Editor’s note: For the next three weeks, we will continue to reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 16: North Carolina’s Roy Williams. On Monday, we release No. 15.
You probably shouldn’t be.
Roy Williams didn’t spend years grinding at a small or midlevel program. He's never coached a team that has played the role of lovable underdog and endeared itself to the nation with an upset-laden NCAA tournament run.
If he had risen with that kind of coaching resume, maybe Williams would be viewed differently.
Instead, he’s judged by a different standard. Williams was an assistant to hoops royalty with Dean Smith and North Carolina before getting his own kingdom at Kansas and simply switching royal shades of blue when he returned to Chapel Hill. His teams have always been on full display in nationally televised games and he has always been able to sign the best recruits.
That’s why his victories generally come with the caveat: Who couldn’t win with those players?
Actually, it doesn’t stop there, and not far behind in the discussion is this: He should have more championships with all the players he’s had.
The same was often said about Smith, too. It kind of comes with the job description of coaching a college basketball blue blood.
Is that fair?
Maybe, maybe not.
Williams has intimated the same thing when reflecting on his Kansas team that was a No. 1 seed in 1997 or the UNC squad that lost Kendall Marshall to a wrist injury in the 2012 NCAA tournament and eventually lost in the Elite Eight.
Eric Montross, who started at center on North Carolina’s 1993 national championship team and currently serves as the color analyst for the Tar Heel Sports Network’s basketball broadcasts, believes Williams is a victim of his own success.
“If you’ve done it for 10 years and you don’t do it in 11, all of a sudden, that’s the headline,” Montross said.
From 2005 to 2009, Williams led the Heels to two national titles ('05 and '09) and an additional Final Four and Elite Eight appearance. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is the only current coach with a superior five-season stretch, winning titles in 1991 and 1992 with three additional Final Fours from 1988 to '90.
Montross said it’s more difficult for Williams to make a splash because of his consistency.
“It almost becomes a muted message of excellence,” Montross said. “Whether it be newcomers or particularly standout performances, it largely is the folks that haven’t been there a long time that garner that recognition.”
To illustrate that point, Williams has been named national Coach of the Year by the Associated Press only once during his 11 seasons in Chapel Hill. It didn’t come in either of his title seasons. Instead, it came in a year the Tar Heels weren’t supposed to win anything.
In 2005-06, after losing the entire starting lineup from the '05 championship team, Carolina finished second in the ACC largely behind a group of freshmen led by Tyler Hansbrough.
Williams didn’t garner much attention this past season, either, although it was arguably his best coaching job at UNC. He started the season dealing with eligibility issues regarding Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston, and his team was woefully inadequate from the perimeter. Yet the Heels managed to beat Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky without the two players.
The decision was made to not seek Hairston’s reinstatement from the NCAA, which left the Heels without their best player and exposed a very flawed team. Carolina stumbled to a 1-4 start in ACC play for the first time in school history.
Williams, however, didn’t lose the locker room, and Carolina reeled off a 12-game win streak to finish tied with Duke for third in the ACC. But Williams, who was forced to adjust lineups and use a zone defense after avoiding it for his entire career, didn’t get any credit for doing that. On paper, it turned into a typical season near the top of the standings.
“To me, the greatest compliment that you can give any professional athlete or professional coach is that that person is consistently excellent,” Montross said. “Because what we chase as players or coaches is consistency.”
Williams is nothing, if not consistent. And that should come as no surprise.