Williams Keeps Desire Burning
North Carolina Coach Roy Williams has returned to the Final Four, and maybe he should have taken his friends’ advice.
They encouraged Williams to publicly downplay his desire to win a national championship, which eluded him in four Final Four appearances at Kansas, figuring candor would only stir expectations.
And those closest to Williams also warned him when he left Kansas to rebuild his alma mater.
He didn’t listen then, either.
“My buddies all keep telling me that I should just shut my trap about it ... just stop bringing so much attention to it by always talking about it,” Williams said. “They tell me that I’m just opening myself up to criticism and failure because I openly state how much I want it.
“But I do want it. I do desperately want to win one.”
Williams’ pursuit of the Division I men’s title is among the intriguing story lines of the Final Four here at the Edward Jones Dome.
He’s under the microscope again on a national stage as North Carolina (31-4) faces Michigan State (26-6) on Saturday in a semifinal. In only his second season back at Chapel Hill, Williams has guided the Tar Heels to a record 16th Final Four, their first since 2000.
Williams, a four-time national coach of the year, has been among the game’s most successful coaches for the last 17 years but still seeks its biggest prize. His career has taken a path similar to that of Hall of Fame Coach Dean Smith, whom Williams worked under for 10 years as a Tar Heel assistant.
Smith won the first of his two national championships in his seventh Final Four, and some media members and fans criticized him for not having won more titles in his record-setting career.
Although he’s eager to win a national title, Williams doesn’t need it for validation. Few coaches have had as much success or forged such strong bonds with players, and Williams is proud of his efforts.
The Tar Heels are too.
“I’ve said this a lot this year: None of this would be happening for us if Coach Williams wasn’t here,” All-American junior center Sean May said. “Everything we’ve accomplished is because he’s the type of coach he is.
“He convinced us to totally buy into what he was saying. We all know about the fact that he hasn’t won a national championship, but he’s done a great job. He’s been to five Final Fours now, and his track record speaks for itself -- he can coach.”
Williams, 54, has a record of 468-116 in 15 years at Kansas and two at North Carolina. His .801 winning percentage is the highest among active coaches, and ranks fourth in NCAA history.
In the NCAA tournament, Williams is eighth all-time with 39 victories, one behind Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim. He has the most tournament victories among coaches who have not won a national championship, and no one needed to remind him.
“My dream right now is to live long enough to coach my grandchildren in Little League baseball and little league basketball, and my second dream is to win a national championship,” Williams said. “But at one point, winning the national championship was in front.
“I decided I needed to change that around after 1997, because that was such a tough one. I was able to change it around, and I think that’s given me some better perspective about what I want.”
Kansas was 34-2 in the 1996-97 season, losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Arizona, which won the championship.
The Jayhawks were considered the nation’s most talented team, and forwards Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce, center Scot Pollard and point guard Jacque Vaughn were chosen in the first round of the NBA draft. Tar Heel assistant Jerod Haase also was a member of that team.
“Those kids were all model citizens,” Williams said. “We had two first-team academic All-Americans, four guys who went on to be No. 1 NBA draft choices, and six seniors graduated, but all I could think about is that we didn’t make the Final Four and we didn’t win a national championship.
“It killed me every time I would see Jacque Vaughn and Jerod Haase. It was the only thing I could think about. Then one day I just started thinking, ‘Wait a minute! We went 34-2, all those great kids and all those accomplishments. What else do you have to do to feel like you’re doing an OK job?’ That’s when I changed.”
His determination to win, however, hasn’t changed.
Williams has pushed the Tar Heels to play harder and faster, and they have responded to his prodding after having rebelled last season in “the most difficult year” Williams ever had coaching.
Inheriting a team with deep emotional wounds opened during Matt Doherty’s stormy three-year reign as coach, Williams also brought baggage from his difficult decision to leave Kansas.
They’ve moved on together.
“It’s all about maturity,” senior forward Jawad Williams said. “Guys learned from last year, and now they believe in what Coach Williams is saying. Everybody has that trust that we need to have in each other.”
The hope of building trust helped Williams endure the problems in his first season back at Chapel Hill.
“I had the emotion of leaving a place that I loved, and had been for years,” he said. “You had the difficult emotions of the kids, who had gone through a tough time at North Carolina.
“You’re trying to establish the trust that you need in a coach-player relationship. Then you go through injuries and you don’t have enough depth at certain positions. It was just a difficult year.”
This season has been among Williams’ most rewarding.
North Carolina won its first outright Atlantic Coast Conference championship since 1993 -- also the last time it won a national championship. Top-seeded in the Syracuse Regional, the Tar Heels cruised to victories in the first two rounds, defeated Villanova, 67-66, in the Sweet 16 and Wisconsin, 88-82, in the Elite Eight.
“We’ve gotten to this point because we’ve done what Coach Williams has told us to do, and I think we all would like to be part of his first team to win a national championship,” May said. “But no matter what happens, it doesn’t make him any less of a coach.
“He’s a great coach no matter what. You can’t do the things Coach Williams has done unless you’re a great coach.”
Many coaches said Michigan State possesses the talent to defeat North Carolina, though they privately expressed support for Williams to win his first national title.
Regardless of the outcome, Williams said he’s content.
“There are some good coaches who have won a national championship but don’t have the relationships with their players that I have with mine, and that’s important to me,” Williams said. “I do desperately want to win one, but if I retire 15 years from now without a national championship and I can still have the relationships with my players that I have right now, I’m going to be happy.
“Now, hopefully, we’ve won some games in there too. But if you read in the paper that I jumped off the top of a building because I didn’t win a national championship, do me a favor and investigate that one. I guarantee you that I’m not going to jump off of a building if we don’t win one, so that’ll mean somebody pushed my rear end.”
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Fifth Time Lucky?
Roy Williams took Kansas to the Final Four four times in 15 seasons but is still looking for his first NCAA championship. The Jayhawks’ trips to the Final Four:
*--* Year Record What Happened 1990-91 27-8 Lost to Duke, 72-65, in championship game. Mike Krzyzewski was then where Williams is now, 0-4 in Final Four appearances. That ended when Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley sparked the Blue Devils to a wire-to-wire victory. 1992-93 29-7 Lost to North Carolina, 78-68, in semifinals. Though trailing throughout the second half, Kansas kept the score close but couldn’t find an answer to the 25 points scored by North Carolina’s Donald Williams. 2001-02 33-4 Lost to Maryland, 97-88, in semifinals. Kansas cut the Terrapin lead to four points with 20 seconds to play, but several players then called for a timeout that the Jayhawks didn’t have. The resulting technical foul helped Maryland keep control in the waning moments. 2002-03 30-8 Lost to Syracuse, 81-78, in championship game. The senior-led Jayhawks looked to be the team to beat after whipping Marquette, 94-61, in the semifinals. But Kansas made only four of 17 second-half free throws and failed to convert in the final seconds of loss.