April 11, 2008

Roy Williams is many things -- a wonderful father and husband, a pretty good golfer, a hard worker and most important, a man who wants to be loved by everyone.

He is also the head basketball coach at North Carolina, though you wouldn't have known it by his attire Monday night.

Maybe you heard, Williams was in the Alamodome rooting for the Kansas Jayhawks during the national title game. No surprise there. After all, Williams spent 15 years as the head coach at KU. Also, his son, Scott, who lives in London, was still in town, and Williams wanted to spend as much time as possible with him. Williams also had to stay in San Antonio to be with his star forward, Tyler Hansbrough, at the various National Player of the Year ceremonies held Sunday, the day after the Jayhawks ended North Carolina's season with a 84-66 win in the semifinals.

All of that was understandable. But when he put a Jayhawks sticker on his shirt, fresh wounds were ripped open; untold numbers of North Carolina fans felt as if they'd suddenly gut-punched (to be fair, there were many Tar Heel fans who had no problem with it), and understanding was replaced by anger, disappointment and hurt. That sticker was exactly what it was intended to be -- a visible sign that Roy was supporting Kansas. It also rubbed more than a few North Carolina fans the wrong way.

I'm one of them. As a UNC graduate and longtime Tar Heel fan, I found it curious at best, and disrespectful, unprofessional and inappropriate at worst to see the head coach of my alma mater visibly supporting another team without an equally visible sign that he's North Carolina's coach.

"My makeup is that I care what people think," he told Sports Illustrated in 2003, a line he repeated in various forms throughout the week leading up to UNC's Final Four tilt with Kansas. It's hard to believe Williams cared very much what Tar Heel fans would think of his wardrobe choice Monday night.

Root for Kansas? Fine. Support Kansas? Fine. But there is a way to do so without disrespecting yourself, your team, your employers and your own die-hard fan-base that cares about who you are and who you represent. Why not wear a UNC shirt with a KU sticker, or a KU hat, or a UNC shirt and a KU pompom? A small gesture to be sure, but had he balanced his KU fashion choice with one for North Carolina, this would never have become a story.

In the absence of further evidence, North Carolina fans were left to wonder where Roy's loyalty truly lies. Is it with the school he works for now, the one he, his wife and children graduated from and where he spent 10 years at as an assistant? Or is it with the school he works for now or the school that gave him a chance (on Dean Smith's recommendation) to be a college head coach?

While Williams' gesture has been interpreted as a classy move toward Kansas, it's fair to interpret it as an unclassy move toward North Carolina. Fans can reasonably expect to be heartbroken at the Final Four. They shouldn't expect to see their head coach visibly supporting their conqueror a scant two days later.

Roy doesn't owe Kansas fans anything. He spent 15 years giving them everything he had. Since leaving, he's spent five years, beginning with literally the first 15 minutes of his introductory press conference as North Carolina's head coach in 2003 (at which he wore a Jayhawk tie) praising Kansas -- the school, the state, the people.

Williams' lack of awareness as to how this might be perceived by North Carolina fans is disturbing because it means one of two things: either he didn't realize how it would be perceived by North Carolina fans or he doesn't care. If Williams has a character flaw, it's that he can come off as extremely self-righteous. He often responds to fans questions about his coaching or his team with dismissive comments that sound like a king being insulted that a subject would dare broach the subject in the first place.

For instance, when fans happen to mention how badly they want to win, he all-too-often responds by challenging the legitimacy of their devotion. What, he has been heard to say, do we have invested?

Well, let's see. Fans invest emotionally, which a coach should want because you want an advantage on the court, or in recruiting where many of the nation's top high school stars every year are long-time Tar Heel fans. They invest financially. They invest personally, supporting the team in ways big and small.

This is the same Roy Williams who has asked Tar Heel fans to show more passion since he returned to his alma mater. Show up at games early. Be at the team hotel when we're on the road. Cheer louder and more often. Be back at the Smith Center when we return from a road game, especially a big win, no matter what time of night it is. Oh, and don't forget to open those checkbooks to support the basketball program: with ticket sales, merchandise, travel, or donations to the school's booster club.

You can't ask fans to do all that and then be either surprised or offended when they act like, you know, fans.

As a Tar Heels fan I am grateful for all Roy Williams has done for Carolina, for the person and the coach he is and I hope he UNC's coach for many more years. But his first priority should be to UNC, not Kansas, and there was a way to show his divided loyalty that would have been appropriate. He chose to do it in and with inappropriate fashion.

After all, you can say you love your wife every day, but if you always mention how much you love your ex, eventually your wife will get tired of hearing about it. Roy Williams is married to North Carolina now. For better and for worse.

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