Every year we identify the extraordinary people who moved us over the past 365 days and will continue to inspire us for the next 365. We celebrate these individuals as our Authentic People of 2021 who demonstrated authenticity, courage, passion, vulnerability, and world-class character.
Roy Williams was the right man for the job. Until he realized he wasn’t.
I was a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill in spring 2003 when it was announced that Roy Williams would be returning to coach the men’s basketball team. Not originally from North Carolina, I hadn’t grown up with the lore of the legendary team, their basketball deity, Dean Smith and his trusty assistant, Roy.
But when word got out that Williams, was returning to his Tar Heel home… people LOST. THEIR. D@MN. MINDS. This guy clearly meant something to UNC. And I was quickly schooled in what that was.
The Prodigal Tar Heel Returns
In a flash of Carolina blue argyle suits, Williams transformed the stagnant team. UNC Men’s Basketball was reinvigorated as the cultural touchstone of the university. The games were what students planned their social calendar around.
The team was a boy band and Williams was Justin Timberlake. He was a megastar. (I once had the opportunity to shoot an interview with Williams and I was so awestruck I could barely remember how to function the video camera.)
In 2005, just his second season as UNC’s head coach, the men’s basketball team took the title in the NCAA Championship. They repeated wins again in 2009 and 2017. Williams became an icon, a permanent fixture at Carolina like the Old Well, the Bell Tower or the Ram.
I just assumed he would live out his life in the Dean Dome and someday fade into the court like a tree being reclaimed by the ground.
So when he announced his retirement in spring 2021 after a dismal season amidst the COVID pandemic, UNC basketball fans felt a deeper shade of Carolina blue.
A Legend Retires
Why retire now? Why not go out in a blaze of NCAA Championship glory? His reason was simple: “I no longer think I am the right man for the job.”
Williams’ April 1st speech (that we all hoped was a sick April Fools joke) was raw, emotional, and soul-bearing. It was heartbreaking. It peeled back his cloak of invincibility and revealed the authentic human inside: a man doing a job who no longer felt it was the right gig for him.
And that’s why his speech was such a gut-punch. In the minds of so many fans, Roy Williams could do no wrong. Blinded by his long success, we were always sure he’d turn it around. But of course he couldn’t coach forever. An era ends.
His retirement came at a time when society was just reemerging after a year working from home before the introduction of COVID vaccines. A time when so many people began to reevaluate their careers and wonder if they too were still the right guy for the job. Williams’ bittersweet remarks struck a painfully honest chord.
“If I can get through this period here, I going to try to put aside the fact that I no longer feel like I’m the right person, and try to concentrate on the fact that I’m really proud of what we accomplished.”
He accomplished so much more than wins on the court. Always the coach, Williams left us with a lesson. It’s ok to let go when something no longer serves you … or when you no longer serve it.
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