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The Ultimate UNC Debate: Dean Smith vs Roy Williams, Part 1

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In a two part series, THB writers Jake Lawrence and Jay Exum address UNC basketball’s most delicate topic.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at North Carolina Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Call it a Thanksgiving leftover, or an embarrassment of holiday riches. THB writers Jake Lawrence and Jay Exum began a conversation in the wake of the 2017 championship that has bled into the 2018 season that will undoubtedly end in indigestion for every Carolina hater out there: Is it time to entertain the idea that Roy Williams has met or exceeded Dean Smith’s standard as a head coach?

We know. We know. Some will think this is blasphemy. Others will want to wait until Roy has completely retired. However, Jake and Jay decided that this needed to be brought to the forefront sooner rather than later.

Without further ado, below are real emails that were exchanged over the past 8 months. They have only been edited for clarity and typos that likely occurred in their frenzied, passionate arguments:

JAY

Now that Roy Williams has won his third national championship, here's hoping that we're done with articles like this (Williams ranked behind the likes of Sean Miller, Tony Bennett and Gregg Marshall as a coach), this (16th best active coach in college basketball, behind such luminaries as Fred Hoiberg, Bo Ryan, John Beilein and Kevin Ollie), and this (naming him the most overrated college basketball coach in the country).

Although I doubt any of the writers of those penetrating bits of basketball analysis are likely to be as embarrassed as they ought to be, the win in Phoenix has forever changed the narrative around Roy Williams.

Which brings us to Dean Smith. Williams now boasts 3 titles to his mentor's 2, and while the very idea of comparing the two would surely strike both men as horrifying, the conversation is inevitable, and there is no use pretending any longer that the very question is absurd.

JAKE

So we're really doing this? We can't wait until after Roy leaves and just enjoy what he gives us? It is remarkable to me that before last season, Roy never fully got the respect he deserved. As you mentioned above, not by fellow coaches, media, or fans.

Now we want to discuss if he has vaulted his mentor in the list of all-time great coaches? It's a legitimate question. Has Roy joined Dean on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball coaches?

If we're going to tackle this, it's important to figure out what metrics we're using. Tournament success? Regular season success? Longevity? Longevity at one institution? Success of players in the NBA? Innovation? Off-the-court contributions? Accounting for different eras? Success compared to rival institutions? I think we need some clarity with this.

That being said, even with a third national title, I still lean toward Dean Smith holding a slight lead over Roy Williams. I'll concede it's not a landslide. Roy has the edge in some areas. Yet, I still can't quite bring myself to placing the student over the teacher. Not yet.

Provide some clarity to how we measure this, and get this party started.

JAY

Why confine it? I say if we're going to commit what would have been just months ago (and what still is to many) Tar Heel heresy, go free for all. Pick your poison. Take your angle. But let's start with the easy stuff, which is what you can just Google up. Here are Dean Smith and Roy Williams by the numbers at the end of the 2017 season:

Dean vs Roy

STAT Dean Roy
STAT Dean Roy
Year started at UNC 1961-62 2003-04
UNC record for 3 years before starting 57-15 53-43
Prior Winning % 79.17% 55.21%
Age at time of becoming head coach 30 37
Years coaching 36 29
Years coaching UNC 36 14
Overall Wins 879 816
Overall Losses 254 216
% 77.58% 79.07%
UNC Wins 879 398
UNC Losses 254 115
% 77.58% 77.58%
ACC Regular Season Titles 17 8
ACC Tournament Titles 12 3
Non-ACC Season Titles 0 9
Non-ACC Tournament Titles 0 4
Wins vs. Duke 59 13
Losses vs. Duke 35 21
Duke % 62.77% 38.24%
NCAA Tournaments 27 27
Sweet 16 appearances 18 18
Elite 8 appearances 13 13
Final 4 appearances 9 9
NCAA Championship apperances 5 6
NCAA Championships 2 3

Now, I'll tell you what strikes me off the bat: the similarity in these numbers is almost eerie, assuming I've calculated them correctly.

Let's start with the fact that their winning percentage as the UNC head coach is -- to the hundredth of a percentage point -- identical.

They've won an equal number of conference regular season titles.

They've won an equal number of conference tournaments. It's getting weird.

JAKE

I agree. Those numbers are eerily similar. And one may even point out that Roy has accumulated those numbers while being a head coach for seven fewer years than Dean. Comparing eras is tricky. Some would say it's unfair. In this case, we have to try and point out where Smith's legacy is slightly hampered by the first 13years of his career, none of which is Dean's fault.

Remember, he took over as head coach after Frank McGuire was found to have violated various NCAA rules. His first five years on the job saw the ACC earn four Final Fours - Wake Forest in 1962, and Duke in 1964-66. Not just by teams in the conference, but from inside the state. In an era with fewer teams and more regionally aligned recruiting, that was a significant hurdle. (Also, LOL at N.C. State for being left out). Meanwhile, Dean had to clean up the program while dealing with sanctions, AND was expected to compete on a national level.

Also, before 1975, the NCAA only allowed one team per conference into the tournament. The winner of the Conference tournament received the bid, regardless of their regular season performance. For example, in 1963 Smith led the Heels to a 15-6 record (10-4 in conference) and a 3rd place conference finish, but found his team sitting at home. Only 25 teams made the tournament that year. Nothing remotely like that would happen in today's environment.

It was not until Dean’s 14th season, 1974-75, that at-large teams were invited to the tournament. That season, the tournament expanded to a whopping 32 teams. Look at Smith’s first 13 years by overall record, ACC record, conference finish, and post-season finish.

Early Dean Years

Season Team Overall Conference Standing Postseason
Season Team Overall Conference Standing Postseason
1961–62 North Carolina 8–9 7–7 T–4th
1962–63 North Carolina 15–6 10–4 3rd
1963–64 North Carolina 12–12 6–8 5th
1964–65 North Carolina 15–9 10–4 T–2nd
1965–66 North Carolina 16–11 8–6 T–3rd
1966–67 North Carolina 26–6 12–2 1st NCAA Final Four
1967–68 North Carolina 28–4 12–2 1st NCAA Runner-up
1968–69 North Carolina 27–5 12–2 1st NCAA Final Four
1969–70 North Carolina 18–9 9–5 T–2nd NIT First Round
1970–71 North Carolina 26–6 11–3 1st NIT Champions
1971–72 North Carolina 26–5 9–3 1st NCAA Final Four
1972–73 North Carolina 25–8 8–4 2nd NIT Semifinals
1973–74 North Carolina 22–6 9–3 T–2nd NIT First Round

That's a minimum of four additional NCAA Tournaments that should be on Dean's resume. I could be persuaded to see that number increased to six. Those teams may or may not have added to the Final Four or Championship tallies, but they definitely would have added to Sweet 16 or Elite 8 appearances.

If the NCAA had that rule today, Roy Williams would have zero championships and only one championship game appearance (in 2016). Dean would still have one championship and four title game appearances. 1993 was the only season UNC made a title game under Smith when they did not win the conference tournament.

Even more impressive? After finishing fifth in the ACC during the 1965 season, Dean Smith's teams never finished below third place in conference play for the rest of his career. After making the 1975 NCAA tournament, UNC didn't miss another dance until Matt Doherty took over.

Both of those stats are insane.

In comparison, Roy has finished fifth or worse three separate times since he came back to Chapel Hill. That's more sub-third place finishes than Dean had his entire career. Roy also has one NIT appearance in 2010. While that's understandable considering North Carolina won the title the year before, if we are talking about "best", those things matter.

JAY

It is true, as you say, that era-to-era comparisons are tricky, and some of your points there illustrate why. It is tricky, and unfair, and therefore fun. The very stuff good sports arguments are made of.

Let's start with where each coach began. I don't know the details of the McGuire recruiting allegations/violations, but whatever they were, they were working. In McGuire's last 6 seasons, UNC finished first in the ACC 5 times and second the other time. Total record during that time: 71-13, with a national championship. When Dean walked in the door, in other words, he may have inherited some sanctions, but he also inherited a powerhouse (and given that history, it's easier to see why Carolina fans didn't appreciate what they had in Dean at first).

Contrast that to what Roy stepped into in 2003: a team in barely controlled revolt and genuine concern among the fan base that Carolina basketball as we knew it was over. After starting with a 26-7 record, Matt Doherty finished 27-36 over his last two seasons with a team and a fan base that were every bit as glum as that record might suggest. And of course, Williams didn't have an inkling that he would soon be faced with NCAA headaches he didn't create but with which he had to deal for more than 7 years. This was not an easy gig (incidentally, it is often forgotten that Roy also inherited NCAA sanctions at Kansas when he took over for Larry Brown, and nonetheless never won fewer than 19 games in a season at Kansas, with an average of just under 28).

The "5th place or worse" comparison doesn't work because league standings don't compare well across eras. The 5th place finisher in the ACC this season was Duke. They were a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament; that is, one of the 8 best teams in the country by rating. That can happen in a 16-team conference. But if you're 5th in an 8-team ACC, you're in the bottom half of the league. If you adjust for the size of the conference, Roy's only "bad" year was 2009-2010, when the Tar Heels finished 10th in the ACC and went to the NIT. Given that he'd won the national title the year before, and proceeded to lose Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Wayne Ellington, and Ed Davis from that team, this is entirely forgivable.

Ah, yes. NBA departures. This raises another point in Roy's favor. During most of Dean's tenure, early NBA departures were rare. In fact, for his first 20 seasons they did not occur at all (I am pretty sure his first early pro was James Worthy, though he was far from the last). By the time Williams' career began, they had become more common and would eventually become routine. So if it is true, as you've argued, that the rules for NCAA tournament qualification made it tougher on Dean and that makes his tournament appearance statistics even more impressive than they appear on paper, you'd have to say the same about the fact that Williams has accomplished a similar level of consistent excellence in an era where maintaining consistency is among the most difficult things a coach is faced with because of constant personnel changes and less time for development.

I'd also argue that while it's impressive (and I confess that I did not know) that Dean had only been to one final in which he had not also won the ACC tournament, I think it's an overreach to go all the way to "Roy wouldn't have won any if the rules had been different," for two reasons. First, the ACC tournament today simply not as important to win it as it is to get ready for the big dance.

But more importantly, Dean never won a title in any year in which he had to win the ACC tournament to get into the dance. So both men won all of their titles in years when at-large wins were available, and in 1982 the Tar Heels would absolutely have received an at-large bid, ACC title or not (in 1993 of course their bid was at-large).

JAKE

Oh man. Where to start. Good arguments all around.

It is a fair point that Dean inherited a strong program, but that doesn't erase the initial handicap (which was probation and a post-season ban). Due to at-large bids not existing in that era, it was not near as easy to recover from missing a single year--much less being banned and the stigma that carried. Today, most schools could recover enough to earn at at- large bid in a short amount of time. Winning a conference tournament is a little more difficult.

Today the NCAA is largely seen as an incompetent, farcical rendition of the Keystone Cops. Back then, in its relative infancy and with fewer Division-1 athletic programs, the NCAA was viewed in a much different light. Back when newspapers truly ruled the day, the penalties even made the front page of the sports section of the Chicago Tribune (we are unable to link to that image due to a pay wall was put in place after these emails were written). In today's environment, only the N&O would show that much attention and delight in UNC's misery over something as small as a few recruiting violations and a single post-season ban.

While a post-season ban today is a nuisance, it doesn't hold the same ramifications as it did back then. For example, UCONN won the 2014 Men's Basketball Championship merely one year after sitting out due to a low APR score. Syracuse made the Final Four in 2016, only one year removed from a self-imposed post-season ban. In football, Ohio State won the NCAA Championship two years removed from a 2012 ban. That's certainly a newer development in college athletics as attitudes and professional sports expectations have evolved.

It is also true that Roy inherited a bit of a mess from Matt Doherty, but let's not pretend he stepped into a situation that mirrored Dave Bliss and Baylor. He won the title two years after arriving with the same talented core that Doherty recruited.

No, recruiting and coaching are not always the same thing. Williams and the staff deserve credit for restoring the pride in the program and University. However, UNC also had been to three Final Fours in the seven years prior to him returning to Chapel Hill. The program was in a decline, but I'm careful not to exaggerate the size of the fire in the dumpster.

The players needed some guidance and direction, but if the program was in true total free fall there would have been a mass exodus of those same players who were revolting. Kind of like what took place down the road in Dur....I mean Raleigh.

We could also continue to debate the semantics in the conference standings and conference tournaments, but here's one last point to consider on that matter. In Roy's first 14 seasons, the ACC saw only five regular season champions and seven tournament champions. That's despite the ever-increasing expansion. In Dean's first 14 years, in an eight-team conference, the ACC crowned six regular season champions and six conference champions. Almost identical numbers, despite fewer teams. I'd argue the parity was greater in a smaller conference. At the very least, it was more unpredictable than today's ACC, thus making Dean's consistency so astounding. In the current ACC, it seems that the same old culprits consistently rise to the top.

Now where I take great umbrage......

***BUZZER SOUNDS***

TANYA/EDITOR/REFEREE:

And on that note, we have reached halftime. Since Jay won the initial jump ball to begin this banter, Jake receives possession tomorrow to continue this debate.

For Part 2, click here