GLENDALE, Ariz. — Roy Williams won his third NCAA title for North Carolina on Monday night. He could win three more three times over and he still wouldn’t believe he deserves a place atop the Tar Heel hierarchy of all-time coaches.
That spot, he insisted following the most recent championship in a 71-65 win over Gonzaga at University of Phoenix Stadium, is reserved for only one coach.
“I don’t think Roy Williams should ever be put in the same sentence with Dean Smith, I really don’t,” Williams said on Monday night. “I think Coach was the best there’s ever been on the court. And he was an even better person. And so it’s a little staggering.”
And a little impressive that Williams surpassed Smith’s trophy total with his latest. In 36 seasons, Smith won 879 games, good for fourth-most all-time (it was the Division I record at the time of his retirement in 1997), but “just” two championships. In 14 seasons with North Carolina, Williams now has three.
“I don’t know what to say,” Williams said of moving past Smith on that particular yardstick. “I’m very, very lucky. I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, which is to coach kids and trying to get them to have a common goal and make sacrifices. And it’s number three. But they’ve all been fantastic, and I’ve been very fortunate.”
The win didn’t just put Williams in North Carolina’s upper echelon. It groups him among other greats of the profession.
He joined Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun, who each have three national championships as a head coach, and trails only John Wooden (10), Mike Krzyzewski (5) and Adolph Rupp (4) for the most ever.
“When I looked up at one of the [video] boards [Monday] night and saw those guys, they had more titles than our North Carolina teams had, not Roy Williams, because I don’t like it that way,” Williams said, “but that was a little emotional for a second.”
So, too, was being compared to — and technically surpassing — Smith.
Williams, 66, grew up in North Carolina and was on the university’s junior varsity team. For 10 years, he was an assistant on Smith’s staffs until he took the head coaching job at Kansas in 1988. He spent 15 seasons there but never won a championship. He returned to North Carolina in 2003, several years and several coaches removed from Smith’s shadow. He won the title in his second season in Chapel Hill, then picked up number two in 2007. Last year, he brought North Carolina to the final and lost on a last-second shot by Villanova.
Williams knew the comparison to Smith, who passed away in 2015 at the age of 83, would be coming. A reporter suggested prior to the game that should North Carolina beat Gonzaga, he would be asked about it.
“I almost got emotional,” he said of just thinking about that possibility.
He held it together, though, and gleefully hauled his third large wooden and gold rectangle back to North Carolina, where it will be placed alongside the other five won by the men’s basketball program and the other 47 won across all sports by the Tar Heels — right inside the Dean Smith Center.