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Coronavirus, what went wrong last year, 'The Last Dance': One-on-one with Roy Williams

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 5/10/2020 By Jonathan M. Alexander, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
Roy Williams standing in front of a crowd: North Carolina head coach Roy Williams watches his team play against Wake Forest at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., on March 3, 2020. © Grant Halverson/Getty Images North America/TNS North Carolina head coach Roy Williams watches his team play against Wake Forest at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., on March 3, 2020.

Around this time last year, Roy Williams was visiting prospects in the Class of 2020, and playing golf on his days off. But these days he’s communicating with his players through Zoom, recruiting by phone and watching “The Last Dance.”

“In fact, I haven’t been anywhere since Monday after the ACC tournament was canceled,” Williams said in a one-on-one interview with The News & Observer.

The coronavirus has changed many lives, including Williams’, who is traveling back and forth between his homes in Chapel Hill and Flat Rock in Western North Carolina.

Sports came to a screeching halt in March. The NCAA Tournament was canceled, as were spring sports. And the NBA and NHL seasons were put on hold.

While there is much uncertainty around how sports can resume, Williams is finding other ways to do his job and keep his family safe.

The News & Observer talked with the UNC basketball coach by phone Friday. The interview has been shortened for length.


— I saw that beard that you’ve been rocking. I’m not going to lie, it’s kind of fly. What’s the reception been like for the beard? Are you going to wear that next season?

— Williams: (laughs). No, no, no, no. I probably would have already cut it off, except my grandsons, the 10-year-old and 8-year-old, they liked it, wanted me to keep it a little bit longer. And so we’ve been distancing ourselves, so we haven’t been with them. That’s the reason I still have it. But if it hadn’t been for their vote, I probably would have already cut it off, but I’m going long enough for them to get a chance to see it.

— You are in that age group where health officials say you are vulnerable to severe symptoms of COVID-19 if you were to get it. Do you think about that in how you may approach the way you recruit or coach next year?

— Williams: I don’t think so. I mean, who knows what’s it going to be like next year? We don’t know what the summer is going to be like, the fall is going to be like, or anything else. But I think that the only thing that disturbs me, is they say it puts you in the category of the elderly and they said the elderly would be anybody over 65, and I was insulted by that. (laughs). So that I didn’t like.

But no, I’m 69, and I’m doing my things right now like I would do if I were 29. The thing that bothers me the most is the younger people think they are invincible and we’re seeing that some of those people are deathly ill, and some even passing. And then the other thing, is they are also carriers. I think I’m also doing the same thing now as I would if I were 29. And it’s a very scary thing, it’s a very serious thing and I’m listening to the medical people and the scientists. I’m not listening to the politicians where everything they do is for political gain.

— When you look back on last season, what were the areas you identified that you think went wrong?

— Williams: There were three things, and there’s no question all three of them were involved, and there were probably 15 or 20 more.

No. 1 the injuries. The most (games missed by) scholarship players at North Carolina was either 63 or 64 and I think we eventually got it up to 99 or 100 or something like that. Majority of those injuries were guys in our top seven (rotation). That was definitely a problem.

Even other guys who may not have missed games all the time. I would make a call to our trainer between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. every day to find out who was available to practice because even some of the guys who were healthy were having to hold out of practice quite a bit. We never got the continuity we wanted. We never got the cohesiveness we wanted with our team. We never got our team in the conditioning level that we’ve always had them. That was one problem. And people are likely to say those are excuses, and they are right, but they are reasons as well.

Second thing is I don’t think our players took what we gave them enough to play to their potential. And we just didn’t make shots, didn’t make free throws in crucial situations, didn’t do some things that would have helped us.

And in the third area, I don’t think I coached them well enough to get them to play to their potential. And I always felt like most of our team, go back and look at the records. Our team gets so much better almost every single year. We’ve had a 1-game winning streak in ACC games. We’ve had a 10-game winning streak. Even back to ‘09, we lost the first two conference games, and we didn’t lose many more after that. So those teams I was able to get to play to their potential and I couldn’t get this group there.

And of course, you can always say the ball has got to go in the basket. And we just didn’t make enough shots in crucial situations in that part.

— How does this recruiting class address some of those issues that came up last year?

— Williams: Well I think it does give us more depth. We want them to be healthier. B Rob (Brandon Robinson) and Cole (Anthony) are gone and they play a tremendous number of minutes. And Justin (Pierce) and Christian (Keeling) played quite a few minutes.

So we’re losing those four guys. We’re probably, just looking at all the bodies, including the guys that were hurt, they were four of the top seven during the regular season. Those are significant losses, and so this freshman group has got to make up for it.

I think the youthfulness is a good quality. I think I’m always hopeful that they’ll show that youthful exuberance and enthusiasm I think we need to have. But they do give us six more guys that I would feel comfortable with right now, feeling that they are going to be an important part of our team.

— And you just signed Kerwin Walton. What are you getting in him? What type of player?

— Williams: I think we’re getting a very good basketball player from a great high school program. A majestic kind of high school program. They’ve won so many state championships. A young man who knows how to win, knows how to make sacrifices for what’s best for the team. In addition to that, he’s a big time shooter. That’s something we still wanted to address at the end of the process.

— I saw in a recent interview that you wanted to coach as long as you can. I’ve heard you say that as well, what keeps you going year after year?

— Williams: I just enjoy it. I really do. Now, six weeks or something, I’m on the phone every day with prospects or coaches. I did a coaches clinic yesterday Zoom-wise. It’s something that I truly enjoy. And as I said, I’m very disturbed because I can’t be on the road recruiting. So I’m doing much more on the phone. I’ve never done anything on Zoom my entire life until the Sunday night after they stopped the season. And since then, I feel like it’s part of my body.

— Are you someone who thinks about the future and what your succession plan may be like? Even if it was 10 years from now?

— Williams: No. Even when I was an assistant coach, a guy asked me one time what my five-year plan and 10-year plan was. I said I don’t have one. And he said really, you’ve got to have some kind of plan. I said no, my plan is to work as hard as I can every single day, and the future will take care of itself. That’s the way I’ve always been.

— I wonder, whenever that times does come, would you like to see someone in your coaching tree replace you one day?

— Williams: Again, that’s speculative. That’s in the future. I’m not going to say that it would have to be that. Sure, I would like for something like that.

But again, I’m not going to be the one that is going to make that decision. I hope that we’ll have the program in good enough shape that they’ll listen to my opinion. But somebody else is going to make that decision.


— How much have you watched “The Last Dance”?

— Williams: I’ve watched the last three weeks of it.

— At what point when Michael Jordan got to UNC, did you know he was going to be someone. Was there a specific play or story you like to tell?

— Williams: Again, the first time I saw him was in the summer before his senior year (high school). I told Eddie Fogler, one of our other assistants at that time, that I think I just saw the best 6-foot-4 high school player I’ve ever seen. And yet in saying that, no one, no one, Coach (Dean) Smith, Coach (Bill) Guthridge, Eddie Fogler or Roy Williams, thought that he was going to end up doing what he did do. We all thought he was going to be great and his freshman year he had a big time year. Made the shot to win the national championship. Sophomore year was unbelievable, junior year was even more unbelievable.

So we were lucky we were able to coach him for three years. But at the same time, when he left after his junior year, we were all convinced it was a good time for him to leave, also.

We thought he possibly had a chance to be an NBA All-Star. But no one saw what he became. Even though he was the most competitive player on the team, most athletic player on the team, the most intelligent player on the team. I could go down the list. He had everything. But you don’t expect someone to leave your program and end up being the greatest player in the history of the game.

— Both of you are golfers. Are you the better golfer?

— Williams: There was a day, but it’s not today. I was better at one time, and he’s better right now. (Laughs)

— A lot of people like to debate the best players at UNC in your tenure? Who would be your top five starters at each position?

— Williams: I’ve never done that because it’s like deciding who is your favorite child. It’s easy to say who is the best player we’ve had. And that’s Tyler Hansbrough. Because he’s a four time first-team All-American. Four time first-team All-ACC, national player of the year. Went to the Final Four twice. We were in overtime going another year he was there. What he did, he was the leading scorer and leading rebounder in North Carolina history. That doesn’t mean he was going to be the best NBA player, but he was clearly the best player in the 17 years. He accomplished so much more.

But past that I’ve never given a starting five because again the competition is so tight. I’d like to think about it a lot longer if I were going to do that.

But it’s also like, which child do you like the best.

— Especially that point guard race. That would be a difficult one.

— Williams: Well, we’ve had three point guards that have been voted the best point guard in college basketball that season (Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson and Kendall Marshall). So that’s a very strong position.


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