CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In June of 2009, a little more than two months after winning his second national championship in five years, Roy Williams was asked about his unparalleled immediate success upon returning home to Chapel Hill.
It had taken his mentor, Dean Smith, 32 years to win his pair of national championships, and Williams had taken Matt Doherty's recruits and won a title in 2005 and then rebuilt UNC's roster with his own players and won another one four years later.
Yet in his response to the reporter's stock question, Williams brought up a newspaper article comparing and contrasting him and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. It wasn't the comparison that piqued his interest, but rather a random fan poll embedded in the story.
“There was one thing that jumped out at me,” Williams said then. “It said that of the North Carolina fans, 76 percent have a favorable opinion of me. We’ve won two frickin’ national championships in five years. If it’s just 76 percent now, folks, it ain’t going to go anywhere but down.”
Even at the pinnacle of his coaching career, Williams couldn't help but to hear his skeptics and doubters. The Hall of Famer is most combative when his Tar Heels are at their best, and so he took aim again during his radio show on Monday, five days before coaching in his ninth Final Four.
“Three weeks ago, we beat Duke in the last regular season game and ole Roy could really coach,” Williams said. “Seven days later, we lose to Duke in the ACC Tournament and Roy can’t coach his way out of a damn wet paper bag.”
His comments were in reference to varying forms of hate mail sent to the basketball office throughout the season, and earlier in the day, his administrative assistants had asked him if they could retrieve some of the more damning literature and offer replies.
“People are cruel,” Williams said. “My secretaries, they’re smart, they don’t give it to me, so I don’t see it, but they have to listen to the phone calls, they have to listen to people say how dumb Roy is and what is he doing and all of this kind of stuff in the emails.”
Williams told them no, instead offering his own scathing rebuke to his radio audience: “Those people are just stupid. You’ve got to just understand that.”
Some people are wired to disregard criticism or at least place such judgment in its proper context. Others allow it to gnaw at their insides, eventually churning the fury into fuel. Williams may be the ringleader of the latter.
The 14th-year UNC head coach is second all-time in NCAA Tournament wins (74), second in games (98), third in winning percentage among coaches with at least 50 games (75.5), fourth in Final Fours, tied for sixth in national titles and is the only coach to win a tournament game in 27 consecutive appearances. He’s 31-4 at UNC as a No. 1 seed.
Despite those hard facts dismissing any opinions to the contrary, Williams has become a magnet for criticism, seemingly due to his overt honesty and nearly transparent skin. And it’s not just from fans. In 2012, CBS polled roughly 100 college coaches to find that Williams was the most overrated coach in America.
It’s no wonder Williams is especially stoked for UNC’s open practice period in Phoenix later this week.
“My favorite practice of the year, by far, not even close, is the Friday in front of the public at the Final Four because it’s also the coaches’ clinic and all of those other suckers are up there in the stands watching you coach your team,” Williams said. “I like that.”
The negativity seems to drive his passion, which transfers to his players, who are some of the most loyal in the country (Larry Drew was UNC’s last transfer back in 2011).
“He does a great job of preparing us,” Meeks said. “I think from the jump, from the first game of the season, he challenges us and asks if we want to be a great team. He constantly does that just to remind us to stay humble and be the best team that we can be, so that’s what probably leads to us getting here, and him getting here all of the time. We’re honored to be his players. He does a great job preparing us at all times, whether it’s off the court or on the court.”
Williams is now 66, and the possibility of him learning to dismiss the criticism with the swat of a hand is long past. It's part of who he is, and likely one of the many reasons he's coaching in yet another Final Four. Doubters be damned.