CHAPEL HILL — In a program defined by numbers — those on jerseys in the rafters, NCAA championship banners or the total Final Four appearances — none carry the weight of 879 or the man who had sole possession of it before Monday night.
Time and again, North Carolina Roy Williams has said he’ll never be the coach or man that his mentor, Dean Smith was, and that might well be the case.
But in the record books, there can be no debate: for now, the pupil has equaled the professor after Carolina’s 70-67 victory over Yale gave Williams his 879 career victory, tying him with his mentor for fourth all-time in Division I coaching victories.
Naturally, it was the last thing Williams wanted to talk about on Monday night.
“You know, it's a number,” Williams said. “It means I've stayed around a long time, probably longer than some people wanted me to stay at places, but that's what it is.”
After the final buzzer, Williams was presented with a framed photo of himself and Smith and posed for photos with seniors Garrison Brooks and Brandon Robinson, along with Smith’s son, Scott.
It was then that the gravity of the moment hit Williams, who’s never been afraid to show his emotions.
“Scott Smith came out and said one thing, and I think he's right, and he said, 'Dad would be really happy,'” Williams said, choking back tears. “I think he would be, but I've never even knew this was even close.
“I think every game I coach is a tribute to Coach Smith. I mean, I'm not one of those guys that talks about the Lord and 'What would Jesus do?' and a lot of times I'll say, 'I wonder what Coach Smith would do.’”
It was 31 years ago that Williams left Carolina, where he’d played freshman basketball and become an assistant to Smith, to take the head coaching job at Kansas. Himself a Kansan, Smith helped his young assistant land the job, and on the night before Williams headed west, the old coach gave him the best advice he’s ever received.
“He said, 'You know, just be yourself … you’re good enough. Just be yourself. If you be yourself, you're going to be one of the great coaches,' and so I've trusted that,” Williams said. “That's what it has been. I do coach every game for the players. Not for Coach Smith and not for me. I coach every game for the players and try to do the best I can.”
For better or worse, Williams has been just that, from that first win over Alaska-Anchorage on Nov. 25, 1988 all the way through Monday night, when he twice asked reporters to talk about the game rather than his milestone.
And the on-court presentation? He jokingly blamed Sports Information Director Steve Kirschner for forcing him through it.
“I didn't want to stay out there,” Williams said. “Kirsch sort of insisted. I could've said no if I had wanted to and out-quicked him getting to the locker room.”
Of course, that came as no surprise to his players.
“I think a lot of the time he defers the credit to us, but I want him to just take the credit tonight and soak it in,” senior Brandon Robinson said. “Just be happy for himself and be proud; it’s amazing.”
Williams did allow himself to get sentimental for a moment, looking back on those who helped him get here and the players and family members that would be proud.
Then, he looked to the back of the room and spotted Kenny Smith, who he coached as an assistant under Smith. Williams now coaches his son, K.J., who played six minutes in the win over Yale.
Before he was a hall of famer, he was just a young coach who loved Carolina, trying to make it in the world.
“Shoot, I was driving film, selling calendars, just freaking feeding my family,” he said.
Now, he’s the patriarch of an even bigger family.
“The Carolina basketball family is the strongest there has ever been, there ever will be, and anybody else can do what they want to do, but I know that ours is the best and the strongest ever,” he said.
And with that, he made it clear he'd said enough about his accomplishments.
“Now, if somebody has another question about the game, I'll talk to you.”