Yesterday’s announcement that Roy Williams would be retiring after 18 seasons in Chapel Hill sent shockwaves through all of sports. All of us were aware that Williams wasn’t getting any younger, and he’d battled his fair share of health issues in the last several years. Still, we all hoped that Roy would be able to ride off into the sunset in some fairy tale way befitting the man who had done so much for the University of North Carolina.
Unfortunately, the end of the fairy tale was unsatisfactory. The Tar Heels exited the NCAA Tournament after the first game for the first time under Williams, and Williams decided shortly thereafter that it was time for someone else to give it a try. Listening to a Hall of Famer blame himself for so many shortcomings over the last couple years was really difficult. We have all had our fair share of frustration with how the last two years have gone, but hearing how deeply Coach Williams blamed himself for that hurt my heart.
For fans of a certain age, like myself, Roy Williams has been our Dean Smith. I remember Smith with very hazy childhood memories, the way I vaguely remember riding a bike for the first time. The memory is there, but there aren’t specific bits and pieces I can recall with great detail. I was eight years old when Coach Smith retired, which was old enough to know him but not old enough to feel the way my dad did about it.
With Roy, though, I can remember everything. I remember the exact moment I heard he was coming back to Chapel Hill and just how hopeful I was after the painful year that preceded it. I remember staying up too late in 2005 to watch my favorite team in the world win it all for the first time that I could actually appreciate. I remember my eyes filling with tears and being surprised that that reaction was a thing that could actually happen from being so happy about sports. I remember another embarrassing display of tears when Kris Jenkins broke my heart in 2016. Yesterday, the tears came again.
I was lucky enough to take over as managing editor of Tar Heel Blog in the summer of 2016. It was a dream come true for me to get to cover UNC and I took a maybe somewhat embarrassing picture of me standing on the Tar Heel carpet in the tunnel the first time I got to walk back to the locker room. Many people write about teams they are assigned to cover, but I was getting to write about a team I’d loved my whole life.
Part of that meant getting to sit in a room with Roy Williams after big wins and painful losses. I was happy just to be there. I was happy to get to soak up Royisms for 10 or 15 minutes. My grandfather passed away in the summer of 2016 shortly after I started writing here, and getting to hear Roy’s stories that may or may not have actually had anything to do with the game reminded me so much of him.
Roy Williams has embodied Carolina basketball for me. If you could create the perfect basketball coach in a lab, you’d probably still fall short of coming up with everything Williams has been to this program and this university. We’ve all been so incredibly lucky to be fans of the team during the Roy Williams era, just as I know my dad felt lucky to have been able to feel one small part of the Dean Smith era.
The harsh reality is that another Roy Williams is not walking through that door. We’ve been absolutely spoiled by having, in my opinion, the two best coaches in all of college basketball call Chapel Hill home. The next chapter is scary without that safety blanket in place. I trust Bubba Cunningham to bring in someone who will do Roy justice as his successor, but they won’t be Roy.
I do hope whoever gets the job will be given some grace. They will be stepping into shoes so big they span the length of I-40. There are uncertain times ahead in Chapel Hill, and change is always incredibly difficult. Whoever it is and whatever happens from here, I’m just glad I’ll be able to tell my kids that I got to watch Roy Williams coach at UNC for more than half of my life at this point, and that writing for SB Nation meant I had one of the best seats in the house for it.