Roy Williams decision to step down as head coach at North Carolina could be one of those first dominos that causes the entire board to fall. Williams has been a Syracuse antagonist since joining the ACC, although Jim Boeheim’s greatest win came at his expense. College basketball has forever been about the titans on the sidelines. The sport was built off the backs of the screaming, stomping, made-for-TV characters in the suits and dress shoes. They had charisma, they had power, and they loved every second of it. There’s John Thompson’s booming baritone, and Jerry Tarkanian’s towel biting. There’s Rick Pitino’s Armani suits and John Cheney’s wild eyes. Yes, NCAA hoops has brought larger-than-life players into our homes as well. Bill Walton, Patrick Ewing, and Zion Williamson grew into household names while on campus. But the athletes pass through. Rosters change. Even Zion was only with us for a few months while at Duke. The coaches get built into icons, for better and worse, and that is the essence of college basketball’s grip on the sporting public.
That grip is poised to get more tenuous as changes swallow up the NCAA whole like Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” defense. The transfer portal is already more crowded than Penn Station at rush hour. Soon players won’t even have to sit out a season after transferring. The Name, Image and Likeness rule will force schools to figure out ways to facilitate athletes earning endorsement money. And the “one-and-done” rule will be obsolete. Premier high school talent will go straight to the NBA or G League.
All of this was the looming shadow of which Williams escaped. At 70 years old he knew it was a brave new world he was facing, and realized he was content not facing it. Who could blame him? North Carolina’s academic scandal has delivered plenty of body blows to the athletic department, although no haymakers yet. He had three national championships to his name. The team started to lose more in the last two years than UNC is accustomed to. Last season he claimed it was “the least gifted team he ever coached.” We love you too, Roy.
“I think it’s why Roy Williams retired. I think it forced Roy Williams to retire sooner than he liked. And I think it’s going to force Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim, and some of those older coaches, to retire a little bit sooner than they would like. Because they’re frustrated.” – Jeff Goodman, Stadium Sports
“Roy was pretty much immune to the transfer portal until the last two years,” longtime college hoops insider Jeff Goodman told me. “It was a sense of pride for him. He said, ‘No one leaves Carolina.’ But the last two years it changed. The investment he puts into these kids, whatever he invests, it doesn’t matter. If they’re the team’s second leading scorer, they want to be the leading scorer. If they’re a role guy, they want to be a starter. It’s only going to get worse.”
It’s impossible to argue against more freedom for the players without sounding like a hypocrite. We’ve allowed coaches to chase the best situation, the highest paycheck, the elite career move, since the dawn of college hoops. Why would we stop the kids from doing the same? But the result is a sport who’s plate tectonics shift every day, and the dinosaurs are wobbling.
“I totally get it,” Goodman adds. “It’s great for the kids, but it’s going to kill our game. The sport is at a crossroads in many ways.”
This NCAA Tournament was missing so much. No bluebloods Duke, Kentucky, Louisville and Indiana. No household stars. No full houses. In a hollow gym would Rutgers/Houston have any juice? The result was yes, in fact. The Cougars frantically came back in the waning minutes to beat the Scarlet Knights at the buzzer. It launched a trip to the Final Four. Rutgers players were left paralyzed on the floor. It was March, all craziness, drama and unpredictability still there. The sport will live because it has owns one of the greatest postseasons. But the college basketball landscape has changed dramatically, and will twist even further. The old kingpins will march out soon, Roy Williams leading the way.