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Crothers: Roy Williams' Five-Month Lesson

Thursday, February 10, 2011 1:37am

Nov. 13, 2009

Roy Williams is lost.

A new basketball season has just begun and UNC is still basking in the glow of its 2009 national championship, its second in the last five seasons. Meanwhile, Duke is still convalescing from a 77-54 loss to Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen that extends Duke’s absence from the Final Four to six years, prompting dimestore psychologists to carp about how Coach K is spending too much time doing credit card commercials and coaching Kobe.

Williams’s Tar Heels are 2-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country, apparently poised to make another run at the national title. Williams is driving himself home from a booksigning in Durham of all places. Deep behind enemy lines, just a couple of miles from Cameron Indoor Stadium, he is greeted on this night with a hero’s welcome by hundreds of fans. The mood in the bookstore is jubilant as Williams acknowledges the news everyone is buzzing about. A few hours earlier, Harrison Barnes, the nation’s top prospect and the kid who most recruiting analysts had once believed was a mortal lock to play for Duke, has skyped from Iowa to say the he wants to be a Tar Heel instead.

What could be better?

Williams insists that he wasn’t sure until the words came out of Barnes’s mouth where he would go. The UNC coach mentions the 15 trips he made to Ames. He talks about strategically seating Barnes beside his idol, Michael Jordan, during his recruiting visit. Who knows what ultimately sways a teenager’s decision, but Williams has found a way. Driving back toward Chapel Hill from the bookstore, Williams misses a turn and gets lost on the Duke campus. He lets fly a few dadgums, but nothing can spoil his mood. Eventually, Williams finds a way.

Somewhere during the eight miles, I remind him about the end of Barnes’s campus visit and how pessimistic the UNC coach was when I asked him about his chances of signing the kid. A broad smile creeps across his face.

“If one of us was going to wind up in Durham tonight,” Williams says. “I’m just glad it’s me.”


April 5, 2010

Roy Williams is lost.

After starting the 2010 season by winning 11 of its first 14 games, UNC travels to play College of Charleston in early January. The Tar Heels blow an 11-point lead in the final four minutes and lose in overtime. Then it feels like someone grabs a loose thread and keeps on pulling until the season completely unravels. UNC loses 11 of 14 games. The Tar Heels finish 5-11 in the league punctuated by a demoralizing 82-50 loss in Cameron. Meanwhile, Duke sweeps the ACC regular season and tournament. When UNC loses in the opening round of the ACC Tournament, Williams admits he is relieved just to make the NIT field. UNC finishes 20-17, five more losses than Williams has endured in any of his previous 21 seasons as a head coach.

Four days later, he is watching television on the night of the national championship game, but he isn’t watching the national championship game. He is certain Duke is going to beat Butler and he doesn’t really care to see it. He watches Dancing with the Stars instead.

What could be worse?

“This season was hard,” Williams says. “I didn’t handle the losses well. I felt worthless. I thought it was my fault. I felt like a failure. I haven’t felt that way in my professional life very often.

“This year I doubted myself as a coach more than the first 21 years put together. A friend said to me three or four times, ‘Coach, you cannot get that dumb that quickly. Even you.’ There’s some truth to that, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I was still the one going through it. I can’t just say that the kids didn’t do it, because it’s us. That was the part that was killing me. It’s not just the kids’ fault. Sure, I can’t make the three-point shots, I can’t shoot the free throws, I can’t not turn the ball over, I can’t do any of that for them, but I’ve got to find a way to get them to do it, and I never could. That is hard to take. It eats at your soul.”


February 9, 2011

Roy Williams isn’t lost anymore. Just frustrated. He learned a lot during those five months between November and April. Falling cartoonishly off a cliff leaving only a puff of smoke behind will do that. He’s seen that Duke-Carolina can be as fickle as the weather in San Francisco. If you don’t’ like what you see, just wait one half. On Wednesday night at Cameron, his Tar Heels outscore Duke by 14 points in the first half. Then his Tar Heels are outscored by 20 in the second.

Williams is finding his way, again. He looks disgruntled after the game, but given where he’s come from, a part of him has to be happy to be so unhappy.

“To say it’s extremely disappointing would be an understatement to say the least,” Williams says. “We did some nice things. You can gain something from playing well at certain stretches, but I’m not really big into moral victories.”

Williams has relived November and April in one game. At least he’s prepared for it.