YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


The Power to 'Heel

Roy Williams overcame doubts and emotions to leave Kansas for North Carolina this time

November 16, 2003|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Roy Williams sat in his office in the Dean E. Smith Center and remembered how he had anxiously scanned a third-floor hallway at the Los Angeles Athletic Club in April, searching for a pay phone.

The way Williams tells it, if he had found it -- it is tucked away in the business center next to the bar -- he would still be the coach at Kansas.

Minutes before, Kansas senior Nick Collison had walked into the room before the Wooden Award presentation and tugged on the bow tie Williams had tied for him earlier.

"Hey, Coach, I did it myself this time," Collison said, and the famously emotional Williams almost broke down, overcome with affection for Collison and all things Kansas, practically down to the grave of basketball inventor James Naismith, who lies in a Lawrence cemetery.

"I said, 'Excuse me a minute,' went out in the hallway and looked around to see if I could find a pay phone, and if I did I was going to call Dick Baddour and tell him I couldn't come," Williams said.

The North Carolina athletic director's phone never rang, and Tar Heel fans should thank their lucky stars Williams is one of the few coaches in America who doesn't like to carry a cell phone.

"A guy came out and said, 'Coach, we've got to start taking pictures,' and I went back in," Williams said.

How many moments were there like that?

There was the night Williams got up at home, vomiting from stress. For the second time in three years, he was choosing between the place that made him and the place where he had made something for himself.

Williams wandered into another room, saw a picture of Kansas recruit Omar Wilkes, the son of Jamaal Wilkes, and nearly dialed up Baddour that moment.

"It was 5:45 in the morning," Williams said. "I said, 'This is ridiculous.' I started to call Dick Baddour and say, 'Hey, I can't come.' I don't know why I didn't do it, but I didn't do it."

Had Baddour dared to press for an answer before Kansas played in the Final Four, Williams said, "It would have been the easiest 'no' I ever said in my entire life."

In the end, he said yes and left Kansas -- where he went 418-101 and reached four Final Fours in 15 years -- for his alma mater, a program in tatters that had just forced the resignation of Matt Doherty, a former Carolina player who also had been Williams' assistant at Kansas.

"I got on the plane from Los Angeles to Lawrence and everyone was napping and I said, 'I've got to make this decision. When this plane lands, I've got to have a decision made,' " Williams said.

"Rightly or wrongly, I made it, so it's got to be right. We're going to go straight ahead. Just let it go."

Yes, Williams gives a darn about Carolina now.

That, of course, is the word he wishes he had chosen moments after Kansas had lost to Syracuse in the NCAA championship game in April.

That's when an overwrought Williams responded to what seemed like the umpteenth question about North Carolina with a potty-mouthed remark on national television.

North Carolina forward Sean May, watching along with the rest of the country, was floored.

"I didn't think it was going to be Coach Williams after what he said at the Final Four, how he didn't care about North Carolina," said May, one of the players who says he would have transferred if Doherty had been retained. "I was really wondering who we were going to play for."

Then Williams took the job, and in Chapel Hill, banners were hung from restaurants and fraternity houses saying, "Welcome home, Roy." Stores stocked Carolina blue T-shirts emblazoned, "Got Roy?" a take-off on the ubiquitous milk ads.

In Lawrence, someone started selling T-shirts that said, "Benedict Williams," and forward Wayne Simien, who had undergone shoulder surgery during the season, lashed out angrily.

"I gave my right arm for him, literally," Simien said.

Williams was crushed.

"If you had told me the feelings I would have about myself when I talked to the players, and if you had made me realize how I was going to feel when I called those four recruits, I wouldn't have done it," he said. "Saying that, I think I did the right thing and it was the right decision for me, and I'm not looking back. But I have never felt that way about myself. I felt dirty. I felt like a traitor.

"But I had made the decision, and I wasn't going to just leave and not talk to my players. I know it's been done. But I wasn't going to do that."

Because Williams had turned down North Carolina and his mentor, Smith, once before, people in Kansas assumed he would again.

"I never thought I would come back, especially after three years ago," Williams said. "I honestly -- in error, I guess, but honestly -- when I made that statement at the press conference three years ago, I said, 'The next time we have a press conference like this, it will be either that I'm retiring or dying.' "

It didn't turn out that way, and the folks in Kansas were blindsided much the way Tar Heel loyalists were when Carolina tried to call him home in 2000 and Williams said no.

Los Angeles Times Articles