Every year Roy Williams makes it a point to attend at least one home event for every sport on campus at the University of North Carolina. When he’s out watching a golf tournament, said women’s head coach Jan Mann, Williams doesn’t ask for a cart. The Tar Heels’ men’s basketball coach will talk to anyone who approaches and poses for pictures upon request. He knows the UNC players by name, too.
After spring sports teams had their seasons cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an anonymous donor stepped up to cover the cost of scholarships for any senior who wanted to return for a fifth year. On Wednesday morning, Mann told senior Brynn Walker to be on the lookout for news about that generous donor.
Turns out it was Williams and his wife, Wanda, who donated more than $600,000 in May to fund scholarships for spring sports seniors.
“He’s just the most generous human being you’d ever want to meet,” said Mann.
UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said Williams called him in March on the day the NCAA canceled all spring championships.
“He didn’t want those students to miss that experience and wanted to fund those scholarships for next year,” Cunningham said in a release. “I still get chills when I think about his phone call and the impact it would have for dozens of our students.”
On Austin Hitt’s first day on campus as a freshman, he went out to UNC’s practice facility around 5 p.m. to hit balls. The only other person on the range at the time was Williams. After he’d finished his practice session, Williams walked over and introduced himself, and they chatted for a couple of minutes. Hitt didn’t see Williams again on campus until several months later and was shocked to discover that Williams remembered his name.
“A lot of people have stories like that,” said Hitt. “I thought that was remarkable.”
Hitt actually lived for two years with Shae Rush, a member of the Tar Heel basketball team and attended every game that he could when not on the road. Rush told him that Williams often makes golf analogies during practice.
It was the day after UNC lost to Syracuse in the ACC basketball tournament that Hitt, now a senior, found out that the spring season was over. None of his teammates were still on campus as it was the start of spring break. He was back on the range, hitting balls with his coaches when the news broke.
It didn’t feel real at the time. The team, he said, was just catching its stride.
Men’s head coach Andrew DiBitetto had suspected that Williams was behind the donation for months. Williams had called one weekend asking fairly specific questions about DiBitetto’s roster and the senior class in particular.
UNC spring sport coaches were informed of Williams’ gift Thursday morning on a Zoom call. DiBitetto’s glad that he can now properly thank Williams for what he’s done.
“Roy and Wanda have donated millions of dollars to UNC, the athletic department, the Rams Club and individual sport programs over the years but have always chosen to do so without fanfare or publicity,” said John Montgomery, executive director of the Rams Club. “However, we felt this was the proper time to announce our appreciation for all they have done to support their alma mater’s academic and athletic pursuits and student-athletes across all 28 of our sports programs, and thank them for an extraordinarily generous contribution to allow our seniors another opportunity at competing in the spring.”
It’s amazing, said Mann, but not surprising.
“Roy was a student of Dean Smith,” she said, “and Dean Smith would’ve done the same.”
That spirit, Mann continued, is at the heart of the family atmosphere at UNC.
“I think that starts with basketball and works its way down,” she said. “It’s pretty special.”
There’s a crouching position Williams often gets into when he’s fired up on the sidelines, Mann said, and some years ago her entire team struck that crouching pose at a tournament and sent him the picture. Even now Williams keeps it there on his desk.
He probably remembers all their names, too.