We’ll miss Ol’ Roy
Duke fans have had a long relationship with Roy Williams. He took over Kansas after Larry Brown left the program in shambles in 1988 and had the Jayhawks in the title game in 1991, losing to the Blue Devils.
Duke and Kansas played a few times while he was coach with Duke winning three of those four games and also 18 of 22 ACC games against his Tar Heels.
After Dean Smith died, the Duke and UNC players took a knee in Cameron and led a moment of silence for the late UNC coach with Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski leading them. It was a sad but powerful moment.
Then they went out and tried to beat each other senseless, with Duke winning 92-90 in overtime, which was also a fitting tribute.
It’s probably fair to say that Duke fans have a love-hate relationship with Williams, which was compounded by the academic scandal that devastated UNC athletics in the previous decade. Given the intimacy of a basketball program, and how academic support works and the chain of command typically followed, it’s really hard to imagine that he had no idea what had happened.
For those who don’t know, every school keeps very close tabs on basketball players and academics because losing just one player can ruin a coach’s career. It’s a huge priority. You simply can’t afford to not know what’s going on because your own future could be affected.
Leaving that aside for the moment, we were touched by his comments at his press conference and his uncertainty about his accomplishments.
This reminded us of how we noticed his periodic jokes about suicide and how it took too long for that to register.
We’re not saying that we think he was going to kill himself or even thought about it but it hinted at a harsher side to his typically sunny public personality. We came to believe that for Williams, winning was also to some extent personal validation so losing wounded him more than it might most coaches.
When you see that side of someone, jokes aren’t really fun or funny anymore so we stopped making them.
In his Thursday comments, Williams essentially said that despite his massive success, he was never sure he was good enough. Gary Parrish told a story on his podcast today of seeing Williams scouting 15-year-olds at an AAU event, the only major head coach to do so, and asking why.
Williams said that he knew he could win with great players but wasn’t sure he could win without them.
Again, a view into the self-doubt that both motivated and terrified him.
Williams also said this Thursday: “The last two years have been really hard… I felt that I made mistakes. … I just never got the team this year where I wanted them to go. I didn’t get it done. … I didn’t push the right buttons. … I just don’t feel I’m the right man any longer.”
The self-doubt is nothing new. It’s just become harder to escape the last couple of years.
This is probably not uncommon for children of alcoholics (in his case, his dad) and that may also explain Williams’ bond with Dean Smith, who was a willing father figure for anyone in his circle. Smith believed in Williams, saw his immense potential and was responsible for him getting the Kansas job despite no head coaching experience.
Williams never forgot everything that Smith did for him and we’ve never heard him call him anything other than Coach Smith.
He has obviously suffered a lot lately with a dreadful season last year and now going out in the first round of the NCAA tournament this March and feeling like he can no longer motivate his players.
A lot of that is probably the self-doubt creeping through again. He had one bad year in his entire career, last year, and this year? Who could make sense out of this year? Virtually everyone struggled at some point.
We hope that as time goes by he gets a better sense of what he accomplished and focuses less on the last two years than on decades of building relationships with players and families.
Williams is a compelling character in many ways, at times corny, other times ornery.
Who can forget when he said, after being asked about the UNC job after Kansas lost in the tournament “I don't give shit about North Carolina right now.” Nationwide, on CBS.
Yet when he’s out of the spotlight, and often when he’s in it, he’s very kind. We’ve seen many stories today about how he reached out to people to help them even when he didn’t know them at all.
Many of you have seen Ted Lasso, the superb show on Apple TV+. You may not know though that star Jason Sudeikis is a basketball guy who grew up in Kansas. The iconic jumping scene in the show’s first episode (we think) is explicitly based on Roy Williams celebrating a win with his team. Williams is, we think, a major inspiration behind Lasso who is relentlessly kind and decent to everyone he meets.
We don’t know if Williams is quite that good - former Heels Rashad McCants and Ty Lawson have suggested that they don't think so - but who’s perfect? We think that side of Williams is utterly sincere and without guile. When you get past the competitive stuff, he’s a really good, humble guy.
He spoke - again with the self-doubt - of being terrified of what comes next, that he might not be good at whatever he does now.
We can understand the self-doubt, but people who have watched him understand that the same doubts and uncertainties about himself have driven him his entire life and have propelled him to greatness.
On the one hand, we know that will continue to push him. On the other, we hope that he can slow down now, reflect, and realize that he’s a good man who has done extraordinary things and had immensely positive effects on more people than he could every possibly realize.
When you look back and weigh your life, there’s nothing much more worthwhile than that.
We’d like to call on all Duke fans to join us in wishing Williams well as he heads into retirement.