AT HIS COMMAND
In what is only Roy Williams’ third full season at UNC, it’s tough to believe people once wondered whether he’d ever put Kansas behind him and really feel at home. Now the Tar Heel leader has put his stamp on every aspect of his program, building a foundation for a future that couldn’t look brighter.
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Mark Simpson-Vos
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins
he 2005-2006 men's basketball season was only a few minutes old, and already you could sense the difference. To be sure, everyone in the pulsating crowd assembled for Carolina's season-opening "Late Night" event a few months ago was aware of the national championship banner furled in the rafters and waiting to be unveiled for the first time. The anticipation of seeing the Tar Heels' five new freshmen take the Smith Center court for the first time hung thick. For most of the evening the dazzling new video boards crowning each corner of the arena's upper level had blasted images and sounds with sharpness and clarity. But there was something more difficult to perceive in the night's electricity.
And then Roy Williams stepped onto the floor.
Perhaps Carolina's head coach has prompted cheering at a higher decibel level when not directly coaching his team. Of course there has been no shortage of love expressed for UNC's favorite son since he returned to his alma mater. But that night was different. If the crowd's noise could have been filtered and translated into words, the message would have been clear: It's been two and a half years since Roy Williams came home to Carolina. But one national championship banner later, now he owns the place.
When Williams helped put a four-year saga of uncertainty to rest in 2003 and took the helm at the program that gave him his start, he did so with characteristic modesty. Crediting his mentor, Dean Smith, at every available opportunity, Williams called himself a copier and often said he didn't intend to change much about the way Smith had done business for more than three decades.
But as Williams passes the midpoint of only his third season at the helm of the program, it's striking how quickly his personal style has infused everything about the way the Tar Heels do business. Carolina's march to an NCAA title didn't just cement Williams' place at the top of the coaching brotherhood, capping previous years of success with a long-awaited first championship. It also validated Williams' coaching philosophies and personal style as the new Carolina Way.
To be sure, Smith's presence is still felt profoundly, but walk into the building that bears his name and you will surely notice that Williams has placed his distinct stamp on every aspect of the program, from the season-opening "Late Night" entertainments he devised at Kansas and imported to Chapel Hill to the style of play he demands on the court. Now, even as Williams and his team enter the heart of a season he predicted would be one of the most difficult he'd ever faced, what's noticeable is the sense of ease in the corridors of the Smith Center. It's not satisfaction, to be sure—the losses sting as much as ever, and everyone in the program from Williams down the line recognizes that standing still in college hoops means sliding hopelessly behind. Yet things remain loose, upbeat, even confident.
“Anybody who comes into contact with him, it makes you feel like, ‘If he's not going to settle for second best, why should I?"
It's more that the assuredness of a basketball program that just nine months ago returned to the pinnacle of the sport. The steady development of Carolina's inexperienced squad helps, as does the fact that before the regular season opened, Williams had already loaded up on a 2006 recruiting class many analysts call one of the best in ACC history. But it's hardly confined to the team's present performance and its future players. What's different, those around the program say, is directly connected to Williams and his approach to running a program. To borrow a catchphrase from another Smith protégé, Larry Brown, Williams has everyone around him doing things the right way.
Carolina's associate athletic director for communications, Steve Kirschner, has worked with four UNC head basketball coaches, and he says there's no mystery to the way Williams has put the Tar Heels on the strongest possible footing. "I think that's the confidence he has," Kirschner explains. "He's not trying to prove himself as a coach. We're not trying to prove ourselves as a program. Roy had 15 years and four Final Fours under his belt before he got here."
Kirschner says that Williams' assuredness is contagious, seeping through the rest of the basketball operation. But Kirschner also explains that the confidence is hard won. "More than anything," he said, "I think people recognize how hard [Williams] works for their program. He is working at it like he's a rookie coach trying to make a name for himself. I think that really hits home for people, because he doesn't take anything for granted."
That work ethic is a Roy Williams hallmark, and it's also a key reason the program's supporters look on any struggles this season as a temporary issue. Carolina fans know well the story of Dean Smith's 1993 championship, and how the very next day he was traveling to Philadelphia to recruit All-American Rasheed Wallace. Williams, too, refused to sit still after winning his title, also traveling to Philadelphia that same week to lock up a blue-chip talent. He spent virtually the entire spring and summer on the road to line up his blockbuster 2006 class. "It's always a challenge to try and get this program where I think it should be and to keep it there," Williams said.
While it may be easy to see the dividends of that hard work on the recruiting trail, what is less visible to the average fan is the way it affects other aspects of UNC's program. "This is a well-run, streamlined organization," Kirschner said. "With Roy, he's successful because the people around him work out of respect and admiration. I see that from the assistant coaches to the secretaries to the marketing department to the athletic director to the band. Anybody who comes into contact with him, it makes you feel like, if he's not going to settle for second best, why should I?"
"It's always a challenge to try and get this program where I think it should be and to keep it there."
"There's just a general relaxed feeling around the program," Kirschner continued. "That isn't just for him, just for his players. I mean the ticket staff, the marketing staff, us [the sports information staff], even the media."
But it would be a mistake to assume that the relaxed, stable feeling means that nothing has changed. The 15 years Williams spent building Kansas into a perennial title contender gave the coach ample opportunity to decide for himself what worked and what didn't, on the court and off. So when he arrived in Chapel Hill, while he obviously had to adapt to the personnel recruited by Matt Doherty and to the challenges of coaching against new opponents in the ACC, he also arrived with well-formed ideas of how things should work at a program under his leadership. And he was confident in making changes at UNC that were in tune with those ideas.
"I felt like that from the first day I got here or I wouldn't have come," Williams said. "You always make changes. I've never been one to say, 'We're going to do this regardless.' A long time ago when I was leaving for Kansas, Coach Smith said, 'Just be yourself.'"
One thing to which Williams quickly paid attention was the Smith Center environment. At Kansas, he helped make the Lawrence's Phog Allen Fieldhouse one of the toughest places in America for opponents to play. While the Tar Heels have traditionally enjoyed a similar home court advantage, that mystique has faded in recent years. Several years before Williams arrived, an effort was made to charge up the Dean Dome, including working to put more students close to the floor. But in his short time in Chapel Hill, Williams has taken up the cause with even more success. For example, in addition to pushing for a variety of behind-the-scenes upgrades to an arena that is showing a little age, he helped encourage replacement of the arena's old video screens with new and improved boards. And unlike Dean Smith, who preferred a decidedly old-school environment, Williams has not hesitated to shake things up on game nights, okaying the introduction of more NBA-style highlight clips, music, and other entertainment.
Williams has never questioned the support of the team's fans, but he has also called openly for their help in energizing the environment. In his regular coach's show, he has openly challenged all ticket holders to wear blue, come early, cheer loudly, and stay until the end of the game—something that has not always been the case in the Smith Center. He has even encouraged the Ram's Club to end its pregame festivities in the Peebles Room earlier in an effort to help move boosters into their lower-level seats well before the tip.
Ticket office manager Clint Gwaltney says he's seen the fans respond. "I think excitement is the word. Roy's an exciting person on the sidelines. He's very demonstrative. When he gets into that crouch stance, and tells the players, 'Come on,' I think the fans like that exuberance. They think he's a likeable, down-to-earth guy that people want to get to know and be around. I think he brings out the best in everyone."
"You always make changes. I've never been one to say, 'We're going to do this regardless.'"
"Coaches here have always had a certain kind of rock-star following," Kirschner notes. But with Williams, he explains, "there's more of an instant credibility and respect level because when he got here, people said, 'Wow, look what he's done already.' And now he's got a national championship."
But beyond the overall environment Williams has helped create, he also has brought his distinctive philosophies to the way the team plays. Williams is firmly grafted into the Dean Smith coaching tree, and there's a long litany of things that have hardly changed at all under Williams. Like Smith, he continues to preach and teach the art of high-intensity defense, and he has also retained his mentor's faith in an offensive scheme that starts in the middle and works its way out to the perimeter.
But in twelve years at Kansas, Williams developed his own schemes and twists on the familiar Carolina motion offense and pressure defense. Some twists are minor—for example, Williams said he uses the same base traps in the defense that Smith employed, but he tries to spring them more unexpectedly and in different places on the court. No one can miss the most significant change, however. If you want to understand Williams' offensive preference, you only need one word: fast.
No one will confuse the Tar Heels with Loyola Marymount of the 1980s, but to an old timer, the Roy Williams offense looks like Carolina basketball on a shot of adrenaline. Importing the style he formulated at Kansas, Williams demands that his players run the fast break after made and missed baskets alike, and his Tar Heels are encouraged to attack the basket and look for early offense whenever possible. Smith—the master of the slow-down game—placed enormous emphasis on loss of ball as a team stat. Williams cares about turnovers like any coach, but in a year where his team is playing with inexperienced point guards, he went as far as saying in the preseason that he'd rather the team continue to play at a rabbit's pace, even if that meant making mistakes at a higher rate.
"Some of the things you do have to fit your personnel," Williams says. "I just happen to think running fits our personnel."
"You've got to love to run," senior David Noel explains. "It's all about defense and running with him. If you don't sprint to offense and sprint to defense, he feels like you can't play for him. But if you can do that, then it feels like you can beat anybody."
"He's an intense type of guy, especially for the things he cares about. But he'll do whatever he can for you.”
Noel is only one of two Tar Heels to play for Doherty and Williams, so he brings a unique perspective to comparing the two. Noel has only positive things to say about his first head coach, but he also can't imagine being any happier than he is under Williams--a feeling he says his teammates share. He says the difference-maker is Williams' particular combination of demanding the best and yet making the hard work feel like a pleasure. And that works, Noel explains, because Williams himself works hard and has fun doing it.
"He's an intense type of guy, especially for the things he cares about," Noel says. "But he'll do whatever he can for you, so that's where the love comes in. And all the fun—that's playing basketball, man—doing something that he loves. We're just a big family that's extended through the past, and it's even going to be extended into the future. It's a big tradition here, and Coach Williams is definitely pushing that ahead."
Williams himself says he has a long way to go before he'll be comfortable with the state of the program he loves. After all, it's one thing to win a title. It's something else to contend year after year. And Williams admits that even after winning it all, he's trying to settle in to his new surroundings. "I still walk into the basketball office and feel more like it's the office of the head basketball coach than Roy Williams' office. But I felt that way at Kansas for the first five or six years, too."
Noel, however, says there's no doubt Williams is at home at Carolina—and that he excels at making his players feel the same way. "He'll be running through campus, take his little run, and we can be, like, 'Hey Coach!'" Noel says. "We're all laughing and joking. It's all fun and love now that we've been around each other."
Noel could have as easily been describing the reaction Williams prompts across Chapel Hill, from fans to fellow coaches and staff to players. And if Noel is right about himself and his teammates, it's easy to be excited about what lies ahead. "It took a little while to get adjusted to him, but in the second year we got it." Noel says. "Now we've got a couple of guys that have
played under his system, and his guys coming in. The sky's the limit for him now."
Mark Simpson-Vos (email@example.com) is an editor for UNC Press.