Mark Bradley: Roy Williams: Three NCAA titles and somehow underrated


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Roy Williams announced his retirement Thursday. For someone who worked hard to portray himself as Just Plain Folks, he had an uncommon number of detractors within his industry. Some of this was because of jealousy. His career as a collegiate coach went from North Carolina to Kansas back to Carolina, which was the hoops equivalent of a Rockefeller marrying into the Kennedy family.

His first job after graduating from Carolina — where he played JV ball and kept stats for the varsity — was head coach at Charles D. Owen High in Black Mountain, N.C. When Dean Smith hired him, Williams became the lowest-paid member of a staff that included Bill Guthridge and Eddie Fogler. Williams supplemented his income by doing as No. 3 assistants did: He ran Carolina's summer camp and drove around the state selling Tar Heels calendars to gas stations.

What ticked off rivals was that, largely on Deano's say-so, Kansas hired him to replace Larry Brown, a Carolina alum who'd stuck around Lawrence as long as he stuck around anywhere. From No. 3 assistant — who had, it must be said, recruited Michael Jordan — to steward of a program that once had Dr. Naismith, who invented the sport, as head coach. If you're into bloodlines, the Jayhawks stand at the top. After succeeding Naismith, Phog Allen coached both Smith and Adolph Rupp.

Williams inherited a Kansas program about to go on probation. (Another Brown trademark). In his second season, the Jayhawks went 30-5. In his third, they reached the Final Four and beat Carolina and Smith — Deano got ejected by Pete Pavia that day — in the semis. Turned out the No. 3 assistant had learned a thing or two.

Williams never won a national championship at Kansas. His teams made four Final Fours and finished second twice. His best team — it ranks with Indiana of 1974-75, Carolina of 1983-84 and UNLV of 1990-91 among the greatest assemblages not to win it all — was upset by Arizona in the Sweet 16. (The 1996-97 KU starters: Jacques Vaughn, Jerod Haase, Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz and Scot Pollard.) Williams shed tears on the dais that night. He always cried at season's end.

Some folks found that touching. His detractors thought it insincere. (His detractors were, and are, merciless.) In basketball circles, the word you heard most about Williams was "phony," a tag that assumed extra oomph when, after Kansas lost narrowly to Syracuse in 2003 final, he told CBS, "I could give a (flip) about North Carolina right now." The UNC job was open, Carolina having fired Matt Doherty, who'd succeeded Guthridge, who'd succeeded Deano.

One week later, Williams took the UNC job. (To be completely fair, he'd rebuffed his alma mater three years earlier, which was how Carolina wound up with Doherty.) Williams had won big in Lawrence, but now he was moving next door to Duke, where Mike Krzyzewski had taken three championships over 11 seasons, the first at Williams' expense. Here, though, is the count of NCAA titles since Williams took over in Chapel Hill: Ol' Roy 3, Coach K 2.

I know some Carolina alums. (Everybody does. They're everywhere.) They've always bemoaned Williams' game management: He never calls timeout because Dean always saved his; he gets outcoached by Krzyzewski as a matter of course. The not-calling-timeout part was true; he and I had a respectful exchange of ideas after Carolina blew a lead and lost to, ahem, Duke in the 2017 ACC semis. The always-getting-outcoached was not. Another fun fact: Over his 18 seasons in Chapel Hill, Williams' teams made five Final Fours; Coach K's made three.

(To his credit, Williams said this to yours truly that night in Brooklyn: "I'm dumb enough to think that, if I die and I have more timeouts left than anybody else, I'll get something for it." I LOL'ed.)

Many teeth were ground to nubs after the NCAA failed to drop the hammer on Carolina basketball for the school's apparent staging of faux classes. Let's face it, though: Carolina under Williams never became a one-and-done repository the way Kentucky and, yes, Duke did. Over Williams' first 11 UNC seasons, the Heels had two one-and-dones — Marvin Williams and Brandan Wright. Over that span, Georgia Tech had three.

Williams never got the credit he deserved for having every team play the exact same way, meaning fast, also meaning without fear. You'll recall Carolina beating Kentucky — which had three one-and-dones that year — in the 2017 South Regional final. Malik Monk tied the score with a trey with 7.2 seconds left. The Heels inbounded before Kentucky could call timeout. (As we know, Williams wasn't about to call one himself.) Theo Pinson pushed the ball and fed Luke Maye, whose jumper won it. Say this for Ol' Roy, who bestowed that folksy nickname on himself: He let his players play.

The list of coaches with three or more NCAA titles: John Wooden, Krzyzewski, Rupp, Bobby Knight, Jim Calhoun — and Roy Allen Williams. Of those, the latter is the only one about whom it was ever said, "You know, he really can't coach." But he really could, and he really did.

In the eyes of Tar Heels zealots, there'll never be another Dean Smith. Funny thing, though: Dean Smith's No. 3 assistant wound up winning more national championships than he did.