When Jenny Levy became North Carolina’s first women’s lacrosse coach in October 1994, she was initially intimidated by her colleagues.
Levy’s fellow coaches included Dean Smith, Sylvia Hatchell, Anson Dorrance, Dave Klarmann and Karen Shelton, and between their five programs (men’s and women’s basketball, women’s soccer, men’s lacrosse and field hockey), they boasted 22 national championships at the time.
“It was just such a rich tradition of success that I walked in thinking, ‘These guys are going to be walking around with big egos,’” Levy said. “And it was to the contrary. Everybody was so hard-working, gritty, humble, passionate. I know those are cliche terms, but they are authentic to Carolina and define how we operate on a day-in and day-out basis.”
And how they win. In her 23 years at Carolina, Levy has coached her team to two national titles (2013 and 2016), and watched her colleagues win quite a few, as well. In all, the Tar Heels currently boast nine coaches who have won national team championships at Carolina: Joe Breschi, Dorrance, Hatchell, Brian Kalbas, Levy, Sam Paul, Shelton, Carlos Somoano and Roy Williams.
Those nine coaches account for 39 of Carolina’s 49 all-time national titles.
Levy and many other Tar Heel coaches credit what they’ve learned from each other for their national championship success.
“Three or four years ago, I made a statement that I had coached at Kansas for 15 years and never worked with a coach who had won a national championship,” said Williams, who has led men’s basketball to three national titles, “and how lucky I was to be here with those other coaches and how blessed I was and that I hoped they felt that way.
“But we needed to appreciate that as a department, we needed to make sure people understood that because I think success breeds more success. It doesn’t bother me to talk about it. People think that’s pressure, but I don’t think so. I think you start thinking in those terms. I think that’s what the coaches here at North Carolina do.”
Williams was an assistant to Smith, a Hall-of-Fame coach, from 1978-88, and Williams, like many of his Carolina colleagues, credits Smith for helping to create such a strong championship environment in Chapel Hill.
Smith’s philosophy, in basketball and in life, centered around loyalty and teamwork. Tar Heel coaches say they try to incorporate both of those traits when developing their teams and inspiring each other.
“I think he set the tone for the athletic department and our culture here at Carolina,” said Shelton, who has coached six UNC-Chapel Hill teams to national titles. “Watching him do things the right way for the right reasons, he was pretty darn special.”
Support amongst the coaches comes in many forms, including attendance at each others’ games and one-on-one conversations.
Before leaving for Charlotte to visit his grandchildren on Oct. 8, Williams stopped by the final round of the Tar Heel Intercollegiate at UNC Finley Golf Course. He regularly attends baseball games at Boshamer Stadium. According to Kalbas, Williams also speaks with every women’s tennis recruit who visits campus.
When Joe Breschi became the men’s lacrosse coach in 2008, he said every coach approached him at his first Carolina coaches meeting and offered their help. He and his staff attended multiple practices for multiple teams – which they still do – giving them a chance to learn how the other coaches operate, and succeed.
“It’s easy to get great talent,” said Breschi, who led the men’s lacrosse team to the 2016 national championship. “But to mold those guys and make them genuinely feel a part of a family is what makes our coaches so special. You feel that from every coach you meet on campus.”
And hear it, too. After 17 years without winning a championship, Levy turned to Williams for advice, and he was happy to oblige.
“She had gotten to several Final Fours and she just wanted to know what she needed to change,” Williams recalled. “I said, ‘Nothing, just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep knocking on the door and one day you’re going to knock that sucker down.’
“She’s won two of them since then.”
Multiple coaches say similar encouragement – both from their peers and other members of the University – pushes them to succeed.
Motivation also comes from watching other coaches celebrate national titles.
“When you see that all around you, you have no choice but to love the environment and to model it and believe in it and want to hold up your end of the bargain,” said Somoano, who coached the men’s soccer team to the 2011 national championship. “It almost becomes a feeling of, ‘I don’t want to let these people down who hold such high standards.’”
“What it boils down to is we believe in character development,” said Dorrance, who has won 22 national championships. “The way you treat each other, the way you support each other, the way you don’t sit in judgement of each other, all of this adds up into an extraordinary environment for people to evolve as human beings.”
That competitive spirit is what inspires Carolina’s champions coaches to push for another title.
There’s no room for complacency, not for themselves or their programs.
“This is a university of champions, and we have that mentality on the court, off the court, whether it’s academics or athletics,” said Hatchell, who coached the women’s basketball team to the 1994 women’s basketball championship. “It’s just an attitude, it’s a feeling. The environment here is a championship mentality.
“We speak it, we live it, we see it. It is who we are.”