RALEIGH, N.C. — He eased himself up the stairs and toward the dais, holding on to the aluminum rails with both hands. Damn knees, supposed to be fixed last year. One more thing still unsettled.
Roy Williams made it, finally, smiling as he sat and leaned into the microphone. He began by explaining the things he would not be discussing on this sunny March afternoon. No green room and no past newspaper articles, nothing about the future or psychology or career plans of a 65-year-old coach at one of the most prestigious basketball programs in America.
“It’s going to be a calm or boring — whichever way you want to look at it — news conference,” Williams said.
The North Carolina coach was in no mood for nonsense, or “junk” or “stuff,” as he often refers to the one topic he wishes would disappear forever: the slow-moving, ever-darkening cloud of uncertainty caused by an academic scandal that has been looming over the Tar Heels’ athletic department, in one form or another, for almost five years.
It could, depending on whom you ask, lead to sanctions of North Carolina’s athletic program or — eventually — just blow over. But don’t ask Williams about that, either. Not here and not now, when he has his top-seeded Tar Heels chasing their fourth Final Four appearance since 2005. He’s not going there.
These past few years have, by any measure, been difficult on “Ol’ Roy,” the folksy and silver-haired coach who can move seamlessly among emotions: defiance to pride to sorrow to glee in little more than a heartbeat. Williams wears his highs and lows with the best of them, carrying burdens that seem overblown to everyone but him. Long after top-seeded Kansas lost in the 1997 NCAA tournament’s third round, Williams still apologizes to those Jayhawks players who, as he tearfully put it in his Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame induction speech a decade later, “I failed, because I didn’t get you to a Final Four.” One of the prevailing responses after North Carolina’s 2009 championship was, of all things, relief because Williams sometimes awoke in the night with fear Tyler Hansbrough might suffer an injury or otherwise leave Chapel Hill without a title.
More recently, with more understandable drama swirling, Williams shouldered so much that he’s shown signs of breaking down. He has fired back at basketball analysts for speculating about his coaching and his future, responded recently to a question about North Carolina’s regular season schedule being easy as a matter of “horse----” and ranted about ESPN’s “green room” promotion of college players as NBA prospects-in-waiting.
“That’s half the damn broadcast: ‘Well, so-and-so’s in the green room,’ ” Williams said in his western North Carolina drawl, going on to call it the “most ridiculous thing” in college basketball.
Williams is, in a word, tense. It’s part of his schtick. But lately it seems to have intensified. Buddy Baldwin, who has known Williams since the 1960s, speaks with Williams a few times per week but knows better than to bring up basketball. “He’s trying to make it through the season,” Baldwin said.
To make matters worse, rival programs have used the unsettled NCAA scandal as effective recruiting fodder. So, too, do they utilize ongoing discussions about whether Williams would retire after this season or, after a home loss to Duke, whether he should.
In the past 16 months, four of Williams’s close friends have died, including mentor and coaching legend Dean Smith. Those who know Williams best can’t help but notice his own failing health: a bad shoulder, a bout with vertigo that knocked him out of a game last month and those two bone-on-bone knees that won’t let up, making Ol’ Roy seem more like Old Roy.
“He’s seemed to age,” longtime friend and North Carolina staffer Joe Holladay said, “right before my eyes.”
Which makes this weekend so important. This year’s team, Williams has said, is one of his favorites in more than four decades of coaching — not because of what it has accomplished but rather what it has endured. Like in 1997 at Kansas and 2009 with Hansbrough’s Tar Heels, Williams feels not an ambition to succeed in the tournament but a responsibility.
There is but one cure to relieve the burden that seems to be crushing Roy Williams: bring this team to the Final Four. It is, as those who have traveled this road with him know, the only way.
“I just want him to be able to enjoy something,” said newly appointed Stanford Coach Jerod Haase, the shooting guard on that 1997 Kansas team and a former Williams assistant. “I want him to be able to sleep through the night every once in a while.”
The scandal had simmered for three years, but in June 2014, there was Rashad McCants on a television screen, bringing the water to a boil.
McCants was, along with Sean May and Raymond Felton, part of the superstar trio of juniors that led North Carolina to the 2005 national championship. It was Williams’s first title after leaving Kansas for his alma mater, a kind of validation for a man who worries about such things.
Now McCants sat, discussing “paper classes,” phony courses at North Carolina geared toward helping struggling students, in many cases athletes, improve their grades and maintain sports eligibility. Multiple news reports described how students allegedly received help from North Carolina faculty and administrators on term papers and how some classes — centered in the university’s African and Afro-American Studies department — never even met. “It was something,” McCants said during the television interview, “that was part of the program.”
Williams, who through an athletic department spokesman declined an interview request for this story, has denied his former player's assertions. He and the basketball program have denied knowing about the program or advisers who allegedly directed athletes toward the classes; Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham has pointed out that the NCAA has stopped short of accusing the university of academic fraud.
“We’ve been investigated by 73 people and all the 12 disciples of the Lord, it feels like,” Williams told Yahoo Sports last summer, “and every one of them has said: ‘Roy Williams didn’t know anything about this; he didn’t do anything.’ ”
The NCAA sent a 55-page “notice of allegations” to the university in May, and although the men’s basketball program was not directly mentioned among the original allegations, there’s a feeling that an NCAA-issued punishment hovers over both the university and the program. The timing and severity of that punishment have been mysteries now for years. The program is waiting either for a revised notice or a communication saying the old notice stands.
Those in and around the Tar Heels program believe the specter of sanctions has provided an opening for rival recruiters. According to one individual with direct knowledge of the program, North Carolina has been “pummeled” by negative recruiting, almost all centered on the future fallout from the academic scandal. Duke freshman Brandon Ingram acknowledged as much last year. After the NCAA reopened its investigation, Ingram and his father told the Charlotte Observer, the Blue Devils seemed like a more stable option than the Tar Heels.
Those close to the North Carolina program can almost hear it: If you’re planning on playing one year of college basketball before moving on to the NBA, why would you spend that year at a school waiting for sanctions — potentially severe sanctions — to be handed down any day?
“We’ve lost a lot of good players — and we’re playing against them now — who’ve bought into that,” said Holladay, who spent 20 years on Williams’s staffs.
Marcus Paige, the team’s senior point guard, said current players have dealt with the saga despite the fact the alleged infractions predated them. They have been asked questions anyway, Paige said, and ongoing scrutiny lingers around the program.
Which, in an odd way, makes those close to the school long for the relief of finality, no matter the NCAA’s conclusions and subsequent punishment. Even if it’s worse than they fear, at least it would be over.
They are already enduring the uncertainty, which may be the most severe penalty of all.
Williams developed a bad back in college, and so he took to running. For 30 years he ran almost every day, forming a running group at Kansas; as long as he could put in his miles, he could manage his emotions.
He cried in public sometimes, sure, and occasionally overreacted. When Scot Pollard, a former Jayhawks player, sent him a piece of the Allen Fieldhouse floor to autograph, Williams signed it but accompanied it with a note suggesting his name had desecrated something special. Maybe that was Ol’ Roy having fun, but Pollard could never be sure.
By the time Williams took the job at North Carolina, his knees were weak and so was his will. The story goes that Williams felt he had disappointed Smith, whom Williams adored since learning under him in Chapel Hill in the 1960s, by turning down the Tar Heels job in 2000. In his mind, he couldn’t let his mentor down again. So he used the transition as a reason to revamp his mid-day activity, giving up running for a noontime walk. And he needed it: Feelings of guilt and excitement and anxiety sometimes gathering before he’d head outside, it would be just Williams and Holladay for an hour — long enough to clear the mind.
Then the knees got worse, the cartilage broken down, and when Williams stomped the hardwood over one of his player’s mistakes, it lashed him like a shockwave. He quit walking after a while, but at least he still had golf. As long as he could play golf, he’d be okay.
A couple years ago, he injured his right shoulder on the course, but he kept at it. Then, in late 2014, his neighbor and golf buddy Ted Seagroves died of cancer. A month later, Stuart Scott, the popular ESPN announcer whom Williams had befriended, was likewise claimed by cancer. The next month, Smith passed away. Bill Guthridge, also Williams’s predecessor, followed in May.
Williams tried playing golf, needing the serenity more than ever, but his knees were howling at him. One day in practice he leaned toward Paige, the point guard, and quietly asked whether it would bother the team if, just during layup drills, Williams leaned against the scorer’s table. “Stuff like that really worries him,” Holladay said.
Williams had surgery last summer, but something didn’t take. He could agonize through a round of golf, but his game was, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, “terrible all dadgum summer.”
By the time this season began, Williams was wound tight. His knees still ached, the NCAA investigation — reopened in 2014 — lingered, Tar Heels fans’ expectations were through the roof after a preseason No. 1 ranking and there was nowhere to direct his nervous energy.
He needed a chair during practices, and this embarrassed him. He faced questions about his program and his coaching, and this angered him. He wanted to do right by his players, and this both motivated and worried him.
If a player forgot an assignment or mishandled a pass, Paige said, Williams exploded, more animated and urgent than years past. “Just an old man yelling, stomping his feet,” Paige said with a chuckle. Williams ranted in January about TV’s power over the college game and again about ESPN’s green room. A few days later he argued with a game official before collapsing; he would say later he’d suffered from vertigo for years, but this was the first time it had flared up during a game. After Ingram and Duke upset the Tar Heels on their home floor in February with Williams electing not to use one of three timeouts on North Carolina’s final possession, some fans and media wondered aloud whether Williams had lost his bite (Williams himself apologized to his team for the blunder).
The coach subsequently sparred with CBS Sports analyst Doug Gottlieb, who suggested Williams would retire following this season, and seemed to have his antennae turned toward anyone doubting him. He bawled during senior night and shook his hips after winning the ACC tournament. The emotions had gathered inside him, and they were finding their way out.
He pondered a double knee replacement after the season, vowing to longtime friend Baldwin that he’d nonetheless be on this year’s golf trip. But without running, or walking or golf, Williams’s basketball team had become the only narrow lane to funnel all those emotions through, and sometimes that lane got backed up and spilled over.
After North Carolina’s final home game, Williams grabbed a microphone. He had addressed the crowd on senior night only one other time, but this time he had a few things to say.
“The last three or four years around here,” he told the crowd, “have been really difficult with all the stuff, all the junk.”
His voice cracked.
“Every day, I’ve had an outlet that’s been great. Because I come out here, and I’ve got to coach these guys.”
He paused, lip quivering. Then, after a moment, the lane cleared.
“The most fun that I’ve ever had,” he said, “because you guys have suffered and been right there with me.”
As the postseason approached, Williams was nervous. This senior class had been perhaps his favorite ever, but in four years he had been unable to reward them.
No ACC tournament title, no Final Four, no national championship. Every spring this group of survivors kept watching other teams’ players cut down the nets. That gnawed at Roy.
“This was going to be the only group,” he said this month, pausing to collect himself because here it comes again, “that hadn’t done that.”
The Tar Heels had clinched the regular season conference title in early March, beating Duke in Durham for the first time in four years. But now Williams wanted a tournament run.
They plowed through the ACC bracket, beating Virginia for the championship, and Williams danced and pulled a hat on sideways. It was a joyous time, but that night at Verizon Center was as much about relief as anything.
“That took some of the edge off,” Baldwin said.
Now Williams wants more. He wants a Final Four for his players, but the truth is, he wants it for himself, too. If he could get to Houston with this group, under these circumstances, those close to him believe that would be his finest accomplishment. “Roy still has it,” they’d say.
After that, who knows. The NCAA cloud will remain, and so will talk that Williams — win or lose — might step aside after this season, heading to the beach or the mountains. Williams, who last year signed a contract extension through 2020, has said he wants to leave the program in “good shape,” ostensibly with the investigation resolved.
Nevertheless, Holladay can’t imagine his friend walking away. A few years ago, Smith approached Williams. Roy looked at Dean, forever like a player listening to his coach, and Smith told him retiring years earlier, at 66, had been a mistake. The ups and downs, all the worry and joy and regret — he missed it. Smith thought about it all the time.
Holladay said things like that stick with Roy, especially when it came from Dean.
It would make sense for Smith’s view on retirement to resonate. The worry, the joy, the regret — Williams understands, perhaps better than anyone, the power that emotions can have over a person. They have been, and will be, fuel as much as fire. And that delicate balance is the only constant ahead on Williams’s uncertain horizon.