By Grant Wahl
November 03, 2009

Last April, the day after North Carolina won the national championship in college basketball, I got an e-mail in South Africa from SI senior writer Tim Layden. I was living in Johannesburg for nearly a year while on leave from the college basketball beat, but I had stayed up until 4 a.m. to watch the Tar Heels take apart Michigan State in the title game on ESPN International.

Layden, who wrote a terrific story on Carolina's title run, passed along a message from Tar Heels coach Roy Williams: Tell Grant that he's never covering us again in the Final Four.

(Read an excerpt from Roy Williams' new book here)

Williams was joking, of course. But he is a superstitious guy, and he's well aware that in this decade I've covered three of his five teams to reach the Final Four, and all three have lost. His other two? Those were Carolina's 2005 and '09 national champions.

Williams and I shared a good laugh over that when we caught up recently to talk about his new book, Hard Work: A Life On and Off The Court, written with former SI writer Tim Crothers. I followed Williams's career as closely as anyone over the years, and even I learned several new things about him in the book, which is worth the read. Unlike a lot of books by coaches, which tend to focus on how to succeed in business or delve into mind-numbing X's and O's, Williams tells his life story, warts and all.

It's an inspiring tale, one that provides new details of his hardscrabble beginnings in the Blue Ridge Mountains (with an alcoholic father who abused his mother), his rise from unknown UNC assistant to coaching superstar at Kansas, his agonizing decisions in 2000 and '03 over whether to leave KU for Chapel Hill, his long-awaited triumphs in '05 and '09, and his relationships over the years with dozens of players, including Michael Jordan, Nick Collison and Tyler Hansbrough.

As I told Williams, it's good to be back on the college hoops beat, so if you get a chance please submit your thoughtful questions for the return of my college basketball mailbag. Here's an edited version of my recent conversation with Williams: Congratulations on the book. You mention in it that you've had many chances to write a book before but had always turned them down. Why did you decide to write one now?

Roy Williams: I've been asked that question two or three times, and I don't know if I have a real good answer. They kept saying, "Well, you need to do it, you have to do it, you want to do it." But it was [UNC sports information director] Steve Kirschner and Tim [Crothers] that talked to me about it. I'd already had conversations with a couple other people, and it just seemed like the timing was right. When I got into it, I didn't realize how deep I was going to go. That's when it started getting scary. What was the hardest thing for you to discuss in the book?

Williams: My childhood. There's no question about that. There's a lot of things that went on that I had never shared with many people other than my wife and my own family. But I did tell Tim that if we were going to do this, then let's do it the right way. Buddy Baldwin [Williams's high school basketball coach] told me a hundred years ago that if you tell the truth then you don't have to remember what you said. So that's just what we did. That was by far the hardest part to do. I assume a lot of that is connected to your dad. Was it tough for you to balance being truthful about him and also not wanting to bury him in a sense?

Williams: Yeah. It was something where I just told the truth, and yet at the same time he had so many really great qualities, and I tried to bring those out: How much fun he had with life, how he could make people laugh so much, and the way that he ended his life and what he said about my mom when she passed away. Those were very strong moments with me. I've said many times, it was just something that happened. I didn't write the book to make my dad out to be a bad guy at all. I just said what was the truth. But I did try to balance it out to make sure that people knew regardless of what happened he was my dad. I think at the end he did a nice job of trying to mend broken fences. It's clear from reading this book that you did not want to do a so-called "business book" that a lot of coaches do in their books. This is your life story. Why did you decide to go that route?

Williams: They said we can do a business book, we can do a coach's book .... Let me put it to you this way: I read the first 100 pages, went through an unbelievable amount of time doing the thing, proofed it for 40 hours. So I'd read it. But when it finally came I really sat down and read the first 100 pages and I'm thinking, "Why would someone want to buy this book?" And I really did start laughing. And then I said, "Well, at least it's a true story. It's not about me saying how to be successful or tell somebody how to coach." Because if I had to do that I would surely be trying to figure out why somebody would want to read it. Would it be possible to describe the process of how the book got done? I know you're a pretty hard-driving guy.

Williams: It helped kill my golf game this summer. Because it was a lot more time than I really thought it was going to be. I spent so many hours with Tim going over tapes and making sure there was no misunderstanding about how I was saying something. Tim did a great job putting things in order for me. It was so time-demanding. So we have a book and then we go over it again, we change and then we go over it again and make sure everything's right. It was a lot more than I thought. But I told Tim when we started, "If I'm going to do this I'm not going to do it halfway." What it's really shown is that I'll never do another one! How many hours would you say you guys sat and did interviews for the book?

Williams: Well over a hundred. Well over. I've always found you to be very open in interviews. But is there any other stuff in this book that you've never talked about publicly before?

Williams: I guess the two areas would be, one, my childhood, which I hadn't shared hardly any of that with anybody. Then the other part was the personal difficulty of the North Carolina-Kansas decision in 2000 and the decision again in 2003. I think that I probably shared more information there than I had ever before, and some of the pain I went through making the decision. And then the feedback from some people. There wasn't much left out there. I've followed your career closely over the years, but I didn't realize that you were only 2-19 in your first season of coaching at Owen High and 45-68 after five seasons. Now you have the highest winning percentage of any active college coach. Is there a lesson in there?

Williams: It proves what a great country we live in. And I say that laughingly but also truthfully. That's the biggest lesson: That the country we live in does give us so many opportunities to keep working at things we love. And we get better at it, and luckier, and that's a huge part of it. I think the other thing is when I made my decision on what I wanted to do, I've never really varied. I never said maybe I shouldn't do this. I had one tough moment when I was a high school coach for a couple days, but other than that my dream has always been the same. It makes me feel very lucky because so many people in life don't find that thing they really want to do. I thought I knew what I wanted to do, I found out I did know, and then I worked as hard as I possibly could to do it effectively. The other lesson I learned is you can improve, you can learn so much each and every day. I'm 59 years old now, and I still think I can continue to learn and be a better coach this year than I was last year. When you took your first assistant's job at Carolina, it only paid $2,700 a year, which was a big pay cut for your family. Even if we account for inflation, coaches breaking in today don't have to go through that kind of financial hardship, do they?

Williams: Very very few. You'll have some people who may start out being a manager when they're in school, but you find very few that have to do some things like that. I really feel good about it. I feel like I paid the price. And some coaches now still are paying the price of several years as an assistant at four, five or six different schools trying to find their right place. I'm not saying I'm the only one who went through it, but financially to have that kind of hardship when you're 29, 30 years old with two children was something that was great for me, and it's still to this day made me realize how lucky I am. One thing I've been struck by, both in this book and in my own observations over the years, is how you seem to delegate less to your assistant coaches than many other elite coaches, including in recruiting. Do you agree with that?

Williams: I don't know that I would agree with it, because I don't fail to delegate to them. I just want to work as hard as I expect them to work. I don't want to send a coach recruiting and me not go during a recruiting period. That has always really bothered me. I didn't want my assistant or his family to think, "Gosh, he's gone all the time," because they think that now but they also say, "Well, so is Ol' Roy." That makes it easier for me. I think in our profession recruiting is the lifeblood. My guys go out and work their tails off, but I do have a goal that even during the course of the academic year when it's much harder for a head coach to get out, I have a goal to make sure that I get out as much as I possibly can so my guys know that I'm not asking them to do something that I wouldn't do. I will never forget riding back overnight on the Kansas team bus from Stillwater, Okla., to Lawrence, Kan., for an SI story back in 2002, and you stopped in Wichita to hop on a plane for California to recruit during a crazy stretch in your schedule.

Williams: I still do some of those things. I have several of my coaching buddies say that I do more recruiting during the season than any other head coach around. But what I do is when we give our team the day off from practice --NCAA rules state you have to have one day off each week -- that enables me to go somewhere and see a game or a practice. I'm still doing that. I think a couple years ago every single day off that we gave our kids after practice started, I went somewhere recruiting-wise. Or tried to go. A couple times I had weather complications getting there. In this book was there any temptation to settle any old scores against your rivals from over the years?

Williams: No (laughs). Any old scores I have I hope I can settle them on the court, because you remember those a lot longer. What do you hope people take out of this book after reading it?

Williams: I was asked that question one other time recently, and I didn't have a great answer for them. I was asked to do it, and I said OK, and they did have to convince me it would be something that people would want to read. The bottom line is after reading it that in this country we have some great opportunities to do what we want to do, and if you're lucky enough to find what you want and lucky enough to be pretty good at it, if you work as hard as you possibly can you can be successful. And then you have a wonderful life, because you're doing what you want to do. Every morning I get up and go do what I want to do. I don't have to go to work. At the end of the book you give the eulogy at your father's funeral, and it's powerful stuff. How hard was that for you to do at the time and then include it?

Williams: It was hard both times. Hard doing it, and it was not nearly as hard writing it in the book. Because I described my dad, but I also talked about how at the end he did such a great job of mending those broken fences and broken hearts. He didn't change everything. He knew in his own way that he couldn't change everything. But he did try to talk a great deal to me and my brother and several people. He tried to do things that to me showed he was a good man who made some mistakes, like all of us do. How did you get John Grisham to write the foreword?

Williams: Tim's agent, his company is also Grisham's agent. I've met John several times since I came back here. He shows up at games in Charlottesville, his daughter's been to school here and I think his wife has even done some things down here. I've read every book he has ever written and we've had a chance to visit a couple times. They said we might be able to do this, so I said let's get his number and I'll try and call him and see if he will. He was very gracious. Just to end things, my readers will want to know how practice is going so far at North Carolina.

Williams: We've had eight practices, the season's starting about a week earlier than it has for us in the past: We've got an actual game on Nov. 9. With five freshmen and a shorter practice schedule we're throwing a lot of things at them. We've got a couple areas where we have some holes in our game that we're seeing if we can fix or see how we can hide them. If we do that, we have a chance to be really good.

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