The first time I met Roy Williams was the fall of 1988 in Salina, Kan. The new Kansas Jayhawks head man had yet to coach a varsity game in college and earlier that day it was announced he was inheriting NCAA sanctions, including a postseason ban for 1989.
But even as a kid, it was striking how gracious and humble Williams was signing autographs and meeting fans on what had to be a tough day. He was beaming and full of energy and confidence.
He wasn’t Ol’ Roy yet, and he sure as heck hadn’t started calling himself that, or referring to himself in the third person much at all.
A decade and a half later, I was a reporter, standing outside the Kansas locker room listening to Williams tell the crowd he was leaving for North Carolina. A couple years after that I was working in ACC country and making semi-regular trips to Chapel Hill. It’s been a few years since I’ve been around Williams and Carolina hoops on any kind of regular basis, but in some ways it was like having a prime seat to watch the evolution of a Hall of Famer.
Ol’ Roy isn’t the same coach he used to be. Time, fame, success, struggles and pressure all have a way of changing a person. But at 65, Williams is coming off a season where he was just a few seconds away from a third national championship and seemed energized by a likable group led by Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige.
Now the questions about Williams’ future are phrased a bit differently. Instead of when is Roy going to retire, people are asking how long can Williams coach? It’s a subtle difference, but a meaningful one.
Replacing a legend at a program such as UNC is always tricky. A resurgence by Williams certainly gives the Tar Heels a bit of a buffer before having to worry about that in earnest.
There are still health concerns. Vertigo related collapses on the court are scary and his family has expressed worry in the recent past. But for the most part Williams has looked and sounded better the past year or so. He’s less outwardly weary.
It’s been quite a while since he’s publicly compared his plight to an international tragedy. The worst of the Tar Heels academic scandal and NCAA investigation is seemingly behind him.
Is it no longer crazy to think about Williams coaching, and doing a great job of it, into his 70s? Someday we’ll have to watch an ACC without Williams at North Carolina or Coach K at Duke, but it’s getting difficult to guess which one might give in to Father Time first.
As much as we lament the one-and-done era in college basketball, it might be extending these coaches’ careers. Looming retirement becomes less of a worry for a high-level recruit who wonders not if his coach will stick with it for four more years when he only plans to play there for a season or two himself.
When Williams can enjoy a four-year star such as Paige or Johnson, that’s all the better for keeping him young. But guaranteeing he will be there when a player graduates no longer has to be a huge part of the recruiting pitch.
As long as the Tar Heels keep winning, it becomes a lot easier to imagine Williams sticking around for a while.