In October 2016, I was sitting at the end of a wooden bleacher in the stuffy Koury Natatorium at the University of North Carolina. My middle child, Clayton, was competing for Georgia in his first collegiate swim meet against the Tar Heels.
A few minutes into the meet, a silver-haired man walked in and sat down a couple of rows in front of me. It was Roy Williams.
It was a short commute for Williams, since the Heels’ basketball palace, the Dean Smith Center, is just across the sidewalk. Still, the sight was surprising — swim meets are friends-and-family events. You just don’t get a lot of casual fans dropping in.
But here’s the thing: Ol’ Roy isn’t a casual fan when it comes to all things Tar Heel. He might be the biggest all-sports fan on campus.
The latest proof of Roy bleeding Carolina blue came Thursday, when the school sent out a release saying that the Hall of Famer and his wife, Wanda, had donated more than $600,000 to fund scholarships for the UNC seniors in spring sports who had their seasons cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Williams made the donation in March, shortly after the spring sports season was called off. He just didn’t want anyone to know it.
But the school basically made Roy own this substantial act of generosity with the release. Many of the athletes he’s funding are now returning to campus to resume their interrupted (and nearly terminated) college careers.
“Roy and Wanda have donated millions of dollars to UNC, the athletic department, the Rams Club and individual sport programs over the years but have always chosen to do so without fanfare or publicity,” said John Montgomery, executive director of the Rams Club, in the UNC release. “However, we felt this was the proper time to announce our appreciation for all they have done to support their alma mater’s academic and athletic pursuits and student-athletes across all 28 of our sports programs, and thank them for an extraordinarily generous contribution to allow our seniors another opportunity at competing in the spring.”
As Montgomery points out, Williams has been making stealth donations to Carolina’s non-revenue athletic programs for years. One UNC official told me the teams themselves often didn’t know that the basketball coach who has won three national titles often picked up the tab for their workout gear, shoes or other expenses.
Williams is a rabid sports fan, and a Carolina man. He doesn’t sit isolated in his Dean Dome fiefdom; he gets out to cheer on everyone.
“I try to go see every varsity team we have play at least once in person every season,” Williams told me that day at the pool.
The day after the swim meet, North Carolina played Virginia Tech in football. The game was played in a torrential rain storm, as Hurricane Matthew churned inland from the Atlantic Ocean. The weather kept almost everyone away — the listed attendance of 33,000 was inflated, yet still the smallest for a Heels home game since 2012.
But if you walked into the luxury suite next to the press box 30 minutes before kickoff, there was one Carolina fan inside, peering out at a field you could barely see — Roy Williams. His family had bailed on the game, wanting no part of the soggy slog to and from the stadium. Roy? He wouldn’t miss it.
While Williams is happy to have the family along for football games, there is one general rule in his box: while the game is being played, Roy isn’t socializing. If you want to engage him in small talk, get it done before kickoff or at halftime.
Last fall, when North Carolina played a six-overtime game against Virginia Tech, Roy and Wanda were in the mountains where they grew up, in the western part of the state, for Wanda’s parents’ 70th wedding anniversary. For whatever reason, they couldn’t get the game on TV — “I guess all the ACC Network stuff hadn’t gotten to the mountains” — so Roy spent more than an hour sitting in his car in the driveway, listening to the final four minutes of regulation and all six overtimes.
“Stayed there the whole time,” he said, proudly.
But Williams is just as invested in the lower-profile sports, monetarily and emotionally. UNC is one of the most successful all-sports athletic departments in the country, so there are a lot of quality programs to cheer on.
The rowing team named one of its boats “Wicked Wanda,” for Williams’ wife. He’s been to Omaha to support the baseball team when it made the College World Series. Softball, soccer, gymnastics — the coaches on campus know they’ll see Roy show up at some point during the year. (At a gymnastics meet, one young Tar Heel on the team excitedly pointed him out to coach Derek Galvin. “Yes,” Galvin responded. “He works here.”)
“I do try to support them all,” Williams said. “I truly love our other sports, love the coaches, love our kids. I do believe in the name on the front of the jersey, and I know that’s corny as all get-out.”
Despite being a North Carolina native, Williams didn’t grow up dreaming of being a Tar Heel. He didn’t dream of college at all. His parents never got that far themselves, and neither did his older sister, Frances. It wasn’t until Roy’s high school basketball coach and de facto father figure, Buddy Baldwin, urged him to walk on for Dean Smith that he saw himself as a Carolina man.
“I never saw a North Carolina game in person until I played here as a freshman,” Williams said.
After playing for the freshman team, Williams wasn’t good enough to make the varsity. That’s when he set his sights on coaching, keeping stats and trying to look at the game the way Smith did. After graduation, Williams went back to western North Carolina to coach high school basketball — and golf, and ninth-grade football — for five years.
That’s when Smith brought him back to his alma mater. He stayed for 10 years as an assistant before being hired (somewhat controversially, having no college head-coaching experience) at Kansas. Williams’ run there was spectacular in every way but one, failing to win a national title.
When the call came to come home in 2003, he had to take it. A national title followed in his second season, then another in 2009, and another in 2017. That doesn’t separate him very much from his UNC peers, though — nine coaches on campus have won national championships.
“I ought to at least learn something from them by osmosis,” Ol’ Roy said.
Or by attending their games. If you’re ever at a sporting event on the North Carolina campus, keep your head on swivel — you might see Roy Williams sitting in the stands near you.