kids.”
Williams had thrived with lessons rooted in his time under Smith even as he forged his own style. Williams always pushed for more and typically he got it. His teams played fast, with Williams frantically waving his arms for them to push the ball. They attacked the boards with his preferred two-post style. He stubbornly hoarded timeouts, saying his team should be prepared for most situations through practice.
His competitive drive is fierce and only slightly obscured by his folksy sayings and charm from his time growing up in the North Carolina mountains. And by the end, he won more national championships than Smith’s two.
“I could never come close to matching what Coach Smith did,” Williams said. “But every day, I tried to make him proud.”
Williams’ time as an assistant coach included the Tar Heels’ run to the 1982 championship for Smith’s first title, a game that memorably featured freshman Michael Jordan making the go-ahead jumper late to beat Georgetown.
“Roy Williams is and always will be a Carolina basketball legend,” Jordan said in a statement through his business manager. “His great success on the court is truly matched by the impact he had on the lives of the players he coached – including me. I’m proud of the way he carried on the tradition of Coach Smith’s program, always putting his players first.”
Williams’ retirement caught fellow Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski at rival Duke by surprise, according to his statement.
“While we were on opposite sides of college basketball’s greatest rivalry, we both understood how lucky we were to be part of it and always tried to represent it in the way it deserved,” Krzyzewski said. “His legacy is secure as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.”
After Kansas took a chance on Williams in 1988, he spent 15 seasons there, taking the Jayhawks to four Final Fours and two national title games. Williams passed on taking over at UNC in 2000 after the retirement of Bill Guthridge, but ultimately couldn’t say no a second time and returned as coach in 2003 after the tumultuous Matt Doherty era that included an 8-20 season.
Along with the 2005 and 2009 titles, Williams’ Tar Heels won in 2017 with a team that included players who had lost the 2016 final to Villanova on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
Williams had just one losing season — an injury-plagued 14-19 year in 2019-20 — and otherwise missed the NCAAs only in his first season at Kansas, when he inherited a program on probation, and in 2010 with a UNC team that reached the NIT final.
“I love coaching, working the kids on the court, the locker room, the trips, the ‘Jump Around’ (pregame) music, the trying to build a team,” Williams said. “I will always love that. And I’m scared to death of the next phase. But I no longer feel that I’m the right man.”
When the news conference ended, the grandfather of four walked to his wife, Wanda, took her hand, and the two walked out together.
(The Associated Press contributed to this article.)
ROY WILLIAMS’ CAREER HIGHLIGHTS (source: goheels.com):
- 48 seasons as a basketball coach, including 33 seasons as a college head coach (18 at UNC, 15 at Kansas), 10 as assistant coach at UNC and five as head coach at Owen High School in Black Mountain, N.C.
- 2007 inductee to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame
- Third all-time in wins by a Division I head coach with 903
- Reached 900 wins in fewer games (1,161) and seasons (33) than any coach in NCAA history
- 903 wins in 33 seasons is 100 more than any other coach in NCAA history (803 by Mike Krzyzewski, 802 by Dean Smith)
- Second-winningest coach in UNC history and third in Kansas history
- Only coach in history with 400 wins at two schools
- Sixth-highest winning percentage (.774) in NCAA history
- Led UNC to three NCAA championships (2005, 2009, 2017)
- Third to take teams to the NCAA Tournament at least 30 times
- Consensus National Coach of the Decade (2000-09)
- Led UNC and Kansas to nine Final Fours, fourth most all-time
- Second in NCAA Tournament wins (79), second in No. 1 seeds (13), second in games (105), third in NCAA Tournament winning percentage (.745) and tied for fourth in NCAA championships
- NCAA-record eight wins over Associated Press No. 1-ranked teams
- Second in NCAA history in 30-win seasons (12) and tied for fourth in 20-win seasons (29)
- Tied for fifth all-time with 18 regular-season conference championships
- Third all-time in ACC regular-season wins (212)
- Third-most ACC road wins (93) and fourth-highest ACC road winning percentage all-time (.604)
- Second-most wins (208) in first 300 ACC regular-season games
- 32 NBA first-round draft picks (22 at UNC, 10 at Kansas)
- 52 former players in the NBA
- Four National Players of the Year, six ACC Scholar-Athletes of the Year, 10 consensus first-team All-Americas, 17 first-team All-Americas and three Bob Cousy Award winners
- Only coach to coach two Academic All-Americas of the Year (Jacque Vaughn at Kansas, Tyler Zeller at UNC)
THE WILLIAMS RECORD:
Overall: 903-264, 33 seasons (.774)
Record at UNC: 485-163, 18 seasons (.748)
NCAA Championships (3): 2005, 2009, 2017 at UNC
Final Fours (9): 1991, 1993, 2002, 2003 at Kansas; 2005, 2008, 2009, 2016, 2017 at UNC
NCAA Tournament: 79-27 (.745)
NCAA Tournament at UNC: 45-13 (.776)
NCAA Finals: 3-3
NCAA Finals at UNC: 3-1
National Championship Games (6): 1991, 2003 at Kansas; 2005, 2009, 2016, 2017 at UNC
National Semifinals: 6-3
National Semifinals at UNC: 4-1
NCAA Elite 8s (13): 1991, 1993, 1996, 2002, 2003 at Kansas; 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2016, 2017 at UNC
NCAA Elite 8: 9-4 (5-3 at UNC)
NCAA Sweet 16s (19): 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2003 at Kansas; 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019 at UNC
NCAA Sweet 16: 13-6 (8-2 at UNC)
NCAA 2nd Round: 19-10 (10-5 at UNC)
NCAA 1st Round: 29-1 (15-1 at UNC)
Conference Regular-Season Titles (18): 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2003 at Kansas; 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2016, 2017, 2019 at UNC
ACC Regular-Season: 212-94 (.693)
ACC Home: 119-33 (.783)
ACC Road: 93-61 (.604)
ACC Tournament: 29-15 (.659)
ACC Tournament Titles (3): 2007, 2008, 2016
Conference Tournaments Titles (7): 1992, 1997, 1998, 1999 at Kansas; 2007, 2008, 2016 at UNC
Conference Tournaments (ACC and Big 8/12): 52-25
Home: 444-57 (.886)
Home UNC Record: 243-41 (.856)
Smith Center UNC Record: 241-40 (.858)
Away UNC Record: 123-77 (.615)
Against Ranked Teams (AP poll): 164-134 (most recent vs. Florida State, 3/12/21)
Against No. 1-Ranked Teams: 8-8
Cox Media Group