CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams, who had surgery to remove a tumor from his right kidney Wednesday, is expected to be back on the court when the Tar Heels begin preseason practice on Oct. 13. ("Late Night with Roy Williams" tips off the season the evening before.) But it’s unclear how long he will be away from the team as he recuperates -- or how many workouts he might miss if he needs a second surgery next month.
So who’s in charge while Williams, 62, is out?
“I think all of us are in charge,’’ said assistant coach Steve Robinson, who has worked with Williams for 18 years at UNC and Kansas. “We’ve all got our duties and our responsibilities, and I don’t think we have one single person where we say, ‘OK, this guy is in charge of everything.’ You know who’s in charge of everything? Roy Williams is in charge.”
Williams has often said he has the best assistant coaching staff in America, crediting them for his two national championships. Robinson, C.B. McGrath (who played for Williams at Kansas) and director of player personnel Joe Holladay moved with him when he returned to UNC in 2003. Director of player relations Eric Hoots has worked his way up the ranks since he was a student manager for the Tar Heels. Former North Carolina player Hubert Davis recently replaced longtime assistant Jerod Haase.
“Actually, I don’t think this will be very disruptive at all,’’ Robinson said. “We will go through an adjustment phase right now, just based on the magnitude of what it is and the magnitude of Roy Williams and the University of North Carolina basketball program. But we’re all very confident people, and we’ll be assigned the duties of the task at hand on a day-to-day basis.
“And there won’t be many disruptions; we fill in nicely. This is my 18th year with him, so I’ve been through as many timeouts and practices and everything else -- and personally, I feel very confident and comfortable in helping to run the program, and running things that need to be administered. And C.B. and Joe and Hubert and Eric Hoots, we’re all very confident in our abilities to keep things moving forward, and keep it running at a normal pace.”
Still, it’s an odd situation. Williams hasn’t missed a game since he returned to UNC, and McGrath was hard-pressed to think of a time when his boss was “out” more than 48 hours.
“There was just his shoulder surgery in 2009, and I don’t know how many days he missed -- maybe two?” McGrath said. “But that was the first time he’d ever really missed anything, other than a vertigo attack here and there. Nothing like this.
“But still, it’s recruiting season, so he might be gone for four days ... so it won’t necessarily be much of an impact on our guys that are on campus, other than knowing that coach is recovering from surgery.”
Before the surgery, Williams told his assistants that he was hoping to be released Thursday (the day after the surgery), although doctors could keep him longer.
If he does need to miss practices or, eventually, a game, it’s unclear who Williams would officially tab to run things. But the best bet is Robinson, a former head coach at Florida State and Radford.
In the interim, though, his staff is divvying up duties.
“You know, Coach has always built every program he's ever [had] on consistency and he's run a program,’’ McGrath said. “All of our veterans know what they're supposed to do. All of us working for Coach all these years know what we're supposed to do. So things are going to be fine as usual with the program. We just obviously are more worried about Coach Williams and his health. The doctors say everything is going well.
“We have to take that and let him recover at his pace and come back fully healthy like they say he's going to.”
EMOTIONAL MEETING: Senior guard Dexter Strickland said he was already in bed Tuesday night when he got a call from Hoots that Williams wanted to meet with the team at the Smith Center at 10 p.m. He was shocked by the news.
“It was heartbreaking for me,’’ Strickland said Wednesday. “Me being here four years and me and his relationship together, I look at him like a father figure so him telling me that heartbreaking news was emotional for me. Last night I prayed for him and I heard he had a good surgery today. We're just wishing for the best.”
McGrath said Williams was a bit nervous about telling the team, but the meeting went well.
“He’s known since I think the 10th of September; it obviously hasn’t been easy for him, but he’s been dealing with it,’’ McGrath said. “He was nervous about telling them, based on his emotions and how they would react, but it went well. He did a great job of just telling them the facts about the surgery.”
WHAT NEXT? Williams found out about the tumors after a physical earlier this month, but, Robinson said, the head coach "felt a little uncomfortable over the last couple of weeks and felt like something wasn’t quite right.”
According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, the procedure Williams went through -- a robotic partial nephrectomy -- is a surgery during which diseased tissue is removed from the kidney, leaving as much healthy tissue as possible in place.
A team spokesman said it could take up to a week for Williams to get the lab results as to whether the tumor was benign or malignant. That could impact whether Williams needs another surgery next month to remove a tumor from his left kidney. If that happens, he may miss some practice time, but isn’t expected to miss any games.
“Definitely the assumption is he's going to be ready and he's going to coach this team,’’ McGrath said. “He might miss some practices which is unusual for him to do. He is set on coaching his team and the doctors are set on he's going to be healthy enough to coach this team, and that's what we're going on.
“If anything happens other than that, we'll be surprised, too.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.