CHAPEL HILL — Roy Williams will never admit that he’s the coaching equal of his mentor and role model Dean Smith.
But in at least one sense, he’d be wrong.
With his 879th career victory Monday — a closer than it should have been 70-67 survival test against Yale at the Smith Center — Williams became Smith’s equal on college basketball’s all-time wins list.
It’s an accomplishment the 69-year-old Hall of Famer predictably downplayed, to the point that he tried to escape to the locker room before he could be recognized during a short postgame ceremony that included Smith’s son Scott.
“It’s just a number,” he said afterward.
The tears that began welling in his eyes as he talked about Smith, however, suggest that 879 is a number that holds great significance to him and the program he loves so dearly.
“Scott Smith came out and said one thing and I think he’s right. He said ‘Dad would be happy,’” Williams said, pausing to regain his composure. “I think he would be.”
Smith was the winningest coach in college basketball history when he retired at the age of just 66 in 1997. Williams — who despite being three years older, reached the 879 mark in 15 fewer games — said he didn’t realize he was so close to reaching Smith’s record until UNC announcer Jones Angell mentioned it at a Ram’s Club meeting last summer.
“I thought I was 7,000 numbers away from him,” Williams said. “I had no idea it was anything like that. I’ve been very fortunate to stay relatively healthy, I’ve had really good kids that have made me look good for a really long time and I’m very appreciative of them.”
Williams’ first shot at passing Smith and moving into sole possession of fourth place on the career coaching list behind Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and former Indiana and Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight will come on Saturday against Georgia Tech.
Although it was never a matter of if, but when Williams would catch the coach that gave him his start in the business, it took him longer than expected to do so because of the rash of injuries and collective inexperience of his current team.
The Tar Heels lost four straight earlier this season and are just 8-5 overall heading into the bulk of their ACC schedule.
And their latest victory was anything but a thing of beauty.
UNC shot just 36.6 percent against its Ivy League opponent, making only 6 of 19 3-point attempts and failing to put away the Bulldogs even after opening up a double-digit lead midway through the second half.
It took a career-high 20 points from senior Brandon Robinson, an 11-point, 11-rebound double-double from junior big man Garrison Brooks, and some gusty play down the stretch from freshman point guard Jeremiah Francis to pull the Tar Heels through.
Williams was clearly not happy with his team’s performance both on the bench during the game and in the interview room afterward. The celebration was further dampened by a knee injury to freshman guard Anthony Harris, who only just returned four games ago from an injury to the other knee suffered while in high school.
While Harris’ teammates were clearly concerned about his condition, especially friend and roommate Francis, UNC’s players were keenly aware of the significance of what they’d just helped their coach accomplish.
Especially those that have been in the program for awhile.
“It means a lot to him,” Brooks said. “That’s his mentor. The guy he still tries to model himself after. He still doesn’t believe he can be the coach that Coach Smith was. But I think he’s the closest to him and he’s great. I think it’s great that he reached that milestone.”
Williams didn’t become a head coach until the age of 38 after spending a decade as Smith’s assistant.
He said he would have been content to stay with Smith until he retired before following in the line of succession that eventually led to him getting the Tar Heels job. Instead, he took a 15-year detour to Kansas — where he won his first 418 games — before returning to Chapel Hill in 2003 and leading UNC to three national championships.
One more than Smith did.
“I think every game I’ve ever coached is a tribute to Coach Smith,” Williams said. “The greatest advice he ever gave me, the night before I left to go to Kansas as a head coach, he said just be yourself.
He said ‘you’re good enough, just be yourself. If you be yourself, you’re going to be one of the great coaches. So I’ve trusted that. 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.”