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Roy Williams poised to pass Dean Smith for wins

The North Carolina basketball coach can get No. 880 on Saturday.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams is one victory away from passing his mentor, the late Dean Smith, with his 880th career victory. [YOUNG KWAK  |  AP]
North Carolina coach Roy Williams is one victory away from passing his mentor, the late Dean Smith, with his 880th career victory. [YOUNG KWAK | AP]
Published Jan. 4
Updated Jan. 4

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In the aftermath, Mike Krzyzewski made his way to the broadcast table at Madison Square Garden, where he shared an embrace with the man whose record he just broke. Krzyzewski played for Bobby Knight at Army, and Knight was in the building for ESPN the afternoon Krzyzewski won the 903rd game of his career, passing Knight in the record books.

It was an emotional moment, the pupil eclipsing his mentor, having built a program at Duke that matched if not exceeded what Knight built — and later essentially dismantled, through his own frailties and vanities — at Indiana. As they embraced, Krzyzewski told the crusty old coach in the green sweater he loved him, and it was one of those moments where past and present collide in spectacular fashion.

And it was a mere trifle compared to the emotions swirling around Saturday’s 6 p.m. game between North Carolina and Georgia Tech, when Roy Williams will have the chance to pass the late Dean Smith in wins after tying him with his 879th, over Yale on Monday.

Even Krzyzewski would be the first to acknowledge that.

“I respect (Knight), his stature and everything,” Krzyzewski said “But with Roy, he worked with him, he took over the program and has perpetuated the greatness of that program. I think it’ll be much more of an emotional thing with him. It was with me, but it’ll be deeper for him.”

The circumstances of Williams’ education, at the hand of Smith, the young buck among older, sager assistants like Eddie Fogler and Bill Guthridge, and the circumstances of his success at Kansas, and the circumstances of his return, after turning down North Carolina once before, at a moment when things had gone awry, are truly unique.

“There’s no question it’s a little emotional for me,” Williams said, “because I honestly believe — I’m not trying to be humble — I honestly believe that I shouldn’t be in the same sentence with Coach Smith.”

There aren’t many examples of the complicated relationship and intertwined history that Williams and Smith share, from pupil to peer to successor. Many coaches have taken over for their mentors. Many coaches have exceeded their accomplishments. A few even found themselves walking in the footsteps of legends.

But how many, like Williams, sat alongside their mentor for so many years before going out on their own, where they achieved a degree of enviable success, only to return home to save the program they helped build?

Maybe Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, who built a blossoming Pac-12 dynasty at Stanford, just as Williams did at Kansas, and walked away from the NFL to return to Ann Arbor. He is attempting to resurrect the program Bo Schembechler built, where Harbaugh once starred at quarterback for the crusty old coach.

But Harbaugh still has a long way to go to catch Schembechler. Williams has gone all that way. Smith won all of his 879 games at North Carolina, retiring in 1997 as the all-time leader in men’s Division I basketball. Williams has won 418 at Kansas, 461 at North Carolina. Together, they account for more than half of the 2,268 games the Tar Heels have ever won, in more than a century of basketball.

And yet, still, even as they sit tied, on the same line of the record book, Williams cringes at any comparison between himself and Smith, no matter how qualified.

“Our numbers, people say your numbers are this and that, but that’s not the only thing I look at,” Williams said. “What he did, he was the best coach there ever was, but he was even better off the court. And I know as much as I try, and I really do try, I know I’m nowhere close to what he was able to do with guys. The mentoring he did with his players, I’ll never come close to that. And I do try.”

It’s a reckoning Williams now has to come to terms with, numerically speaking at least, unwillingly if he must. Delayed by the Tar Heels’ unusual and unexpected struggles — at one point, Williams had a chance to pass Smith against Wofford at Carmichael Arena, which would have added an entirely new, sepia-toned layer of emotion to the proceedings — the moment appears to have finally arrived.

Whether Williams likes it or not.

Whether he’s truly prepared for it or not.

“I would hope he doesn’t feel guilty,” Krzyzewski said. “He gets that way sometimes.”

No chance of that, Williams said.

“I hope it happens, because that means we’re winning games,” Williams said. “I think (Smith) would understand that part of it, too.”

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