Could This Season Be the Breaking Point for Roy Williams at North Carolina?Posted by Lathan Wells on January 10th, 2014
North Carolina’s loss Wednesday night to Miami, dropping the Tar Heels to 0-2 in the ACC, was depressing enough for head coach Roy Williams. Where once the storyline of their season was predicated on top-flight performances against the elite versus some head-scratching defeats, consecutive losses to Wake Forest and the Hurricanes have now relegated them to the status of a team merely fighting for relevance. If you watch Williams’ press conference following the most recent defeat (you can do just that in its entirety here), it’s easy to see that this season has already taken a monstrous toll on the legendary coach. Maddeningly inconsistent play has certainly played a major role, but negative headlines that have enveloped the school off the court have played an even bigger role in Williams’ angst. After years of signs that increasing disenchantment with the machine of big-time college sports and its evolution (or devolution, depending on how you look at it), has Williams reached a point where he might consider walking away after this season?
College basketball coaches will always have their ups and downs. Even the so-called perennial contenders still have years where they fail to fulfill their promise (Kentucky in 2013; Duke in 2012, etc.). Winning on the hardwood, especially with college basketball’s difficult one-and-done playoff system, is never going to be satisfying enough every year. Williams certainly knows that, having gone to seven Final Fours with Kansas and North Carolina and coming home with two trophies — in 2005 and 2009. It’s clear he enjoys coaching. He enjoys teaching and nurturing the players who come through his program. But it has been the outside factors — such as the AAU circuit and player “handlers,” parental involvement that has become rampant, and the enormous role sports plays in a university’s overall public perception — that are seeming to weigh on a self-described “old school” coach like Roy Williams.
This year, there has been a perfect storm of outside criticism and negative headlines for UNC. The P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald eligibility sagas that dragged on from the summer all the way into the holidays permeated the Heels’ locker room and every Q&A session for months. When McDonald was reinstated on December 18 and it was announced that Hairston was finished, Williams seemed disenchanted and upset by a process that resulted in one of his kids leaving the school, rather than relieved that the situation was finally over. By keeping both players at practice and sitting on the bench during home games, he kept them actively involved with the team. Susequently, being forced to let Hairston go clearly ate at him, as he had lauded the junior as having done all the right things to make his way back on to the squad.
Earlier this week, a CNN report was released that, among other things, decried North Carolina’s admissions standards and the reading levels of its student-athletes. The 183 athletes studied included many basketball players under Williams from 2004-12, and when he was asked about the story in the press conference following the clash with the Hurricanes, he said he didn’t believe such accusations were “true” or “fair.”
“It’s totally unfair. I’m really proud of the kids we’ve brought in here. I’m really proud of what our student-athletes have done. That’s not fair. I’ve been here 10 recruiting classes, I guess. We haven’t brought anybody in like that.
The hurt he exhibited and the defiant attitude he held in describing his players as stand-up individuals shows that the outside attacks were again wearing on him. In sports media, there is always the opportunity to simply state “no comment.” Williams instead went to bat for his players and for his university again and again. How many times can he do that before it begins to leak over and taints his enjoyment of coaching?
This is, of course, only one season, and however it ends, Williams has enough credibility and good will built up in Chapel Hill to weather almost any storm. But when you couple the stress of this year with some of the health woes he’s battled, a distinct possibility remains that he may not be the Tar Heels’ head coach for much longer. Williams had a cancer scare in 2012, and he’s battled vertigo, as well — there have been some somewhat scary instances where his animated sideline antics have caused him to fall to one knee and need some assistance getting back into a sitting position on the bench. His wife and son have urged him to retire reasonably soon, noting the stress that the job has taken on him both mentally and physically, and at some point, Williams will necessarily take a step back and decide whether what he’s getting out of the job overrides what the job is doing to him.
Winning, as the old adage goes, makes everything better. However, it’s difficult to imagine that a season as crazy as this one can end without any bittersweet emotion. The young Tar Heels may very well improve and put many of these mind-boggling losses behind them. They can add to their positive-ledger body of work in the win column by going into Syracuse this weekend and knocking off the #2 Orange. The question will still loom, though: For every win, and for every player Williams mentors into into a professional and a college graduate, there will still be many obstacles outside of his control that he will nonetheless be expected to address. The landscape of college athletics has changed in the last 30 years, and while not every coach has embraced it, most who are still around have come to terms with it. Can Williams come to terms with the realities of today’s college basketball environment and learn to roll with some of these punches, or will the negative storylines and criticism eventually push him into the sunset?