Banners and sport coats: The end of an era

BY VICTOR HENSLEY, News + Record Staff
Posted 4/7/21

What most of us hoped was just an April Fools’ joke gone too far turned out to be authentic. After 18 years of memorable moments, plenty of wins, championships, celebrations, tears, catchphrases, life lessons and fashionable sideline sport coats, the Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill had come to a close.

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Banners and sport coats: The end of an era

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Posted

When I was 14 years old, I remember sitting at the bar in one of Chapel Hill’s most iconic restaurants, Top of the Hill, with my mom watching a live recording of a radio show. It was a packed house.

After an hour or so, the two radio hosts at the front of the room put down their microphones, signaling the end of the show. One of them stood up, stepped down from the slightly elevated platform where the production had taken place and walked across the room, headed for the exit.

Now was our chance.

As the man, donning a Carolina blue sweater vest — a piece of clothing as synonymous with Carolina as the man himself — passed by us, my mom stopped him. There wasn’t a nervous bone in her body. She can talk to anybody like she’d known them for years, even someone of his magnitude.

She asked him if he’d take a picture with my shy 8th-grade self and he seemed happy to oblige. His spirit was warm, his Southern twang acting as a perfect verbal embodiment of North Carolina itself. He put his arm around me and smiled as my mom snapped the photo, immortalizing the moment.

I still think about the time I was lucky enough to meet Roy Williams, Hall of Fame coach of the North Carolina men’s basketball team. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel real. Until I see that picture.

I was at a recording of his radio show, Roy Williams Live, on March 26, 2012, the day after he and his Tar Heels lost to the Kansas Jayhawks in the Elite Eight of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

Even the day after a loss — when he must have been physically and emotionally drained not only from the game but speaking for well over an hour into a microphone — he took a minute out of his day to speak to me, to take a picture with me, to sign a Carolina pennant for me. That’s just the type of man Roy Williams is.

Last Thursday, on April Fools’ Day, Williams announced his retirement from coaching after 48 years, 18 of which were spent as the head man in Chapel Hill.

What most of us hoped was just an April Fools’ joke gone too far turned out to be authentic. After 18 years of memorable moments, plenty of wins, championships, celebrations, tears, catchphrases, life lessons and fashionable sideline sport coats, the Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill had come to a close.

I’d be lying if I said tears weren’t shed that day. By me, by everyone who bleeds Carolina blue, by all of us who grew up with him on our TVs for at least six months out of the year.

As everything changed around us over the last two decades, one of the few constants was Roy. We choked up when he cried, smiled when he did and felt anger when he was frustrated.

As a lifelong Carolina basketball fan — and eventual UNC-Chapel Hill journalism student — Roy gave me some of my best memories.

I remember the night I couldn’t watch the Tar Heels’ 2009 national championship victory because I was on an overnight field trip at a camp with my 5th-grade class. While the counselors were allowed to sneak away and watch it, the students were supposed to “immerse themselves in the outdoors.” What a joke. (I watched the highlights the next day, excited as ever).

I remember Duke guard Gerald Henderson’s (totally intentional) elbow to Tyler Hansbrough’s nose in 2007, the game that truly made me realize the extent to which I hated the Blue Devils.

I remember sitting in my dorm’s lounge during the national championship in 2017, watching the game on my laptop because I was swamped with homework due the next day — I know, assigning homework due the day after the national championship? What kind of monster does that? — and I remember rushing Franklin Street in celebration that same night.

I remember it all. I remember the heartbreakers — I’ll never forgive you, Kris Jenkins — and the joyous triumphs. I remember his 18 wins against Duke, his three national titles, his senior night speeches and his quote-worthy press conferences.

I remember the times I screamed at my TV screen when he refused to call a timeout in a close game or put my head in my hands when his teams couldn’t make free throws if their lives depended on it.

And through all of the good and the bad, I always remembered how lucky I was to have Roy Williams in my corner.

As a kid growing up in small-town North Carolina, Roy was as close to a modern-day religious figure as you could get. Right there with the legendary Dean Smith. Coach K was, too, but on the opposite side of the spectrum.

All of this is why it hurt so much to hear him speak in his farewell press conference last Thursday, just a few short hours after the news had broken.

“So yes, I’m getting old and my body’s breaking down, mentally and physically,’” Williams said as he choked back tears. “Yes, I want to see my children and grandchildren more. I want to give Wanda more time. … But the biggest reason we’re having this meeting is I just don’t feel that I’m the right man any longer.”

Many of us, including myself, figured that his declining health — most notably his increasing instances of vertigo on the sideline — would be what caused him to hang it up eventually, but as that last line showed, it’s not that at all. He doesn’t feel like he’s the right man to lead Carolina’s program any longer. It broke my heart.

As a head coach, Williams has 903 total wins (third all-time among Division I coaches), a winning percentage of .774 (14th all-time), three ACC Tournament championships (tied for fifth all-time), nine Final Four appearances (fourth all-time), three NCAA national championships (tied for third all-time) and plenty of other accolades that have been added to his 2007 Hall of Fame resume. Since he arrived in Chapel Hill in 2003, no team has won more titles than Carolina.

He’s inspired an entire generation (or two) of basketball fans.

He’ll always be the man for the job.

While the last couple of years of his tenure haven’t been the most positive, Williams will forever be regarded as one of the greatest basketball coaches in the history of the NCAA.

He’ll be remembered as the perfect successor to the late great Dean Smith, the man who celebrates with his team harder than any other, the coach who saved Carolina basketball and the legend whose name will forever be etched on the floor of the Dean E. Smith Center.

We all knew this day would come eventually. I just didn’t know it would hurt this badly.

Thank you for everything, Roy.

We’ll miss you, dadgummit.

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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