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4 Leadership Lessons from Carolina Coach Roy Williams

Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

With two national championships over the past five years, seven trips to the Final Four, and a Hall of Fame induction, Tar Heel Basketball Coach Roy Williams is truly one of the top coaches in sport today.

While he is at the top of his profession now, most coaches will appreciate that Williams began his coaching career posting a pitiful 2-19 record his first season as a high school coach. Along the way he has swept the floors, been a PE teacher, sold calendars across the state just to put food on the table, and made only $2,700 a year as Dean Smith's part-time assistant coach. He has more than paid his dues.

Coach Williams' new book is aptly titled Hard Work. He put in decades of hard work as an aspiring coach to reach the pinnacle of the coaching profession and continues to put in the hard work to maintain his program's elite status by consistently out-recruiting and out-coaching many of his peers.

Coach Williams says, "We put our hands in and chant something my teams have been saying since I was North Carolina's junior varsity coach: Hard work! It's something I've believed in since I was a kid shoveling snow off the basketball court so I could practice or selling calendars or going right back out on the recruiting trail after winning a national title. The phrase is a reminder that nobody is going to outwork us. I think it pulls our guys together and gives them strength. It is what the players chant when they huddle for any timeout or any deadball. It's a constant reminder: Hard work!"

Coach Williams and the Tar Heels success are due to some key things that all coaches can use in building a successful program.

  1. Coach Williams is a tireless worker on the recruiting trail.
  2. He recruits great talent but also ensures that his guys are people of strong character.
  3. Coach Williams is extremely competitive and instills his will in his players.
  4. He cares about his players beyond the basketball court.


Here are four powerful Leadership Lessons from Coach Williams book Hard Work that can be used by all coaches to build and maintain an elite program.

1. Character Counts

Coach Williams: When I decide that a kid has the talent I am looking for, then I try to find out about his character. I once had an elementary school principal in Wichita, Kansas tell me, "Coach, I wish you'd say academics is the second priority."

"No ma'am," I said. "because if he's a great player and a 4.0 student but he's going to be a pain in the rear end, I want it to be somebody else's rear end."

Too many coaches (and athletic directors) lower their program's standards and take talented players (and coaches) with questionable or poor character. They knowingly accept talented people who have a history of not doing the right thing. It's a big gamble that sometimes pays off in the short-term, but usually has negative consequences in the long-term.

Just as Coach Williams heavily weighs character in the recruiting process, so too should you consider character when selecting your team. (Or if you are an AD, when hiring your coaching staff.) Having people of character makes it much easier to build and maintain a team that is focused on a common goal, not their own selfish desires. Coach Williams writes, "If you have one guy looking out for himself, you're in big trouble. If you have more than one, you have no chance."

Plus, choosing people of character preserves the kind of positive culture and reputation you want for your program. Your athletes will represent you and your school with pride and class. As Coach Williams reminds us - Let the talented yet turbulent individuals be a pain in somebody else's rear end, not yours.

2. Choose to work hard every day.

Coach Williams: I tell every prospect I recruit that I'm going to try to outwork every other coach... I like to ask prospects, "Who is recruiting you the hardest?" If they don't say me, I'm mad and I'll go back to my staff and tell them we've got to do more.

The more I learn from highly successful coaches and athletes, the more I am convinced that having a compelled work ethic is one of the biggest keys to success. Look at most anyone who is consistently at the top of their profession and you will see an individual and a team that is absolutely committed to being the best. They are highly passionate about what they do, invest themselves fully, and willingly put in the necessary hard work.

The great thing about hard work and commitment is that it is a choice. You get to choose at what level you bring it every day. The tough thing about hard work and commitment is that it is also a choice - you must consistently choose to bring it at a high level each and every day - despite distractions, disappointments, and human nature telling you to give up and give in. Roy Williams has chosen to bring it every single day for the last 50 some years of his life - and is a big reason why he, his team, and the Tar Heel faithful are enjoying the fruits of his labors.

3. Be a Fierce Competitor

Coach Williams: I love playing road games. I love that atmosphere. I encourage my players to treat games away from home as a wonderful challenge. I like to tell my team, "Let's go into their living room and steal their brownies." It's all about having the confidence and attitude that I can beat your butt anytime, anywhere, anyplace, anyhow... The bottom line is that I want my players to understand that at some point in every game, somebody's going to give in, and I don't ever want it to be us. We want to be the last team standing.

Underneath Coach Williams folksy and cordial outward demeanor beats the heart of a fierce competitor. He is driven to be the best and enjoys the continual challenge of taking every opponent's best shot - whether at home or on the road. He relates several stories in the book about how his competitiveness has been an edge throughout his career.

If you want to compete with the big boys and girls, you too are going to need to become a fierce competitor. More importantly, you will need to instill your own competitive will in your team as you develop them into competitors. Highly successful programs look to dictate the tempo of the competition and impose their will on their opponents. They force opponents to react to them rather than the other way around. You too can get to this level. But you must remember that having a competitive team is a big key - and it begins with you modeling it, developing it, demanding it, and rewarding it as coach.

4. Win on and off the court.

Coach Williams: Winning still drives me. But I also enjoy putting a team together. Every year presents a different challenge for me. What I will miss the most is building relationships with players. Those bonds are always going to be there and they are personal. They are not based on wins and losses but on something you gave them, something you tried to do for them, something you tried to establish in those kids that would affect their lives.

Even though Coach Williams is highly committed to winning on the court, he also cares about his players' futures off the court. He is just as demanding of his guys when it comes to their performance in the classroom and in the community. He sees himself as a mentor who is privileged to prepare young men for the game of life - whether they are future NBA Superstars or productive members of society.

Coaches of all sports will enjoy and benefit from the book. You get an in-depth view into Roy Williams as a person and what makes him tick, a behind the scenes look at the highly successful philosophy of the Carolina program, and several coaching lessons as Coach Williams shares his triumphs and failures through over 30 years of coaching at North Carolina, Kansas, and the high school level.

Win Duke Carolina Basketball Tickets!

Like the chance to see Coach Williams and his Tar Heels take on Coach K and his Blue Devils in the Smith Center on February 10th?

Enter our Carolina-Duke Basketball Ticket Raffle by Friday, December 4th and get the chance to win a pair of highly-coveted tickets to this BIG GAME!

100% of the proceeds will go to help us build an elementary school in Kenya this July as part of Student-Athletes Leading Social Change (SALSC).

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