Roy Williams retires after leaving behind legacy that includes strong ties to Gaston County

By Richard Walker

Roy Williams celebrates after cutting down the net at the 2017 NCAA championship. [@goheels twitter photo]
Roy Williams stunned the local and national college basketball world on Thursday morning by announcing his retirement as the University of North Carolina basketball coach.

The announcement, coming on April Fool’s Day no less, left many people speculating why the 70-year-old coach was stepping away from the job he says he always wanted.

However, Williams had left little hints in this most unusual of seasons as his team navigated COVID-19 protocols, limited or no fans at games and a subpar – by Tar Heels’ standards – 18-11 record this past season.

One thing is clear about Williams are his extraordinary ties to cities and counties all across North Carolina.

Few have been stronger than his connection to Gaston County.

And that started unwittingly for Williams as his dreams of a high school state title were dashed two straight years by Lowell’s old Holbrook High School.

In 1967, Williams’ junior year at T.C. Roberson High School in Skyland, Holbrook’s eventual major league outfielder Wilbur “Whistle” Howard pitched a two-hitter in a 2-0 victory that eliminated Williams’ Rams on their home field.

The following year, the teams met again in what proved to be Williams’ last high school sporting event – over the course of two days – at Lowell’s Rankin Park.

Rained halted a Friday night game with Roberson leading 4-3 with two runners in scoring position and two out in the top of the seventh inning. Since the inning began with a 3-all tie and the suspended game ruled was years away from being adopted, the “final” score was a tie and the teams replayed the entire game a day later at the same field.

In the replay, Howard again pitched and fired a four-hitter in a 4-2 victory that advanced Holbrook into a N.C. Class 2A state championship series against Camp Lejuene that the Lions of coach Don Ratchford would host and win.

Howard was selected in the 19th round of the June 1968 major league draft by the old Seattle Pilots (later the Milwaukee Brewers). He spent three seasons splitting time between pitching and being an every day player in the minor leagues before focusing on playing the outfield; Howard debuted in the major leagues in 1973 at that position for the Brewers and had a six-year major league career for the Brewers and Houston Astros.

Roy Williams during his T.C. Roberson High School baseball career. Williams played 2nd base for two straight years in Roberson state playoff losses to Lowell’s old Holbrook High School.

Williams would go on to play freshman basketball for UNC in the 1968-69 season before graduating with a degree in education in 1972 and a master’s degree in teaching in 1973 before embarking on the coaching career that didn’t end until Thursday.

A high school coach at Owen High School in Swannanoa, Williams returned to UNC as an assistant coach under Dean Smith in 1978 as well as serving as the Tar Heels’ junior varsity basketball coach.

That first year at UNC resumed Williams’ Gaston County ties that included his time as a UNC student when Gastonia’s Harry Bryant and Stanley’s John Rudisill were among Williams’ classmates.

Not only did Williams help recruit Ashbrook’s James Worthy in that first season, his first junior varsity team included South Point guard Joe Shepherd and one of Williams’ longtime coaching friends was former Huss boys basketball coach Jerry Green. (Worthy was the star of the Tar Heels’ 1982 NCAA championship team that included fellow eventual future NBA stars Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, Shepherd went on to coach for many years at Ashbrook and South Point high schools and Green would become of one of Williams’ assistant coaches at Kansas before he was head coach at Oregon and Tennessee.)

Cherryville 1985 state championship guard Jay Moss, later a Gaston County coach, also played for Williams’ JV team at UNC.

Williams talked about his Gaston County roots in 2015 when he was the featured speaker for that year’s Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame banquet at the Gastonia Conference Center; Darrell Armstrong, Bill Jarman, Wales Sigmon, Joe Spears and Phil Tate were that year’s inductees.

Most recently, Williams promoted 2014 Huss graduate Aaron Rohlman to the UNC varsity team after Rohlman played one year on the junior varsity; Rohlman was a member of the Tar Heels’ 2017 NCAA champions as well as the 26-win 2018 team that played its NCAA tournament games at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center.

With 903 career college basketball coaching victories, Williams retires as one of only five men’s coaches with 900 or more wins. He also is the only men’s basketball coach with 400 or more wins at two schools and he finishes with three NCAA titles, nine Final Fours, 14 conference regular season titles and eight conference tournament titles.