When the cameras panned around the Madison Square Garden crowd on Saturday, it found a familiar face: Roy Williams. He was going with a more metropolitan look of a sport coat and turtleneck, if anything blending into the background a little bit more than he normally would have.
Yet he was still there.
The appearance of the former coach sparked a tweet that had several spirited responses and it’s worth reviewing:
It’s really crazy how Roy Williams is seemingly at almost every North Carolina game since he retired and we haven’t seen Coach K yet at a Duke game.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) December 17, 2022
Just two completely different ways of handling retirement.
Goodman isn’t exactly known as a fan of UNC so to some extent the snark in the replies and quotes are understandable, but the point here is actually a worthy one to discuss. Catching the former coach at virtually every game so far this season has been a required moment for all camera crews covering UNC. It’s a stark contrast from his contemporaries Coach K and Dean smith — once both left the spotlight, they were rarely seen in public.
The thing is, those two have another thing in common that make Roy different: they were not alumni of the schools they coached. Roy, famously, was.
We all know this feeling, and it’s one that Dean and K, for all of their positive traits, didn’t have for their respective schools. This is not to say those two didn’t love their respective universities — I have no doubt they did, especially Dean — but there’s the love of adopting a school, and the love of being an alumnus of the school.
You want to know what that love of going to that school and being an alumnus is? Listen to Armando Bacot after he put in a Herculean effort on Saturday
"We just had to fight. ... At some point we have to draw the line and I feel like today we drew that line. ... I love this school. I love these fans. I love everything about it. I would die for this school."— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) December 17, 2022
—@UNC_Basketball's Armando Bacot after his team's comeback win pic.twitter.com/OfrCPj3I2R
How many of you just nodded along, heart filling with each word, and thinking back to those days in Chapel Hill? It’s the same feeling that caused MSG to be overwhelmingly Tar Heel fans on Saturday, and it’s the same feeling that turns numerous road arenas into neutral courts for Carolina. That’s what runs through Roy Williams, and you get it by being an alumnus and caring about how the school as a whole does.
We honestly shouldn’t be surprised that Roy has been as visible as he’s been. He was such a fixture at UNC Baseball games while coaching that you wondered if he was actually on the staff. He’s the reason that athletes were able to have their scholarships funded when the NCAA decided to award every sport an extra year due to the 2020 cancelations. He’s been spotted at multiple other sporting events since retirement-cameras caught him in Cary for the Women’s College Cup as well as the UNC Women’s win over Oregon at the same Phil Knight event the men’s team was at. He famously went to the controversial Louisville game, having his chicken finger eating being interrupted as fans wanted to get autographs.
You need more proof he’s supported all sports?
@jadamlucas Coach Williams has always supported the other sports at Carolina, even before he retired! If we judge leaders by their actions, not just words, Coach is the absolute BEST in CLASS!— Jenny Levy (@heelslaxcoach) December 18, 2022
So you have part one of this, he’s clearly a fan who wants the team to do well. There’s another aspect to this, too, that the Goodman tweet doesn’t acknowledge: the core of this team is built of kids he recruited to Carolina. Caleb Love, R.J. Davis, Armando Bacot, Leaky Black, Puff Johnson, Dontez Styles, and D’Marco Dunn were all recruited by Williams, and all but Johnson, Styles, and Dunn played for Williams for several seasons before his retirement. It’s clear he still cares not only about the team, but these individual players who committed to him no knowing how much longer he’d coach. You need proof how he feels about these guys? What what happens when the team runs out on the court in the Smith Center:
Roy and Caleb have been doing that at every home game that I can remember, I first caught this going to the Virginia Tech game last season, and each home game I’ve gone to since then it happens like clockwork. I had wondered why they positioned Roy where they had in the stands, but it now makes complete sense: it’s so he can be right there when they come on the court.
Watching Roy during the game, he doesn’t act like a coach who is trying to scream out instructions to the team. He seems aware of the spotlight that would be created if he seemed overly critical of plays or players, but he’s one of the first to stand up for a good play. In short, he’s getting to be a fan, with all of the stress and fun that goes along with it. It’s just so fun to watch, and it’s well-deserved.
The idea of Roy-as-fan, though, is still a little hard to fully understand in this sense: he does the same thing to get in and out of arenas that we do. I went to the season opener with my wife, and after the game we were exiting the Smith Center and walking the path between the arena and Koury Natatorium. My wife — a Tar Heel by marriage and who fully admits she can’t get to the same level of passion as me — was enamored with the natatorium as the school she attended didn’t have one. As she stared at the pool, I was staring at her to talk, when all of a sudden Roy Williams just walks right on by her. I stammered, realized who had just passed, but before I could say anything he was gone. Just another fan among the masses heading to their cars after a Tar Heel win. Somehow one of the most famous men to ever grace the court in Chapel Hill blended into the crowd of happy fans.
I hope he’s having fun.