Roy Williams' retirement a reminder that college basketball's old guard is on its way out

Pete Thamel
·7 min read

INDIANAPOLIS — For nearly a half-century, Roy Williams has been a fixture in the college basketball space. He helped recruit Michael Jordan to North Carolina, brought Paul Pierce to Kansas, and his return to North Carolina led to three national championships, a Hall of Fame induction and a legacy as one of the great coaches to grace the sideline in this or any generation.

In a practical sense, the retirement of Roy Williams from UNC on Thursday shouldn’t come as a shock. He’s 70, has battled health issues in recent years and the Carolina tradition he carried on so proudly had taken a slight downtick in recent seasons.

But no matter his date of birth or recent results, the actual retirement of Roy Williams still comes as a lightning bolt of shock on the sport’s landscape. He’s been a head coach for 33 years, a coach for 48 and built a monster career that would certainly etch him into this generation’s Mount Rushmore of great coaches. His 903 wins rank No. 3 all time.

“Who has done it better than what he did at Kansas and North Carolina?” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “The championships and league titles and the development of his players. He’s the best offensive big-man coach we’ve had in this generation.”

Boeheim added: “It’s Mike [Krzyzewski] and Roy. Who is better than those two guys?”

While there will be plenty of speculation about where UNC turns for this hire — Tony Bennett? Chris Holtmann? Wes Miller? Scott Drew? Hubert Davis? — Williams’ retirement brings wide-ranging implications on the sport that are just as compelling.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams as his team plays against Pittsburgh during an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams as his team plays against Pittsburgh during an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Williams' departure is a reminder that the warhorse coaches of his generation are in their twilight: Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (74); Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (76); West Virginia’s Bob Huggins (67); Iona’s Rick Pitino (68); Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (66); FSU’s Leonard Hamilton (72); and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes (66). John Calipari is 62, but he’s a lot closer to that group than the up-and-comers.

Change has always been the only constant in college basketball, and the rate of change is about to go from four-corners tempo to Bo Kimble-era Loyola Marymount. College basketball has become a sport where rosters are stripped and overhauled like an HGTV show, annual extreme makeovers are the rule and the continuity of places like Gonzaga, Baylor and Iowa are the exception.

Williams’ retirement offers a reminder that many of the coaches we now know as the faces of the sport are on the cusp of their swan songs. As coaches face the most seismic landscape shift in perhaps the last half century of college sports, don’t be surprised if Williams’ decision is viewed in retrospect as a bellwether for the old guard.

It’d be shocking if the direction that the sport is shifting to — essentially a free agent transfer market and the complications inherent to name, image and likeness — weren’t part of Williams' reasoning in retiring. For the generation of coaches that grew up essentially with total roster control, the power shift to the players is something that’s a significant adjustment.

It’s not discussed much out loud, but rest assured it’s spoken about every day by coaches in college football and basketball. This isn’t a judgment either way whether players should have more rights, rather an acknowledgement that the older generation of coaches are going to have to make an extreme adjustment to roll on in the next generation.

Some will adapt and survive and endure. Others will follow Williams to the tee box.

“You always have had something,” said Boeheim, who pointed out that the proliferation of transfers has also made more high-end players available. “This is probably a little bit more. There’s always stuff. You have to adjust. This is the latest adjustment. At the end of day, the good schools will get the good players.”

One of the most remarkable stats about UNC under Williams is that just four players — all of whom hailed from California — transferred in his first 15 seasons there. That’s a credit to the culture of his program, the relentless winning and his ability to get players to buy into roles and develop within the program. One of the highest compliments you can pay Williams is that he turned Carolina into a definitive destination in an era when players began to skip around like stones across a lake.

“I'm old school,” Williams told reporters earlier in March. “I believe if you have a little adversity, you ought to fight through it, and it makes you stronger at the end. I believe when you make a commitment, that commitment should be solid. And it should be to do everything you can to make it work out.”

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams directs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Wake Forest in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams directs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Wake Forest in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

It’d be unfair to overstate how the the transfer of freshman 7-footer Walker Kessler impacted Williams’ decision to retire. He was a top-25 prospect who sources have indicated could end up at Gonzaga or Auburn. (The Zags are the favorite.) Kessler’s player narrative a decade ago would likely have been that he took his lumps as a freshman — zero starts and 8.8 minutes per game — and eventually developed into a star at UNC. But the incentive of being able to transfer without penalty has him seeking greener pastures.

“Why Walker Kessler would leave there is beyond me,” Boeheim said. “He’s going to get the ball 25 times a game there. It’s just wounded pride. That’s crazy.”

It’s fitting that we’re going to have back-to-back first-time national champion coaches for the first time in 15 years. The last time this happened, Maryland’s Gary Williams and Boeheim won titles in 2002 and 2003. Virginia’s Tony Bennett won the last title. He’ll be joined as a rookie winner by either Gonzaga’s Mark Few (58), Baylor’s Scott Drew (50), UCLA’s Mick Cronin (49) or Houston's Kelvin Sampson (65). They are hardly new faces on the scene, and both Few and Sampson are clearly closer to the end of their head-coaching careers than they are from the beginning.

But they are indicative of the new set of faces that’ll define the next generation and chart the path forward for the game. Many of the coaches who’d emerged in the last decade as potential heirs to become the faces of the game have left or faded. Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan hopped to the NBA, with no realistic intentions of returning.

Kevin Ollie’s tenure at UConn percolated with promise before fading away.

The title winners who’ll be the definitive faces of the next decade are Kansas’ Bill Self, Villanova’s Jay Wright and Virginia’s Bennett.

From there, there’s room for faces to emerge. The Miller brothers, Sean and Archie, have discovered the journey to the top isn’t linear. So has Marquette’s Shaka Smart after his burst of Final Four glory a decade ago. Who is next? Purdue’s Matt Painter, Texas’ Chris Beard, Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton, Michigan’s Juwan Howard, Arkansas’ Eric Musselman, Louisville’s Chris Mack, Florida’s Mike White, Ohio State’s Holtmann, Loyola Chicago’s Porter Moser, Alabama’s Nate Oats, Missouri’s Cuonzo Martin and the Hurley brothers are among those who could be the defining faces of the next two decades.

How quick they may rise will depend on how that veteran group adapts to a rapidly changing landscape. As shocking as it is to consider Roy Williams a retired coach, we shouldn’t be surprised when other legends join him on the sideline. Change is the only constant in college sports, and Williams’ retirement is a reminder that notion is about to hit fast-forward.

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