The Power to ‘Heel

Times Staff Writer

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.

“I was really hurt, stunned by some of it last time,” Williams said. “This time I may have been even more stunned and hurt because I had given them 15 years. It’s not like I went and stayed a couple of days and ran back home.

“The fact of it is, there were 11 different NBA teams -- including the Lakers twice -- that I had discussions with about the job. North Carolina was the only other job I was ever going to consider leaving Kansas for.”

Now that he has gone home, people are so convinced Williams’ mere arrival will restore Carolina to its former glory, the Tar Heels are ranked ninth in the nation, even though they have essentially the same team that went 19-16 last season. (Notably, May is back from the foot injury that cost him much of last season, and the Tar Heels actually beat Williams’ Final Four-bound Kansas team before May was hurt.)

“We’ve lost 36 games in the last two years, we haven’t been in the NCAA tournament two years in a row and we added one player who is not a McDonald’s All-American and in fact is second-team all-state. How does that translate into” a top-10 ranking? Williams asked, seemingly feigning indignation. “I say, ‘Ol’ Roy’s just not that good.’ ”

As for analyzing the disaster of the last two seasons, Williams kept it simple.

“I asked the players one question apiece, ‘What do you think was the biggest problem?’

“The only reason I did that was a psychology course I took in college made me feel you should let people who’ve been through troubled times talk about it.”

This is not a clone of Smith the Tar Heels are getting.

Though he took most of his coaching philosophy from Smith during his 10 years as an assistant, Williams has expanded on it. His teams play even more up-tempo, and his temperament is notably different, more emotional and given to an occasional goshdarnit outburst.

“First of all, they want Coach Smith back,” Williams said. “I understand that. I would too. In fact, I do. My life would be a lot simpler if he would have just come back and taken the job and I stayed in Lawrence and played more golf.

“It will be strange because I know people will want a certain thing, a certain image and certain actions, but you know what they really want, to win.

“All of us know that Matt Doherty’s first year over here, he was praised because he was so emotional and so intense. And in his third year, he was criticized for the same thing. He was so intense and he was so emotional.

“Now, why is a characteristic a positive one time and a negative another time? It’s only because of one thing, because you’re losing.”

In the end, that might have been the thing that did it. Carolina was losing.

Instead of coming off a Final Four, as the Tar Heels had been when Bill Guthridge retired and Williams turned down the job, they had gone 8-20 and 19-16 the last two seasons. After playing in the NCAA tournament an NCAA-record 27 consecutive seasons, they failed to qualify two years in a row.

Duke has become the dominant basketball program of the era, and Carolina didn’t seem like Carolina anymore.

Smith told Williams he would stand by whatever decision he made. Then he delivered his strongest pitch.

“We need you,” Smith told him. “We need you more this time.”

But if anything, the conflicting loyalties Williams wrestled with the first time had grown.

This time, instead of succeeding the retiring Guthridge, Carolina had forced out Doherty in the face of player unrest that was poised to lead to a wave of transfers.

“For a certain period of hours or days, whatever, I did have the thought that I was so disappointed how things were handled at the end that I didn’t know if I would even talk to them,” Williams said.

“Deep down inside, Matt and his family and the people that love him may have wanted me to do that, say no as a sign of protest. After getting past that emotion, I decided I can’t let that determine my own life.”

Doherty got over it. In fact, he posed for a picture at a charity golf tournament last summer with his arm around Williams, alongside Smith and Baddour.

“It was my way of trying to move forward, my way of letting people know although we’ve had our differences, it was not with Coach Smith or Coach Williams,” Doherty said. “It would have bothered me if they didn’t pursue Coach Williams. He was the best candidate and, clearly, he was their first choice last time.”

Since the last time, though, the situation at Kansas had changed. Instead of Bob Frederick, the athletic director who had hired Williams when he wasn’t even the top assistant at North Carolina, he was working for Al Bohl, and the two clashed. (Kansas fired Bohl in a last-ditch attempt to keep Williams, then lost him anyway.)

“In 2000, when I said no, I couldn’t get past the thought that if I leave, these [players] are going to think I’m disloyal to them,” Williams said. “The reason I could do it this time had a lot to do with how I was frustrated [with Bohl]. That, and I had matured a little bit to know that coaches do those kinds of things and people don’t wipe them off the map. Some people can get past it.”

Yes, he gives a flip about Carolina, though nobody in Chapel Hill brings up the outburst much anymore.

“You know, my guess is, I’ll hear about it in Durham,” Williams said. “That would be my guess.”