CHAPEL HILL — When the NCAA ruled last Friday morning that it would not penalize North Carolina, Roy Williams didn’t celebrate.
Instead, Williams, who is preparing for his 15th season with the Tar Heels, took a moment to reflect on a journey that lasted nearly five years.
For Williams, it felt like “400 lifetimes.”
“It was strange,” Williams said Tuesday during the Tar Heels’ annual preseason media day.
“I did not jump up and down, I did not scream, I didn’t gloat. I went over to the corner in a room and just stood there by myself for a second and tried to collect my thoughts. It wasn’t any big show of emotion kind of thing, because that’s not the way I felt. I was happy that it was over with.”
Williams nor anyone in the men’s basketball program was specifically mentioned in the NCAA allegations and the veteran coach maintained throughout the process that he had no knowledge of his players taking the classes in question.
“I didn’t necessarily like it when every time there was an article about it, it always showed my picture,” he said. “I kept saying forever and ever that I was not involved, nobody in our office was involved. Whether it was vindication or not, that never came to mind.
“I just felt like — is there an official length that we’re saying, four and a half years or 400 lifetimes — whatever time period it was, I was just happy that it was over with.”
The feeling of relief surrounded Williams and his players on Tuesday as they turned the page to focus on basketball, posing for the official 2017-18 team picture with returners hanging around to field questions from the media.
When senior point guard Joel Berry II heard the NCAA ruling on Friday, he took to Twitter and posted a photo of himself shrugging with the caption, “UNDISPUTED 7-Time National Champs?”
Berry, along with Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson, stayed committed to the Tar Heels in 2014 despite the threat of sanctions.
“A lot of people, before I got here, were telling me that it was a bad decision to come here because of the academic scandal and all of that stuff,” Berry said.
“When that news came out (on Friday), more than anything, that meant the most to me.”
And after enduring a heartbreaking loss in the 2016 national championship, Berry saw his patience pay off in 2017.
The point guard was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, leading the Tar Heels on their redemption tour en route to program’s sixth NCAA title.
The emotions came out on Friday night during Late Night with Roy, UNC’s annual midnight-madness style event, when the national title banner was unveiled inside the Dean E. Smith Center.
“I tried to hold back, but the tears just fell down my face. … all that we went through and with that coming out, it’s just a relief and just to show that I always follow my gut feeling,” Berry said.
“My gut feeling told me to come here and that everything would be alright, and Coach (Williams) promised me that.”
Despite his integrity being question at various times over the last four and a half years, Williams said vindication never entered his mind. While being certain of his innocence, he acknowledged uncertainty in how the NCAA would ultimately rule.
“I wouldn’t say I was confident,” Williams said. “I don’t think you can be confident and be scared to death. That’s what I felt like when I was in the infractions hearing. I felt innocent, but at the same time, it’s not a court of law. It’s what those people think.”
But fresh off his third national title and the NCAA cloud no longer hovering over the program, Williams and the Tar Heels are looking to get back in the running for more top-level prospects.
The commitment of Nassir Little, a five-star recruit who committed to UNC earlier this month, could help jump-start the upward trend in recruiting.
Without referring to Little, Williams said that the NCAA investigation was the only question one parent had two weeks ago.
“I’m very thankful that we don’t have to answer those questions anymore,” Williams said.
“It was hard defending my integrity. Defending my school was part of it. Not knowing what was going to happen was a huge part of it. It wasn’t pleasant.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.