Roy Williams is my Sportsman of the Year, first for successfully challenging novelist Thomas Wolfe's most famous dictum and second for getting North Carolina to play some defense. In achieving the latter he provided the wonderfully sentimental, all-too-appropriate exclamation point to the most pulsating college basketball season in recent memory.
Wolfe, of course, is the Asheville, N.C., native who wrote the deathless line "you can't go home again." Williams is the Asheville native who graduated from North Carolina in 1972, spent 10 years as an assistant coach at his alma mater under Dean Smith, then decamped for Kansas.
There, in 15 seasons, he achieved an .805 winning percentage and reached four Final Fours -- but never won the Big One. In 2003, with North Carolina's program in shambles following the fractious regime of Matt Doherty, Williams succumbed to the beseechments from Chapel Hill and went home again in hopes of effecting what my colleague Grant Wahl termed, "a Carolina Restoration."
Upon Williams's arrival, it was suggested that his presence alone would elevate what had been a 19-16 bunch the year before into a top 10 team. "Ol' Roy ain't that good," was his stock response. He was right. Despite possessing three future NBA first-round picks -- massive pivotman Sean May; mercurial gunner Rashad McCants; and nimble if occasionally too-slick point guard Raymond Felton -- North Carolina finished a frustrating 19-11 while surrendering a soft 74.8 points a game. They were knocked out in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Texas.
Last fall, the question was: Could this formidable collection of individual talents --- augmented by yet another future first-rounder, freshman forward Marvin Williams -- ever get enough stops to fulfill its collective promise? There were more skeptics than believers, but Carolina prevailed due in large measure to Williams, who did one of the sweetest jobs of pushing, tugging and coalition-building since Ike Eisenhower generaled the Allies.
Williams built his players up ("Bottom line," he declared to SI about the moody McCants in the preseason, "if it's something extremely important, I trust him unequivocally.") In hopes of making a defensive difference, he tore his troops down, getting in the faces of McCants and forward Melvin Scott during garbage time of the NCAA semifinal against Michigan State for leaving Spartans guard Maurice Ager open. The payoff: The 33-4 Tar Heels whittled their points-allowed average to 70.3; fittingly, one of the most important plays of the championship game, a 75-70 win over a captivating Illinois team, was a last -minute steal by Felton. (The Illini was held scoreless over the final 2 1/2 minutes.)
Finally, Williams got his team to shape up, most notably the once doughy May, who rewarded his coach with 26 points and 10 boards in the finale to earn the Most Outstanding Player Award.
When it was over and Carolina had its first championship since 1993, a tear-and-confetti streaked Williams and his team celebrated on the floor. Watching from on high in the Edward Jones Dome were patron saints Smith and Michael Jordan -- true Carolina-blue proof, if any more were needed, that a restoration and a healing of a once-riven fraternity had taken place. This year Ol' Roy was that good. And somewhere higher up, Thomas Wolfe (Chapel Hill '20) was no doubt smiling, even if he had been proven wrong.