Inside Roy Williams' Most Trying Season

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagDecember 24, 2013

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Roy Williams spent the first day of his Christmas vacation coughing and shivering with chills in his mountain home near Asheville.

Kleenex by his side, the North Carolina coach wrapped himself in a blanket and kept his distance from family members in fear of passing along his illness.

For much of the day, he slept.

“When he gets out of bed, he goes straight for the couch,” Williams’ son, Scott, said by phone Monday. “He’s absolutely exhausted.”

Williams’ symptoms actually surfaced one day earlier, when he felt so fatigued that he hired a car service for the 221-mile trek from Chapel Hill to Asheville, where Williams’ family was waiting.

When his father emerged from the back seat of a black Cadillac Seville, Scott Williams knew something was wrong.

“Pops isn’t the type to roll around in limos or hire chauffeurs,” Scott said. “He likes to drive himself.

“He says he’s got the flu. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. I think it could the culmination of a lot of things. At some point your body just starts to give out. At some point you just wear down.”

Scott pauses.

“He’s had a rough six or seven months.”


Last Monday afternoon, just two days after beating preseason No. 1 Kentucky, Roy Williams spun in his office chair and pointed to a laptop computer. Pushed toward the back of his desk, its screen was covered with dust, like the top of a ceiling fan.

“I don’t even turn the damn thing on,” Williams said.

Lately, that’s probably a good idea.

Dec 18, 2013; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams (second from right) talks to forward Brice Johnson (11) during the second half against the Texas Longhorns at the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center.  Texas won 86-8
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Maddening as his North Carolina team has been—the Tar Heels own victories over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky but have lost to Belmont, UAB and Texas—the stress and angst Williams has harbored since June isn’t related to anything that’s happened on the basketball court.

It’s about what’s taken place off it.

Last week, North Carolina announced it would not seek reinstatement from the NCAA for suspended guard P.J. Hairston, who allegedly received impermissible benefits by luxury rental cars paid for by a third party. The school (and the NCAA) began investigating the situation after Hairston—who led the Tar Heels in scoring last season—was arrested in June for misdemeanor marijuana possession while driving one of the vehicles.

North Carolina generated more negative headlines earlier this month when former player Will Graves was issued a citation for misdemeanor drug charges after police found him with marijuana and drug paraphernalia in a house owned by Williams. Graves was renting the home from Williams while working toward his degree.

During a 30-minute interview last week, Williams told Bleacher Report that the past six months has been the most difficult stretch of his Hall of Fame career.

“I never in my life thought I’d have these kind of things happen,” said Williams, 63. “It’s cast a light on our program that I don’t like, and it’s cast a light on me that I don’t like at all.”

During his 26 years as a head coach, Williams’ reputation has been defined by integrity and character. Rare are the times his players have encountered trouble with the law, and NCAA improprieties have almost been unheard of on a Williams-coached team.

Until now.

“We’ve always done things the right way,” Williams said. “We’ve always stayed away from negative things. Yet for the last six months, I feel like that’s all that I’ve dealt with.”

The turmoil often prevents Williams from sleeping more than four hours a night. His friends say he seems distant and preoccupied, and even Williams admits to being irritable and cranky. Williams said the only time he’s happy is when he’s on the practice court, coaching his team.

“That’s been the only savior,” Williams said. “If it wasn’t for that, I’d walk away.”

Hard as he tries to ignore the negativity, Williams can’t escape it. He doesn’t have a Twitter or Facebook account, but he still hears from players about hateful comments circulating throughout the social media world. Williams doesn’t get online to read newspapers or blogs, but staff members always tell him about shots someone may have taken in print or on the radio.

Last summer, a television reporter interrupted Williams’ daily jog through campus to ask for an update on the Hairston situation, even though he’d said days earlier that he didn’t have any new information.

Earlier this month, after the incident involving Graves, Williams said he heard that a publication printed a headline that read, “Drug Bust at Williams’ House."

"That’s just so out of whack,” Williams says. “(Graves) wasn’t even arrested. He was given a citation, a ticket like you’d get for speeding.

Mar 21, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams addresses the media during practice the day before the second round of the 2013 NCAA tournament at the Sprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

“I’ve gotten where I can’t stand the sensationalism that exists in the media today. I can’t stand it. It’s given me feelings that I don’t like having. Look, P.J. was wrong. I know that. Will was wrong. But in today’s world, with all the sensationalism...things just get blown up. You’ve got people out there that have no information putting stuff out there for others to read.”

Throughout most of his 15-year tenure at Kansas and even during his early years with the Tar Heels, Williams didn’t have to worry about bloggers with no journalism background or credibility posting erroneous information online. He didn’t have to hear about the venom spewed on Twitter or warn his players about fans snapping their pictures at parties and then posting the photos on Instagram.

“It’s not that Carolina’s record is spotless,” says Scott Williams, 36. “No one’s record is spotless. But in the past it was much easier to get things taken care of and not have everything play out in such a public forum.

“It absolutely eats him apart. But sometimes you just have to suck it up and take it.”

That hasn’t been easy.

Ted Seagroves lives across the street from Williams and is one of his confidants and closest friends. The two take walks through the neighborhood together and work out three times each week. Over the last six months, Seagroves mostly avoided asking Williams about the off-court issues.

“I’m his escape from basketball,” Seagroves chuckled. “We talk about stocks.”

Still, Seagroves said there are times when he’s concerned about his friend. One of those times was Saturday, when Seagroves saw Williams shortly after the Tar Heels’ overtime win against Davidson.

“He looked at me and said, ‘I feel awful,’” Seagroves said. “Stress does crazy things to your body. He and I have talked about that. He’s had a tough time lately.”

Along with the Hairston and Graves situations, North Carolina has faced scrutiny for academic improprieties that include tutors doing papers for players and professors giving passing grades to athletes for classes they never attended.

Even though none of his basketball players were linked to any wrongdoing, Williams still felt as if his team came under fire.

For a coach obsessed with following rules and doing things the right way, the negative publicity has been difficult to stomach.

“I know Roy Williams,” he said. “My friends know Roy Williams. I’ve been the designated driver since I was 14 years old. I’ve never had a regular cigarette in my mouth in my entire life. Not marijuana, not anything. Never.

“To act like I don’t have principles or morals is something that’s really bothered me. To act like I’m a win-at-all-costs guy bothers me. I’ve never been about that. I’ve done so many things in recruiting over the years to back off of certain situations just because it wasn’t something I believed in.

“Yet right now, for the last six months, people have feelings or thoughts about Roy Williams that they never would’ve had. The disturbance this has caused and the feelings this has caused is unlike anything I’ve ever dealt with before.”


Dec 18, 2013; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; Suspended North Carolina Tar Heels guard P.J. Hairston (center) watches his team warm up prior to the second half against the Texas Longhorns at the Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center.  Texas won 86-83. Mandatory C
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Last Thursday, less than 24 hours after being informed he’d never play another game for North Carolina, P.J. Hairston showed up for a 5 a.m. practice with his teammates. Two days later he put on a coat and tie and sat on the Tar Heels’ bench during their victory over Davidson.

He may be ineligible to compete, but Hairston is still part of North Carolina’s team.

He’s still a member of the family.

“Roy is going to stand by his kids no matter what,” said Buddy Baldwin, who coached Williams at T.C. Roberson High School in Asheville. “He’s loyal to them. He cares about them deeply, and P.J. is no different.”

Even more than the image hit to his program, the toughest thing about the last six months for Williams was the uncertainty surrounding the future of Hairston and guard Leslie McDonald, who was also suspended before being reinstated last week.

Williams expressed optimism in October that both players would return at some point. But eventually it became obvious that he would have little influence on the decision.

“Ultimately,” Seagroves said, “the decisions that were made were out of his hands. He hates it for P.J. He would’ve loved to have coached him this year.”

Scott Williams said his father has always operated under the belief that a player’s best interest should be the primary factor when making a decision. The university should be considered second and the coach third.

"This situation was different,” Scott Williams said. “The University of North Carolina hasn’t come out looking great in a lot of things recently. Everyone is hypersensitive to that, so now it’s, ‘University first, players second, coach third.’

“Him not being as involved and informed through all of this has been difficult. There was a time when the basketball coach would’ve been on the front line dealing with this, but that wasn’t the case with the P.J. situation.

“Dad felt helpless.”

Rather than let it get the best of him, Williams channeled his frustration and let it fuel him on the court. Early in the season, his assistants expressed concern that the Tar Heels were preoccupied with the situation surrounding Hairston and McDonald, the team’s top two outside shooters.

“They kept wondering when those guys were going to be back,” Williams said. “I told them, ‘The cavalry isn’t coming. We can’t worry about who we don’t have. We’re playing today, regardless of who we have. This team has a chance to be good. But we’ve got to do it. You’ve got to perform at a high level and play to your potential.’”

Nov 8, 2013; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels guard Leslie McDonald (2) and guard P.J. Hairston (15) on the bench in suits during the first half at Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

More than a few people wrote off North Carolina after it lost to Belmont and performed poorly in wins over Holy Cross and Richmond. During a broadcast, ESPN commentator Fran Fraschilla even questioned whether the Tar Heels would make the NCAA tournament.

Less than two months later, Williams’ squad is 8-3 and boasts three of the most impressive nonconference wins in the country.

“The biggest thing is that he stayed positive with us,” guard Marcus Paige said. “The stuff that happened off the court brought us closer. We have fun when we’re around each other, and that’s showing on the court.”

Once downtrodden, the Tar Heels are carrying themselves with a swagger and playing with an edge. And Williams is coaching with one. It’s almost as if he’s trying to prove himself.

“He’s working as hard as he’s ever worked,” Baldwin said. “He hasn’t slowed down at all. They’ve got a good team now with good chemistry.

“Of course, if they had P.J., they’d have really been good.”

Even though it’s pointless to think about that now, Williams hates that Hairston wasn’t given another chance. Williams loves competing for ACC titles and national championships, but his biggest joy comes from shaping and molding the lives of players who arrive in Chapel Hill needing guidance in life even more than basketball.

That’s why he’ll continue to let Hairston practice with the team. And it’s the same reason he allowed Graves to be a volunteer video coordinator and reside in his rental home while finishing up his degree.

“I was trying to do the right thing, and it came back and snapped me,” Williams said. “But I still think it was the right thing.”

Williams said recent events won’t cause him to make any changes in the way he recruits.

“It’s very easy to teach the highly skilled and highly motivated,” Williams said. “But the great teachers can motivate the ones that aren’t highly motivated. They can motivate the ones that aren’t highly skilled. The great teachers can teach everybody.”


Back in Asheville, as his family celebrates Christmas, Scott Williams looks at his father and can’t help but wonder how much longer he’ll continue to coach. He said his mother, Wanda, has been trying to get Roy to retire for the last five years but hasn’t had any luck.

“He’s doing all he can to fight Father Time,” Scott said, “but it’s an uphill battle.”

Even before Roy developed flu-like symptoms, Scott said he could sense a change in his dad.

“He’s just worn down,” Scott said. “You can see it in his look and his demeanor and his attitude. It’s tough when your emotional and mental state is in such disarray that it affects your physical being. But that’s been the obvious thing. It’s draining on him.

“The urge is to tell him, ‘You’re no spring chicken. You need to take some time off.’”

Deep down, though, Scott knows it wouldn’t do any good. Despite all of the recent hardships, his father is as competitive and motivated as ever.

Williams is working out with North Carolina’s strength coach nearly five days a week—dumbbells, ropes, push-ups, sit-ups, the works—and running between 3.5 and five miles each afternoon.

Even if it’s temporary, Williams said the exercise brightens his mood. As the Hairston situation fades and the season moves on, Williams hopes the worst is behind him. Things will only get better from here.

“They’ve got to,” he said softly. “They’ve got to.”

Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.


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