Campus News

Roy Williams’ undying passion for Carolina

The beloved Tar Heels coach made his name on the basketball court, but Williams — and his wife, Wanda — will also be remembered for kindness and generosity in giving others a shot at a Carolina education.

Roy Williams in a suit during a basketball game.
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

On March 12, 2020, the day the NCAA canceled all championships due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, Coach Roy Williams phoned UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham. Heartsick about Carolina’s senior student-athletes who would miss their shot at competing in a championship, Williams told Cunningham that he and his wife, Wanda, would cover the scholarship costs of the spring sport seniors who wanted to return so they could come back in 2021 and compete.

The gift was anonymous. They did it because they cared.

“I still get chills when I think about his phone call and the impact it would have for dozens of our students,” Cunningham said four months later, after convincing the Williamses to allow their $600,000 gift to be made public in hopes of inspiring others during a difficult time.

Spring 2021 is here, and many of the seniors who had their seasons cut short last year are competing in the sports they love and have worked so hard to master. It’s paying off: Carolina has multiple number-one ranked spring sports nationally as teams prepare for championship tournaments, thanks in part to the Williamses’ generosity.

Williams, who announced his retirement last Thursday, is best known as a Hall of Fame basketball coach, the man who led the Tar Heels to three NCAA championships. In his 33 seasons as a college coach — 18 of them at Carolina — he notched 903 wins, 24 more than his mentor, the legendary Dean Smith.

But Williams’ undying passion for his alma mater and all that America’s oldest public university stands for will be his true legacy.

“Hundreds of student-athletes and coaches have prospered under his leadership. Yet thousands of other students never had the chance to meet Coach Williams, but have benefited from his and Wanda’s generosity,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “Roy exemplifies what Carolina is all about in so many ways, both on and off the court. So much of what we do here is about improving humankind. And if you look at the ways that he and Wanda have given back to the University beyond the basketball program, it’s about improving humankind. It’s about providing for those who are less fortunate.”

Roy WIlliams speaking with players during a time out.

Coach Roy Williams addressing players during a 2017 game against the NC State Wolfpack at the Dean Smith Center. North Carolina won 107-56.

Humble beginnings

Born in tiny Marion, North Carolina, and raised in Asheville, Williams did not grow up with dreams of attending college. He was an athlete, smart and hard-working, and he lettered in basketball and baseball all four years at Asheville’s T.C. Roberson High School. But it was the influence of his high school basketball coach, Buddy Baldwin, that set Williams on his path to greatness.

“Coach Baldwin gave me confidence that I could be somebody and that I could accomplish some things that probably no one in my family ever thought I would,” Williams told a reporter in 2007, before his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. “I grew up wanting to be like Buddy Baldwin. I don’t mind telling anyone that. I just wanted to be like my high school coach.”

One thing Williams did with his newfound confidence was enroll at Carolina, becoming the first in his family to attend college. “I came down here as a country bumpkin from the mountains of North Carolina and probably still am,” he said in a March 2021 interview with University Development. “I was so naive about so many things, and the University helped me mature.”

Williams played on the freshman basketball team in 1968-69 and earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1972 and a master’s degree in teaching in 1973. He did, indeed, become a high school basketball coach in 1973 at Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain, North Carolina. But he returned to Carolina in 1978 to serve as an assistant to Coach Smith until 1988. During those years, Williams refereed intramural games to earn extra money and drove across the state with trunkloads of Tar Heel player calendars, handing them out at mom-and-pop shops to gin up support for the basketball team he loved.

Roy Williams addressing a large crowd.

Coach Roy Williams points to John Thompson II during a celebration of the extraordinary life of Coach Dean E. Smith at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2015. Watching are then-Chancellor Carol L. Folt, former player Mickey Bell, former UNC President Erskine Bowles, Eric Montross, Antwan Jamison, Paston Dae Chadwick and Phil Ford.

Since 1988, as head coach at Kansas (15 years) and Carolina, Williams made his name on the basketball court. But during those 18 years as the Tar Heels’ wildly successful, much beloved head coach, the man who never forgot his humble beginnings and the confidence a caring high school coach could inspire continued, without fanfare, to make a difference in the lives of young people.

Near and dear

One way is by supporting the Carolina Covenant, which allows students from low-income families an opportunity to attend and graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill debt-free. The Williamses have backed the Carolina Covenant since its inception almost two decades ago. Since the first class enrolled in 2004, the Carolina Covenant has supported more than 8,900 students whose contributions and successes are, collectively, a testament to the University’s unwavering commitment to excellence.

“The Carolina Covenant is near and dear to our hearts,” said Wanda, who taught high school English for several years after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she and Roy met. “When Roy came to school here, his mother handed him $100 and said, ‘Have fun.’ If he had been going to school now, he would have been a Carolina Covenant Scholar.”

All told, the Williamses have given more than $5.8 million to Carolina since Williams became head coach of the Tar Heels. Their most recent gift of $3 million in March will go to support athletic scholarships, the Carolina Covenant and the Chancellor’s Science Scholars program.

“I can guarantee you that there is not another person in my capacity in the country that got a call from a head coach to ask to come pick up a scholarship check for our low-income signature scholarship program — the Carolina Covenant — and a program like the Chancellor’s Sciences Scholars,” Vice Chancellor for Development David Routh told a UNC Board of Trustees committee meeting on March 24, 2021. “I don’t know that there’s another head coach in America who loves the university he works for — and I say he and she, with he and Wanda — like the two of them do.”

Roy Williams greeting fans outside the Dean Smith Center.

Coach Roy Williams greets fans as the men’s basketball team heads to Houston for the 2016 NCAA Final Four.

“He is one of the greatest coaches, in any sport, that has ever done it,” said UNC Football Head Coach Mack Brown. “Factoring in his work on the court, his role as a mentor, his generosity and his kindness, there aren’t many like Coach Williams.”

“To be a coach at Coach Williams’ school, in a sport he loves most … this one touches deep,” said UNC Women’s Basketball Coach Courtney Banghart. “Coach Williams was Carolina for me from afar and then he was that and so much more in real time. He took me under his wing on Day 1 and I know he’ll keep me there, because that’s just the kind of leader, coach and guy that he is.”

Like the best coaching, the Williamses generosity had a ripple effect. “We have had conversations open up since we were able to make that announcement. People we’ve been trying to get to,” Routh said. “They were saying they wanted to meet. They were saying they were interested and this has pushed them over the edge to actually get into a gift discussion. For scholarships in particular for the Carolina Covenant program, and that’s something we desperately need.”

“The whole world is in a tough situation right now — financially, health-wise, everything you can think about. And we are in a position to be able to do something about it. It just seemed like it was the right idea at the right time,” Williams said about his and Wanda’s most recent gift.

“It’s about the kids,” Williams said Thursday at a press conference. “Buddy Baldwin took an interest in me, and I’ve been trying to repay him for 48 years.”

Roy Williams presenting President Barack Obama a Carolina jersey with the number 1 and the name Obama.

Coach Roy Williams poses with President Barack Obama and members of the 2009 championship team during a visit to the White House.