Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim, John Calipari. All are legendary NCAA basketball coaches; all have more than 600 wins; all have won national championships; all are in the Basketball Hall of Fame. They now have one more thing in common: They have all received the Nell and John Wooden Leadership in Coaching Award. In October, Williams became the latest of the four to receive the honor. Sports promoter Bob Geoghan created it in 2012 and this year partnered with Events DC.
“I’m very flattered,” Williams said upon accepting the award at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. “I knew coach Wooden quite a bit, and he was always so nice and gracious and complimentary to me.”
Williams had quite the journey from his first job at Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain, North Carolina, to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which included some big decisions, one being about money.
After the 1977–78 season, he could have either extended his head coaching tenure at Charles D. Owen for $14,000 per year, or accepted UNC head basketball coach Dean Smith’s offer to work as an assistant for $2,500. The choice was an easy one, and with approval from his wife, Wanda, they headed for Chapel Hill.
Almost 40 years later, Williams is in his 14th season as UNC’s head coach and has won three titles, including the 2016–17 championship. “With each year, you have great relationships with the players, and you remember the good times as well as the bad ones, but it was a very satisfying run for us last year,” Williams said.
There are always memorable championship moments, and last year was no exception. With 25.4 seconds left, power forward Isaiah Hicks scored to put the Tar Heels up by three, but Williams had very little time to pay attention.
“As a coach, you are so involved in the game, you have no other thoughts except the game,” he said. “So when Isaiah scored to put us up by three, I was just yelling [at my players] to get back on defense.”
Added Williams, “With seven seconds to play and Joel Berry is shooting free throws, and we’re up by five, Kennedy Meeks came over to hug me and I shoved him off and said, ‘Finish the game!’ ” That coaching mentality not only rubbed off on his players and staff, but on opposing players and coaches too.
Former Maryland Terrapins point guard and NBA star Walt Williams, former Terrapins head coach Gary Williams, and former Duke Blue Devils power forward and NBA star Danny Ferry were all in attendance the night of the awards dinner. They had nothing but good things to say about Roy Williams, which was surprising since they were at rival schools.
Walt Williams recalled the hospitality of the UNC coaching staff, which has invited his family members who live in North Carolina to games. Gary Williams recalled how much he loved to catch up with Roy Williams during the offseason.
“They had a very team-based approach, establishing themselves for a long time [as a basketball power],” Ferry said of the Roy Williams-Dean Smith UNC team. “It’s a great rivalry [between Duke and UNC], and the students kind of co-mingle in the community, and the basketball players know how important it is to everyone in the community.”
Gary Williams agreed with Ferry, adding that “they were always great games. Carolina was always good during that time period, and it was good competition because both [Maryland and UNC] played very hard.” He added that being under Dean Smith helped Roy Williams develop his own coaching methods a lot, and said, “[UNC] does a great job of pushing the ball up court and they play very fast paced.”
Walt Williams has some memories of playing UNC as well, remembering specifically “how North Carolina could manipulate the clock, how they could make it speed up or slow down,” metaphorically of course. The one thing they all have in common: their favorite memory is beating Carolina.
Roy Williams is considered one of the greatest coaches in basketball history. Through his 44 years as a coach, Williams has not only cemented his name within the sport of basketball, but also in the memories of those who played with and against him.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images (net); Kea Taylor (with Kid Reporter); Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos/Getty Images (hugging Meeks)