LUMBERTON — As nearly 200 supporters gathered in the ballroom at Adelio’s Restaurant in downtown Lumberton on Thursday, Roy Williams was just outside the double doors autographing what seemed like an endless amount of memorabilia.
While his Sharpie continued to move at a factory-like pace, the 66-year-old veteran coach of the North Carolina men’s basketball team was preparing to take the stage at the annual Tar Heel Tour event, sponsored by the Ram’s Club.
It’s been a busy five weeks for Williams, who led the Tar Heels to their sixth NCAA title in April for his third national championship.
“We haven’t realized yet that we’ve won it because we haven’t taken any time to enjoy it yet,” Williams said. “I haven’t had much time to take advantage and realize what the crap we did. But I love people, so the Rams Club meetings I don’t mind at all.”
The trip to Lumberton also offered Williams the chance to reconnect with Ben Miller, head coach of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke men’s basketball team.
Miller, an assistant coach under Williams during his time at Kansas from 1995 to 2003, enjoyed a successful season in Pembroke this year with a pair of conference championships and a trip to the NCAA Division II Tournament.
“I always tell everybody that my job is to win games, but job 1-A is to help our individual players reach their dreams and goals,” Williams said.
“That’s what you see when you see one of your assistants move on as a head coach. I tell them that 24-inch slide over is a big 24 inches. You go from making suggestions to making decisions. It’s like all of a sudden being married, you’re not the boss anymore.”
As he reflected on his latest group of national champions, a squad that defeated Gonzaga, 71-65, in Glendale, Arizona on the final Monday night of the season, Williams said one trait stuck out throughout the year.
“The toughness of the group,” he said. “We’ve had more gifted groups, but we haven’t had anybody that handled the adversity — even during the course of a game — better than this group did. I think that’s what set them a part.
“It was something that was really impressive. They were a tough bunch of kids.”
And Williams pointed out that each of his three title teams — 2005, 2009 and 2017 — were unique in how they made the run to hanging a banner in the Smith Center.
“All three have been different. In ’05, we were trying to show everybody we could be a team and we weren’t just a bunch of dysfunctional guys,″ he said. “Everybody said it was the best talent against the best team, Illinois, and that insulted us. It was something I was able to use with the guys. I really thought we could win. We just needed to play better than Illinois that night. We didn’t have to be the best team the whole season.″
It was a different story in 2009, when the Tyler Hansbrough-led Tar Heels won every NCAA Tournament game by at least 14 points.
“In ’09, I thought we were the best team,″ Williams said. “But in the NCAA tournament, the best team doesn’t always win. So that was the challenge that time, to make sure we didn’t have a bad game or slip up.″
Williams had a similar confidence in this year’s crop of players, many of whom played in the national title the year before when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer to dash the Tar Heel’s dreams of claiming a championship.
Williams set the tone for the 2016-17 team on the first day of practice in October.
“I told them on the first day or practice, ‘We have a team good enough to get back. But I want to be the last team standing, not just get back,’ ″ he said. “And I believed that. I really did, and they did, too.”
It’s a journey Williams couldn’t have imagined when he got his start as an assistant coach under legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith. He was on the bench when Smith won his first title in 1982.
“I would’ve been satisfied to stay another 30 years and be Coach Smith’s assistant,” Williams said. “All of a sudden I woke up one morning and I was the head coach at Kansas, and I said, ‘Gracious. I better do something.’
“But in ’82 I was so pleased. It was more a feeling of relief because I thought it was unfair what people were saying about Coach Smith not winning one. So I didn’t enjoy it as much as I really wanted to. Then, being head coach at Kansas, being in the Final Four there four times, people started saying the same things about me. … Winning three (national titles) is just mind-boggling. Thinking about winning three of them. … I would’ve thought you were crazy.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.