Roy Williams Talks 1991 Final Four, Anthony Harris Injury and Reflects on Career

Brant Wilkerson-New

North Carolina coach Roy Williams met with the media on Friday morning as North Carolina prepares to host Georgia Tech on Saturday afternoon.

After Williams tied Dean Smith with 779 career victories on Monday night, the conversation had a distinct nostalgia vibe.

Here's what Williams had to say.

If you could flash back, what was it like in the 1991 Final Four, having to coach against Dean Smith?

It was a pain in the rear end because that’s all everybody wanted to talk about in the lead-up to the game as opposed to talking about our teams. In ’93 when it happened again, Coach and I got together and said we’re not going to talk about it at all. It was way too much attention to it from that viewpoint. I really wanted to focus on our team because we had really done a great job to get there. We weren’t expected to be that good, so it was just a tremendous run for us; my first Final Four and I didn’t have a chance to enjoy it quite as much because of that.

Then, the end of the game, it was, in fact it was now that you mention it, it was a little bit similar to the game the other night, because at the end of the game I was so upset for two reasons: I didn’t think Coach should have been thrown out of the game; that really bothered me and the fact that by him being thrown out of the game, it was going to take away from a really nice win for our team and he said that himself.

The other night when the game was over with and Steve stopped me because I was going to the locker room and I told him I didn’t want to do that. I forget what he said, but he said, ‘Coach we need this, it’s going to be quick,’ or whatever. I said, ‘I just don’t want to do that, I want to go see Anthony.’

I didn’t get a chance in my own mind in ’91 to have my team enjoy the game and because of Anthony the other night, I don’t think my team enjoyed the game.

’91 is a long time ago and you were five years old them, probably.

Was it important for you to show Coach Smith how much you had learned, was it important for you to win that game?

It was important for me because of my team, it had nothing to do with Coach Smith. Even to the extent, it was the first time I had anything like that, I never looked at their bench one time during the game. I made it that, I was going to coach the game. I was never going to look down there and it worked, so when we play Jerod, we play C.B., we play Wes, I never looked at the other bench, never look. That time, it was, I needed that … when he came down and was tossed, it was a very emotional second for me.

A decade ago, you had nine players miss game time due to injury. You’re not there yet, but in terms of games missed, you’re going to blow past that with Anthony’s injury. Is this unprecedented for you?

It’s been really hard. You think about it, Sterling was going to be in our top six, at worst. Cole was arguably and probably rightfully so and truthfully our best player and it was him and Anthony and Jeremiah to that point.

That part, it has been difficult, but I was talking to another coach the other day and he said, ‘It is the most weird thing I’ve ever seen, but,’ both of us said at the same time, ‘Nobody is going to feel sorry for North Carolina,’ so I realize that, but that has made it a more difficult season for us.

The good news is we got 18 more — not good news about 18 more — but the good news is we’ve got a lot of games left to play.

What do you remember from the first games in Anchorage?

Yeah, ‘U-A-A, U-A-A,’ and I was so dadgum tired of listening to that, I thought, ‘Jeez, it’s my first game. Let’s shut up and let me coach the game.’ No, I remember that very vividly and California in the second round and then Seton Hall with my buddy P.J. Carlesimo in the finals.

What was it like getting that first win, considering what was going on?

We’d just been put on probation Halloween night, there was a lot of stuff going on. So, the kids, we just tried to focus on our team and what we could control, that old saying, but it’s true. We sort of found strength from each other. The kids believed in me and gave me a chance, and I’ve said it a hundred times: that was the most important part of my entire coaching, because those kids did, they gave me a chance and believed — at least acted like they believed — in what I was saying.

Two of those guys have been NBA general managers, so they’re basketball people. Kevin Pritchard still is and Milt Newton has been and is an assistant GM right now. That was the fun part of it, was just how we sort of got together. It was hard, we had some difficult times, but I look back on some of those as the greatest moments. The losing wasn’t much fun but the relationships with those guys, it was special.

How do you think your coaching career would be different if you had started earlier?

I never really thought of it. I though the timing, I still thought Coach was mentally deranged when he came in and told me that he thought I had a great chance to be the head coach at Kansas. I told Wanda, ‘Man, he’s gone crazy,’ but it worked out.

At 38, I was very comfortable and confident and scared to death. I know it’s hard to say all those things, but it really was. They did give me a chance and I was silly because things kept happening with the contract, so I didn’t sign the contract until April after my first year, so they could have fired me any time they wanted, but I trusted Bob Frederick so much.

Those days with the kids and the relationships; I just got a text from Mark Randall the other day just remembering some of those things and it’s, like I say, great, great times.

You’re about halfway through the timeline on Cole’s recovery. What has he been able to do, what progress is he making?

I really don’t get involved in that. I say, ‘How you feeling?’ He says, ‘Good, and I walk out.’ I really do. ‘Knee looks good to me,’ and I walk out … the whole thing is we’re not going to try to push him and get him out there any earlier. He’s got to feel completely safe about himself. Everybody says the surgery was great, his rehab is going great. I really haven’t talked to him.

Monday, I guess, is the three-week mark … so, I have no idea.

What’s he doing in practice?

He hasn’t done anything; nothing. He comes out there and we get it together in the meeting, then they take him off to eat pizza or something. I don’t know what they do, put him in the swimming pool, work on his backstroke.

Is the approach done with a one-and-done player

Never had one until right now, so we’ll see. Again, I’m going to treat him like he was my son, like I would want his parents to treat my son and then we’ll see what happens.

Can you put in perspective being the head guy at places like Carolina and Kansas?

My detractors say, ‘He should have won games; he’s only coached at Kansas at North Carolina.’ They’re right, it’s been one way.

But, when we got to Kansas we were on probation and when we got here, we hadn’t gone to the tournament two years in a row, so I am comfortable coaching. It’s just all I’ve ever wanted to do.

I remember turning down George Mason. The AD was coming down to meet with me and sign the contract and I was going to go back. I called him at 6 a.m. and said, ‘Don’t come.’ I called Coach Smith at 10 because I knew he wasn’t going to be up at 6, and I told him, ‘I’ve got some good news and bad news, either way you look at it.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Coach, I called to tell them I wasn’t coming because it didn’t feel like it was the right thing.’ I’ll never forget that he said, ‘Everything is going to be fine. I love the way you’re patient; everything is going to work out one of these days and a job is going to open up that’s going to have your name written all over it, staring right in the face.’

That was in May, and then in July, I was named the coach at Kansas.

How much do you remember about Coach Smith calling to say he was retiring?

It wasn’t at that time. We met in the spring when it was all over with and he’d had those thoughts for two or three years in a row, we had talked about at the time. He always got a little rejuvenated, drank some more water I guess over the summer, but it wasn’t at the time period.

I called him and we talked a little bit after the game in tournament and we talked a little bit again after they lost.

What does it say about Jeremiah and Anthony, given the emotions his teammates had regarding his injury?

Jeremiah has done it; he was out for two straight years and he knows what Anthony is going through.

In that weight room over there … I was over there a lot, Monday, Wednesday, Friday morning and those kids in there busting their tails. I’ve never seen … again, I put them in this category: they were Tyler Hansbrough-esq in that weight room trying to get better.

With all of the ‘Next man up’ discussions, are you having to coach morale?

No, not at all. Guys got to play and they get tired of hearing it, but you know what’s going to happen tomorrow? North Carolina’s going to play, regardless of who’s out there. I guess we lose 15 guys, maybe we’ll cancel the season or something, but as far as I know, we’re going to play and that’s the attitude you’ve got to have.

Coach Smith didn’t want the limelight, and you seem that way too. You know he’d be proud of you?

Yeah, and Scott Smith said that afterwards … the toughest moment is I wanted to go see Anthony; that’s the only thing I cared about. The second toughest moment is when Scott said that and I think he would be, and he should be, because every dadgum thing I do, I got from him.

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