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Roy’s Retirement: The Right Decision

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This moment had to come some day.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The past few days have been a whirlwind of emotions. We have all experienced, or are experiencing, the fives stages of grief. Most reactions, conversations, and tributes consist of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They’ve been accompanied by shock, surprise, disappointment, and sadness.

Roy Williams wasn’t just the head men’s basketball coach at UNC. He is North Carolina. Whereas Dean built the program as a transplant from Kansas, Roy is the state and university’s own flesh and blood. His western North Carolina upbringing created an inseparable bond with North Carolina citizens, UNC fans, and UNC graduates. His merging of basketball, school, and state is a once-in-a-generation connection that may, truthfully, never be replicated

Aside from basketball success, that familiarity and ownership as one of our “own” is partly why Roy’s decision to partially sever those ties is so gut wrenching. Adding to the pain is that, deep down, even the most ardent Roy Williams supporter must admit that this decision is correct — even if it feels so wrong.

Thursday’s press conference was one of the most self-aware, raw, honest, and transparent goodbye ceremonies I’ve ever witnessed. Roy’s reason for retiring was equal parts sad and devastating when he stated, “I no longer feel that I am the right man for the job.”

That was followed with specific examples from 2020 that ranged from tactical miscues to intangible shortcomings. While most UNC fans will rightfully point out injuries played a major role in last season’s struggles, Roy simply said, “The injuries really did hurt, but I felt that I made mistakes,’’ before mentioning failures against Clemson, Duke, Notre Dame, and Syracuse. In his own words:

“We were up three against Clemson, and I didn’t remind the guys to foul and they make a three and sent it overtime and we lost”

“ We had six games last year that were decided on last second shots. We lost all six of those. My first year as Coach Smith’s assistant we had five games where the other team had the last shot that would have won the game and they missed all five. That was the difference between me and Coach Smith.”

“But no one could emphasize rebounding any more than Roy Williams, and we didn’t get a box out and we lost the Notre Dame game on the second shot, didn’t get a box out twice and lost the Duke game.”

“...We beat Syracuse on the road late in the ACC and the next week lost to them in the ACC Tournament and they just had more fire and more passion, and I didn’t get my kids to that level”

Those same frustrations carried over to this season. Despite cobbling together 18 wins in a discombobulated COVID-ravaged season, and being the youngest team in the the NCAA Tournament (in a season that saw other youthful teams fail to live up to even the minimal expectations), Roy still felt he could have or should have done more. Again, in his own words:

“I just never got the team, this year, where I wanted them to go. I just didn’t get it done. I didn’t get them to buy in and focus on the things that I think are really big in the game of basketball. We got better all season long. I think we got better but not to the level of some of our teams have been. I didn’t push the right buttons.”

“Jerry Green told me that time he said, ‘You’re getting those kids to pull the nails out of the floor for you.’ And I always remembered that. And I felt like that that’s part of the problem that I failed in the last two years.”

We can certainly debate the validity of some of these statements. In a vacuum, those examples feel like typical self-deprecating Royisms. On-court and in-game decisions simply have tradeoffs, and for 31 seasons most of the methods worked. It made sense that less talented (2020) or more youthful teams (2021) struggled to execute. And, for all of the adversity the 2020 battled through, the one constant was the passion and effort they displayed (almost) every single night.

Nor was there anything wrong with Roy’s philosophies or “system”. His system worked as the perfect antagonist to the three-point revolution. Per KenPom, UNC finished in the top 50 in defensive efficiency in 17 of 18 seasons and in the top 30 in 13 seasons. Before tonight’s national title game, the Heels are holding steady at 26th for this season. There is not another team in the ACC, and maybe the country, that can make those claims.

And that much-maligned three-point defense? Sure, UNC routinely allowed more three-point makes and attempts than the national average**, but that was a tradeoff for rebounding dominance. In 18 seasons, UNC’s three-point defense ranked in the top 100 just six times - 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012. 2014, and 2015. None of those were national title years. Just one was a Final Four season. It was a tradeoff that was consistently validated.

**This season, the NCAA average was 7.4 3PM and 21.7 3PA for 34.0%. UNC allowed 8.0 3PM and 22.9 3PA, for 35.0%.

Additionally, Roy’s “antiquated” two-big offense was top 15 in offensive efficiency in 12 of his 18 seasons. That includes finishing 1st, 9th, 6th, and 8th as recently as 2016-2019. The game hasn’t changed so much in two seasons that the “system” is suddenly outdated. The easy culprit for the past two seasons (77th and 52nd) is injuries, youth, personnel, and inexperience. Not an outdated philosophy.

All of that said, it’s important to acknowledge the current situation.

Roy, as he so often was during his career, is correct.

He has slipped and struggled to reach the past two teams. Apply whatever caveats for early departures, injuries, COVID, and any other potential reason or excuse. Those do not disguise the fact the past two seasons could have still been better than they were. In some cases, significantly better.

While UNC was in NCAA purgatory, the game didn’t only change on the court, but evolved at an accelerated pace off the court. Immediate NBA dreams are no longer confined to the most elite recruits. Now, anyone within the top 40 views college as a mere inconvenience instead of a proving ground for professional aspirations. Players want to showcase their talents as quickly as possible in order to get paid as quickly as possible. Increasing international opportunities, a more lucrative and efficient G-League, and growing athlete empowerment altered the landscape. The program, arguably, has struggled to adapt.

A maintained emphasis on top 25 talent proved that UNC could certainly still recruit in the NCAA aftermath, but keeping even borderline first round draft picks proved impossible. North Carolina has had five one-and-done freshmen since 2017. Only one, Coby White, was a lottery pick. Day’Ron Sharpe’s final landing spot is to be determined, but he is currently not a projected lottery pick.

If this were 2008, do players like Sharpe, Tony Bradley, and Nassir Little return for a sophomore year? Yes.

In 2013? Maybe.

In 2021? Definitely not.

UNC kept recruiting elite recruits, but still coached them as multi-year additions to the program. Just two of those five players, White and Cole Anthony, were regular starters. Core philosophical tenets of development, knowing your role, and loyalty to experience became harder to consistently implement. The coaching staff, to their detriment, remained undaunted.

Additionally, much of that talent wants a system that showcases their talents for the NBA. This is especially true of big men, who must show inside-outside skills to play at the next level. A consistent emphasis on traditional post play has been an oft-cited criticism for UNC, despite its collegiate success. Tony Bradley felt he had an outside game that was not displayed in Chapel Hill, and said as much before the 2017 NBA Draft. Walker Kessler’s decision to transfer was also related to perceived skills he (or his inner circle) believed he possessed. Skills he could not, or would not, develop at UNC.

We can debate whether or not these were accurate decisions or proclamations, but they were very real perceptions that shaped players’ opinions and decisions. It doesn’t matter that Tony Bradley has attempted exactly seven three-pointers in four NBA seasons. For UNC basketball, what matters is he left the program a year earlier than anticipated.

Those departures made continuity and consistency an elusive adversary. For a system that still works tactically, but requires specific personnel and experience, that high turnover resulted in ill-fitting parts and rotating levels of talent. To be clear, these were conscious decisions by the coaching staff. Their inability to sell their vision, an unwillingness to tweak their recruiting/schematic strategy, and/or a failure to fully comprehend the changing landscape created roster instability. That instability was not concluding soon.

Six newcomers, including mid-major transfers, joined the program for 2019-2020. Six more joined for 2020-21. Assuming either Armando Bacot or Garrison Brooks return, there are at least four open scholarships for next season, in addition to incoming commitments Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn.

This is not a recipe for success, and is the antithesis of UNC’s emphasis on building relationships and developing players. As such, sticking to tried-and-true methods backfired over the past two seasons, both on and off the court. We highlighted some of those on-court issues last season.

Many of those problems continued this season in different forms and fashion. Whether it was the comical defensive game plan against Iowa, a perceived misguided loyalty to underperforming upperclassmen, or short leashes and overly negative coaching reactions to youthful mistakes, this year’s squad never won more than three games in a row. It was a familiar theme for the second consecutive year, albeit for different reasons.

A coach’s job is to put his team in the best possible position to win. Without the traditional UNC foundations, talents, and/or mindsets, adjustments were slow or non-existent — on the court, in the locker room, and on the recruiting trail. Quite simply, the coaching staff struggled, if not failed, to put this specific collection of talent in the best position to consistently win.

All of these issues finally came to a head in the final weeks of the season and led to significant crisis management actions by the coaching staff to stave off a mass exodus. I don’t say that as someone who gets all his information from social media, message boards, and podcasts, but as someone who received corroborating information from multiple people with knowledge of the program. Details and circumstances not found behind paywalls or deciphered from cryptic tweets. As with most events, the truth is somewhere between the hypothesized doomsday scenarios and Carolina blue tinted narratives.

I’m confident, though, that unhappiness with overly critical coaching, in a year where players were treated more like professionals than college students, was a common emotion. Extreme distrust in the staff’s mantra of earning playing time in practice was high. Frustration at a lack of schematic adjustments was palpable. Shades of the Doherty era players revolt crept in my mind as the season reached its conclusion, though the situation wasn’t quite as dire.

Importantly, these difficulties didn’t just pop up this year. They have been brewing for a few years. That is not surprising considering any and all factors presented. The fact the staff could not or did not fully grasp these issues until later this season is just another indication of problems within the program’s leadership.

To reiterate, whether or not the coaching staff’s decisions over the past few years were ultimately correct is irrelevant. The perceptions and feelings of the players were real. That makes this entire ordeal more painful than necessary. It confirmed what many have watched for the past few years – a program that’s working harder than ever to maintain a place among the elite, but with inconsistent success unworthy of its stature.

This is not the case of a 50-year-old man stubbornly clinging to ineffective ways. Nor is this a once-great titan of industry giving a middling P5 or mid-major heightened relevance like Bob Knight or Tubby Smith. This is a 70-year-old man who realizes he can still coach — just not at the level required for UNC in today’s basketball climate.

At least, not without tweaking certain methods he clings to so tightly and fiercely, that necessary adjustments would feel like a betrayal to his core existence. For Roy, authenticity is non-negotiable. It’s a trait that hurts in the moment, but made Roy and UNC’s program the best combination in college basketball over 16 of the last 18 years. Following that same instinct and retiring now allows UNC the opportunity to avoid any additional decline in performance or status.

While a Roy Williams at 85% effectiveness is still better than 99% of his peers, he understands the ramifications of sticking around even one season too long. At this point, each year of mediocrity threatens an additional two years of rebuilding. That is not acceptable at a program that doesn’t just compete for championships, but expects them. Having already saved the program once when he returned in 2003, Roy’s pride and love for both the program and his school, won’t allow him to risk that kind of damage again.

It’s the classic Roy Williams that fans have come to know, admire, and revere.

Transparent. Selfless. Emotional. Authentic.

And, as usual, it is the correct decision. Even if we don’t appreciate it right now.

Thanks for the memories, Roy. Enjoy mornings at the golf course and nights at the Bosh.

Go Heels.