Roy Williams already is well-known in ACC circles. A North Carolina native
and former UNC assistant coach, he returns to his alma mater as one of the winningest
coaches in college basketball. He has become synonymous with recruiting good
kids, running a clean program, installing a fast-paced, team-oriented style
and weeping on national television. Like his friend and mentor,
Dean Smith, he has
developed a fiercely loyal network of colleagues and ex-players. He enjoys golf
and treasures his family, but he always comes back to basketball.
Joe Posnanski, an award-winning columnist for the Kansas City Star, grew to
know Williams pretty well during the latter half of the coach's 14-year
career at Kansas. Here, exclusively for the ACC Sports Journal, the writer offers
some first-hand reflections on the man who will lead the Carolina basketball
program into the future.
By Joe Posnanski
Kansas City Star
July 1, 2003
Beyond All Else, Sensitivity
The man is sensitive.
If you want to know Roy Williams, the new (and old) basketball coach at North Carolina, you begin there.
There was a time last year, long before his Kansas team gelled and made its run to the Final Four, when Kansas was playing fairly lousy. The Jayhawks lost back-to-back games to North Carolina and Florida, then got pounded at Oregon, and many fans thought it a good time to offer some coaching advice. Williams, as you might guess, just loves coaching advice.
One particularly irritated fan addressed a letter to Roy Williams, Kansas golf coach. And then, just to be sure his message wasn't misinterpreted, he wrote: Maybe if you quit spending all your time playing golf and instead coached your basketball team a little bit, your team wouldn't keep getting destroyed.
Sure, it was a cheap shot. There aren't 10 coaches in America as basketball-obsessed as Williams. Take away the time he gets with his family, his Clive Cussler novels and those few precious hours on the golf course, and Williams legally could be classified as a basketball. He spends all of his remaining time thinking hoops, all of it, including his restless four hours of nightly sleep when he dreams of ways to make his basketball team better.
Still, Williams has been a major college head coach for 14 years. Before that, he was an assistant for Dean Smith. Through the years, he has received hundreds of angry letters, he has heard thousands of complaints, he has endured countless boos and second-guesses and coaching suggestions. Certainly, one rather harmless letter from a frustrated fan wouldn't affect him.
That's it, he announced angrily. I told my secretary to throw out my mail.
This seemed to me a bit of an overreaction. There might be something important in the mail. Maybe he would win the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes. But, like I said, the man is sensitive. And sure enough, Williams did not read his mail for the rest of the season. When you consider that his team came together after that and made it to the national championship game (with an astonishing blowout over Marquette), Roy might never read any mail again.
When I first started coaching, Williams said, I couldn't take even the slightest bit of criticism. One bad letter was enough to ruin my week. I'm a thousand times better now.
A thousand times better?
Yep, he said, And I'm still not worth a darn.
Competitive And In Control
The first time I met Roy Williams he told me he did not read the newspapers. The second time I met him, he offered a gentle critique of my column. So it goes.
I wrote often about Williams for seven seasons at Kansas, and during that time I found him to be many things, but always, above everything, he was so dadgum touchy. Vulnerability burned deep inside him. Williams grew up poor in the North Carolina mountains. His father drifted in and out of his life. His mother, Lallage, worked two jobs and took in laundry to keep the family going.
He tells one story often. When Roy was young, he would walk home from basketball practice with friends who always stopped at the corner store to buy a Coca-Cola. Williams did not. He did not have the dime to buy a Coke. He was ashamed. Of course, he never said a word about it. One day, Lallage saw them walking home, and she saw the look on her son's face as his friends sipped their Coca-Colas. The next morning, there was a dime waiting for him on the table.
That's not the point of the story. No, the point of the story is that, all the time he lived in Lawrence, during those wild years when he won 418 games at Kansas, there was a cooler in his garage. And the cooler was always filled with bottles of Coca-Cola.
That is Williams. He will never again feel ashamed. He will never again feel inferior to someone else. While at Kansas, Williams won more games in his first 14 years as a head coach than any college basketball coach ever. His teams reached four Final Fours and spent 29 weeks as the No. 1 team in America. They also ended every season with a loss and with Williams' tears that's a big part of the story, too.
Williams controlled everything at Kansas. He scheduled the alumni functions.
He set up the format for his radio show. He threw out
T-shirts to kids in the stands. He refused to get outworked in any part of recruiting. He admonished fans when they were crass, and he admonished fans when they were aloof.
What he built at Kansas, his assistant coach, Joe Holladay, said, is a program. He is involved with every single detail. Things that you or I might think is an insignificant little thing, Coach Williams will make sure is done right. That's what makes Coach Williams who he is.
The man is obsessive about details, no doubt about it. A few years ago, during a press conference, Kansas star forward Paul Pierce was asked if the team was tired. Kansas had played something like 40 games by then. Pierce replied that the players weren't tired, but he admitted that playing so many games did make it tough to keep your edge. It's hard to get up for so many games, he said.
Well, a few minutes later, the same questioner began a question to Williams like so: Coach, Paul Pierce just said the team is tired and
Well, Roy lost it. That's not what Paul said, Williams snapped. He then proceeded to recount Pierce's answer, pretty much word for word, and there were a couple of uncomfortable seconds, and then the press conference proceeded amiably enough. The little incident was forgotten. Well, forgotten by everyone except one man.
Can I ask you a question? he asked hours after the press conference ended. Paul Pierce didn't say he was tired, right?
No. But why does it matter?
It matters, he said angrily. He didn't say it. Why do reporters do that? Why can't people get things right?
This is a man driven by his own demons. He admits it. The angriest he ever got at a basketball game and this is a man who sometimes blacks out on the sidelines, he gets so livid was when an official blew a call late in a Kansas blowout. He berated the official, who then pointed up at the scoreboard, as if to say Come on, Coach. You're up like 800 points. And it was that gesture that unwillingness to treat every second of a game as precious that the coach found unforgivable. Williams wigged out.
I can't stand things that aren't right. I just can't stand it, he admits. And he can't. Some see him as self-righteous. Others call him a phony. But I think that misses the point. He's not much different now than the kid who watched his friends drink Coca-Colas. He needs to be perfect.
You know, Roy told me once, I'm the most competitive person I've ever met.
More competitive than your players? I asked.
Oh yeah, he said.
More competitive than Michael Jordan?
Well, Roy said as he smiled, I can tell you I want to win every bit as much as he does.
More competitive than Dean Smith?
He stopped there. Nobody touches Williams' heart quite the way Smith does. Coach Smith is like his father, his coach and his hero all in one. Roy learned how to coach basketball while sitting in the stands as a North Carolina student and watching practice. He became a man while sitting on the UNC bench as an assistant coach. He sold Carolina basketball calendars across the state to make enough money to keep his family going. Everything he does, Roy says, goes back to Coach Smith.
I will never, ever be one-thousandth the coach or the man that Coach Smith is, he says.
But that was not the question. The question: Are you more competitive than Coach Smith?
Williams nodded. Yes, he said. I am.
Painful, Tearful Decisions
I wrote he would stay at Kansas. Wrote it twice. I wrote it the first time in 2000, after the North Carolina resignation of Bill Guthridge. (That's yet another Kansas guy. North Carolina has not had a coach without some connections to the state of Kansas in more than 40 years.) I believed Williams would be tempted to return home to North Carolina, but in the end he would be unable to say goodbye to his players. And that's what happened.
I don't bring that up to brag. No, in 2003, I wrote the same thing, only I wrote it more forcefully. I wrote there was absolutely no chance Williams would take the North Carolina job after Matt Doherty was forced out. I knew the man. Yes, I also knew that Roy always would consider North Carolina home. Yes, I knew that he detested the Kansas athletic director, Al Bohl, an odd man who, whenever he passed a player in a hall, liked to get down in a defensive stance. Yes, I knew that Roy's family loved North Carolina, and that his old school needed him, and that saying no to Coach Smith a second time might be more than he could bear.
Still, I believed one thing above all: There was no way Williams could break the hearts of his players.
Then, a funny thing happened: Williams broke the hearts of his players. He told them he was leaving. And he left. I can't say it was a surprise, considering pretty much everybody across America predicted he would leave. But I was stunned anyway. I could understand all his reasons for leaving. I could appreciate that a man has the right even a responsibility to go home when needed. I knew how hard it all was on him.
I didn't sign a lifetime contract, Williams said, and he was right. Most coaches would have done the same thing.
And that's the point. I thought Williams was different than other basketball coaches. NaÔve? I guess. I have never held Williams up as some great paragon of goodness. He's many things. He's proud and controlling, friendly and sanctimonious, funny and snippy and loyal and obsessive and one heck of a basketball coach. He's as human as the next guy and then some.
But he was always consistent. That was the thing. You could count on him. If his team played lousy, he would always say they couldn't have beaten Albermarle Tech. If he heard undue criticism, he would always say you couldn't know a man unless you put some mileage on their moccasins. If he got frantic, he might throw out a frickin. He would not lie. He was as predictable as San Diego weather.
And, in the end, I thought his principles would compel him to stay. He had promised his players he would stay. He had promised the fans that, unless fired, he would retire at Kansas.
Yes, circumstances changed. The man who hired him, Bob Frederick, was forced out rudely. One of his best friends at Kansas, former football coach Terry Allen, was thoughtlessly fired in the middle of a season. The kooky athletic director, Bohl, finally was shoved out the door, and he proceeded to hold the wacko press conference of the decade, asserting that Williams held his fate, like a dove, in the palms of his hands.
He could have let me fly with my vision, Bohl said. But he crushed me like a dove.
Sure, all the signs were there. Still, I couldn't imagine him leaving. The players were everything to him how many times had he said that? He could not leave them. But, of course, he did.
A couple of days later, we sat down over breakfast in Chapel Hill, and he was still in a daze. Down the street, they were selling We Got Roy beers for $1.50. In Lawrence, they were selling Benedict Williams T-shirts. Williams said: I didn't do anything sinful. I just took another job. But he knew it was more than that. The man is sensitive.
It was the hardest thing I've ever done, Williams would say about telling his players goodbye, and, of course, he had tears in his eyes.
After Highs/Lows, Balance
Well, you can't tell the Roy Williams story without tears. The first time I saw him cry was in 1997. That year, he coached the best college basketball team I have ever seen. That team featured four future NBA players Jacque Vaughn, Paul Pierce, Raef Lafrentz and Scot Pollard and lost just once in the regular season. The loss, a double-overtime thriller at rival Missouri, was a fluke. Those Jayhawks beat teams by 21 points a game.
But that team was more than just good. It was family. It was the closest group Williams ever coached. The team was a swirl of personalities a shy kid from Iowa, a sensitive kid from California, a kid who specialized in falling on the floor, a freak who wore nail polish. There was a player from Louisiana who had to sleep on friends' couches because he had no home. And, mostly, there was Vaughn, Williams' favorite, a poet, a leader, a young man who, Williams often would say, will be governor some day.
In the third round of the NCAA Tournament, that team ran into a relentlessly quick and single-minded Arizona team. Before the tournament ended, Arizona would make history by becoming the first team ever to beat three No. 1 seeds on its way to a national championship. First, though, Arizona played a game for the ages against Kansas. Arizona was simply too quick for the Kansas guards. But the Jayhawks, led by an emerging Paul Pierce, stayed close. In the end, it was Vaughn who had the shot that could have tied the game. Unsure if he was behind the three-point line, Vaughn passed it off to a freshman. The freshman missed. Kansas lost.
And Williams cried. He had cried after losses before, but this time the tears would not stop. He had let his team down. Williams believed that team was the best in America. That team deserved to win the national title. When they lost, Williams blamed himself. All summer, he blamed himself. He was inconsolable. He had let down his team. He had not come through for his family. The next year, Kansas was again a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the Jayhawks were stunned by Rhode Island, and Williams spent another summer questioning his own heart.
That's when he drifted a little bit. He started doing some peculiar things. He brought in Lester Earl and Luke Axtell, two talented but troubled kids who always seemed to have controversy swirling around him. Williams had not recruited controversy before. He found himself unable to reach some of his players. He got himself in some nasty recruiting battles. He grew depressed. And he pondered quitting.
Then, he found the recruiting class that saved his coaching life. He recruited Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich. All three were gifted. All three were wonderful to be around. It was like the old days again. When North Carolina called in 2000, he wavered and dithered like Prince Hamlet, but in the end he could not leave those kids.
Williams and those kids went to two consecutive Final Fours. In the end, the Jayhawks did not win the national championship, and in the end Williams cried. His tears had become one of the rites of March. But it was different. Williams was happy. He had found his balance.
He comes to North Carolina now as the hottest coach in America. He's recruiting the players he likes to recruit. He's coaching with a fast-breaking attitude he loves.
And if I had to sum up what I feel about Williams, I would go back to the beginning. The man is sensitive. He's easily hurt, and he's easily charmed. He's sensitive to his players' needs, and he's sensitive to what people think about him.
When Williams left, I wrote a fairly scathing column about him. I did not blame him for taking his dream job. But I wrote that after so many good years he had betrayed his principles by refusing to stand up for Doherty, his friend, and by leaving his recruits after going into their homes and promising them he would stay. A promise from Williams should mean more than that.
Two days later, we talked for a long time. He sounded as if he felt like he had made a mistake. Yes, he was excited about coming home. But he had hurt people he loved back in Kansas. He said he could not sleep at all.
Do you think, he finally asked, that after a while people will forgive me and remember all the good years we had at Kansas?
Sure they will, I said.
He nodded. He will win at North Carolina, there's no doubt in my mind. He will win with class and dignity because that's what the man is about. He will have the Tar Heels running fast and scoring in bunches, and he will build on the legacy of the man he admires most. It's a dream job. And it will be a good life.
Still, the man is sensitive.
I just hope they remember, he said, as tears fell again. That means more to me than you could ever know.
Joe Posnanski writes for the Kansas City Star. He recently was named the best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors.
See what others have to say about Roy!
Brought to you by: