I could give a s--- about Carolina right now.
--Kansas coach Roy Williams to CBS's Bonnie Bernstein after the
Jayhawks' 81-78 loss to Syracuse in the 2003 NCAA final
All the junk that's been going on, it's been hard....
Thanks for not pursuing it any farther--further.
--Williams, concluding his press conference 20 minutes later
Forget the swear word. Yes, Roy Williams dropped an s bomb on
national TV last April. Yes, he's sorry. Yes, it was out of
character. (Anyone, coach or player, who curses even once during
Williams's practices has to run wind sprints.) But what did his
outburst reveal anyway? That badgering him with the same loaded
question--Are you going to Carolina? Are you going to
Carolina?--would make him angry? That he really didn't "give a
s---" about North Carolina, the place closest to his heart?
But Williams did expose his soul that night, did in fact answer
that loaded question, and he did so with one simple word--the
final word, it just so happens, of his 3,244-word postgame press conference.
Thanks for not pursuing it any farther--further.
Imagine that. Stuck in the white-hot center of a firestorm--from
the unceasing Carolina queries, the pain of a crushing defeat,
all those emotions tumbling out of him--Williams stopped and
corrected himself. Dean Smith would have smiled. Years ago,
whenever Smith used the terms farther or further, the old
coach, Williams's mentor, would stop practice, turn to his team
and explain the difference. "Farther pertains to distance,"
Smith would say, "but if we're going to discuss this, we can
discuss it further as we walk."
The second that Williams unleashed that f word, anybody in the
Carolina Family could have told you: He's coming. You can't
change how you're wired, can't change your family roots, least of
all when that family--the most storied clan in college
basketball--is quaking at its very foundations. Roy Williams may
have been speaking that night in New Orleans, but the last word?
Dean Smith got the last word.
Five months later, on a gorgeous fall day in Chapel Hill,
Williams is still deliberating, still chewing over the Decision.
"It's strange," he says. "I know I did the right thing. But if
you had told me the feelings I was gonna have about myself
standing up in front of my [Kansas] team and the feelings I would
have calling our four recruits, I couldn't have come here.
There's no doubt in my mind. And yet even saying that, I still
think I did the right thing. I'm not looking back. But that is
the lowest I have ever felt about myself. I've never felt like,
Gosh, Roy, you're hurting people."
During his seven days of self-torture, Williams would wake in the
middle of the night and throw up. Shouldn't he just stay at
Kansas, his adopted home? He'd had so much success there in 15
years: nine regular-season conference titles, four Final Fours, a
winning percentage (.805) so far beyond any other active coach's
that he could lose every game this season and still be on top.
The fans worshipped him. It was public knowledge that a KU donor
was ready to name a building on campus after Ol' Roy. And what
about those promises? Like the one he made after turning down
Carolina in 2000, that his next big press conference would be to
announce he was either "dying or retiring." Or the line he had
for any prospect who asked if he'd ever leave Lawrence: I've
turned down 11 different NBA teams. I've said no to North
Carolina, and that's the only place I would have ever left Kansas
Then he'd think of Carolina. Williams couldn't turn down Dean
Smith again, could he? Who would have imagined he'd get a second
chance? It must be fate. And he'd hear the voices of all those
proud former Tar Heels: We need you, Coach. Nobody had begged him
like that in 2000. But Carolina was still Carolina then, with
four starters returning from a Final Four team, not the shell of
a program it had become under Matt Doherty, the fiery young coach
who'd lost his players, alienated the Carolina Family and been
forced to resign. Thirty-six losses in two years! No team in the
country had fallen further--no, farther--than UNC.
Twice Williams resolved to call Dick Baddour, the Carolina
athletic director, and turn down the job. Twice he stopped before
dialing. In the end, he says, there were "a thousand reasons" why
Carolina won by split decision, but one outstripped the others.
In 2001 Kansas had forced out Bob Frederick, the athletic
director who'd hired Williams, and replaced him with Fresno
State's Al Bohl, a fast-talking football man who quickly earned a
reputation as a blowhard. "The dissatisfaction I had for the last
year and a half at Kansas was the biggest factor," Williams says.
"Except for the time I was on the court, I wasn't real happy."
On April 14, a week after the championship game, Williams called
Smith with some final questions: Coach, do you think everyone
there will be pleased with me coming back? Would I be their
choice? Are you sure that you want me to take this job? When
Smith said yes to all three, Williams ended the misery--sort of.
At the press conference announcing his arrival in Chapel Hill, he
wore a tie festooned with Jayhawks.
The scene in Lawrence in the days surrounding Williams's
departure was like one Hoosiers moment after another. After he
was fired in a last-ditch attempt to keep Williams, Bohl lashed
out in a bizarre press conference on his front lawn, charging
that the coach was vindictive and hateful. ("My lawyer called and
said this is bad," Williams says, "but in a way it shows people
what you've been putting up with.") Locals churned out BENEDICT
WILLIAMS T-shirts. At the team banquet senior Nick Collison's
dad, Dave, shouted down a heckler who yelled "Traitor!" at
Williams, and two dozen former Jayhawks lined up outside to shake
the coach's hand. Roy and his wife, Wanda, broke down in tears.
"I was still their coach," he says.
Williams laughs when asked if he's considered seeking therapy.
"I've wondered," he says. "I think I'm gonna be fine, but my
makeup is that I care what people think. That statement about
dying or retiring, that really haunted me. Those BENEDICT
WILLIAMS T-shirts, that hit me harder than anything has ever hit
There are lighter moments, of course, like the time in Lawrence
last summer when one woman, spying Williams at a restaurant,
theatrically stuck out her tongue and left the premises. But some
topics aren't joking matters. For instance, don't ever expect
Williams to put the Jayhawks on Carolina's schedule. And if the
Tar Heels ever drew Kansas in the postseason? "You mean one of
those 'miracles' that happen in the tournament?" Williams says.
"I think I'd strangle everyone on the committee."
On the other hand, at least it would mean Carolina was back in
All families are creepy in a way. --DIANE ARBUS
When the 53-year-old Williams led his first Tar Heels practice in
the wee hours of Oct. 18, at a raucous Dean Smith Center in
Chapel Hill, he took the latest step in a daunting restoration
project. See, his task isn't just to stop the losing, though that
will be challenge enough, but to resuscitate the powder-blue
empire that Smith built over 36 years and a record 879 victories.
It's about nothing less than saving college basketball's first
family. "We have to win or I'm not gonna be sitting here in four
years," Williams says. "But if I cannot get everybody,
particularly the former players, back on the same page with us,
and supporting us, and not going to bed until they find out what
Carolina did that night, then I will not have done the job I want
to do. And that may be even more important to me than winning."
For his part Smith has never liked the term Carolina Family,
favoring Carolina fraternity. But whatever you choose to call
that brotherhood--from Michael Jordan to Phil Ford, James Worthy
to Larry Brown, Vince Carter to Billy Cunningham--everyone agrees
that it's special. "You ever see the movie Soul Food? That's it,"
says former Tar Heels point guard Kenny Smith. "I know Antawn
Jamison's father as well as anyone's dad, and I never played with
Antawn. I used to think all schools were like that until I got to
the NBA and realized they weren't."
But as soon as Doherty, class of '84, took over for the retired
Bill Guthridge three years ago, the Family began squabbling as it
never had before. Many blamed Doherty, a former Williams
assistant at Kansas, for what they saw as a willful desecration
of Carolina tradition. The new coach not only brought his own
staff from Notre Dame, forcing Ford--Guthridge's most popular
assistant and UNC's alltime leading scorer--into athletic
administration, but his brusque style also hastened the
departures of three longtime basketball secretaries, including
Angela Lee, the liaison to three decades of former players.
Yet Doherty wasn't the only lightning rod. Other Family members,
most notably former Smith lieutenants Guthridge and Eddie Fogler,
were still upset with Williams for leaving Carolina at the altar
in 2000. Still others fumed about what they thought was the
unseemly manner in which Baddour and UNC chancellor James Moeser
guillotined Doherty last spring, enlisting his players to turn
state's evidence and then publicly questioning his leadership
after he resigned. What had happened to the genteel Carolina way?
"There's no way that 18-and 19-year-olds should be dictating the
future of a coach," argued Jordan, Doherty's ex-teammate, who
railed at anyone who would listen about the nerve of today's
Over time the alums who once migrated from the NBA to Chapel Hill
each summer slowly began withdrawing from a program they no
longer recognized. "If you go to Thanksgiving dinner with your
mom and dad every year and one year the turkey doesn't taste
right, that's one thing, but we almost stopped having dinners,"
Kenny Smith says. "Everyone realizes now that all you need to do
to get the Family back is continue what Coach Smith already
established. It's hard for someone coming in with his own
aspirations and ideas to understand sometimes. The biggest thing
Coach Williams realizes is that you don't have to do anything."
Oh, but he is planning something for this season: the first full
Carolina basketball reunion since the dedication of the Dean Dome
in 1986. "It was the greatest thing I ever did at Kansas,
bringing those players back and making sure they knew it was
their program," Williams says. Already there are signs of a
revival. More former Tar Heels appeared on campus for pickup
games last summer than in recent years, and the Carolina Pros
charity game, which was conspicuously held at North Carolina
State's arena in 2002, switched to the Dean Dome this year.
Likewise, Williams pulled off the delicate operation of retaining
his Kansas staff (Jerod Haase, Joe Holladay and Steve Robinson)
while keeping Ford in the fold. ("I understand," says Ford. "Even
though I'm not on that staff, I am on that staff, if you know
what I mean.") Along the way, Williams made peace with Guthridge
and Fogler, his fellow assistants on UNC's 1982 national title
team. "The only reason I was mad at him was because he hadn't
come [in 2000]," Guthridge says. "But that was selfish on my
part, because outside of my family I love North Carolina
basketball more than anything and I knew he was the right person
for the job."
And so the Family recovers. In perhaps the most striking example
of its resilience, Doherty remains a card-carrying member as he
takes the year off from coaching. He's living in Charlotte,
prepping for a TV gig, enrolling in some graduate-level courses
in leadership and takeover strategy. "I've made some mistakes,
[things] I would handle differently if I had to do them over
again," he says. "But here I am, I had to resign my position, and
yet I was on the phone today with Larry Brown. I talked to
Michael Jordan last week. Coach Williams called me today, and I
talked to Coach Smith a week ago. It's a powerful group, and it's
neat to be a part of it."
Says Williams, "I try to make sure people understand if I say
anything about what happened here in the past, I'm not blaming
Matt. I will do anything I can to help him. And if he's not back
at the reunion this year, I'm gonna be really ticked."
Noontime in Chapel Hill. Cars honk. Pedestrians gawk. Williams is
taking his daily constitutional: up Manning Road, over to
Franklin Street (where he starts jogging to avoid crowds), past
the statue of Silent Sam ("Legend says he fires his gun every
time a virgin walks by") and back, eventually, to the Dean Dome.
But not before the new coach, while jabbering away with his
guest, crosses an intersection right ... in the path ... of a
The driver slams on his brakes.
"They'll stop as long as we aren't losing," Williams cracks.
Left unsaid is how Carolina fans will react if his team doesn't
match the outlandish expectations of hoops mavens. Let's see if
we've got this straight: UNC, without adding a single impact
player to last year's NIT squad, appears in many preseason Top
10s? Sure, the Heels have three of the nation's best
sophomores--guards Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants, and center
Sean May, who's now recovered from a broken left foot--but are
they really a Final Four contender?
Perhaps it's just a case of pundits noticing the similarities to
another talented but untried bunch with a cinch Hall of Fame
coach and seeing the next Syracuse. Williams has a standard line
for anyone who suggests that he alone makes the difference: Ol'
Roy ain't that good. For starters, Carolina's personnel isn't
really the same as it was last year. ("You and I both know if
Sean May doesn't get hurt, we aren't walking on this street right
now," Williams says.) But even if May is at full speed--just
about every discussion in Chapel Hill contains the worried phrase
if they stay healthy--an overnight return to the elite may be
asking too much. "I'm not so sure they're going to be better just
like that," Williams says. "We've got some major problems to
overcome. The fact is, the depth here is worse than it was at
Kansas last year. It's almost embarrassing to be at North
Carolina and have one point guard and just one big guy who can
consistently play at this level."
To be fair, the Doherty Era had its moments: a 21-2 start and
national Coach of the Year honors his first season, a 67-56 upset
of Williams's Jayhawks on the way to last year's preseason NIT
title and an 82-79 takedown of archrival Duke last spring. But
Doherty's three-year reign was torpedoed, in the end, by an 8-20
record in 2001-02, the unscheduled departures from the team of
six Tar Heels and so much antagonism between him and his players
last season that a half dozen were considering transferring after
the 19-16 campaign.
"Coach Doherty was worried about his relationship with the
players more than winning," says McCants, who bickered with the
coach during the season. "That didn't work. It ain't about liking
a coach; it's about getting the job done."
Adds Felton, "The situation with Coach Doherty shouldn't have
gone down that way. Half the guys on the team don't take
criticism real well, and Coach Doherty's the type of guy, he'd
always tell you what you did wrong. Sometimes he took it
overboard, but there's no fault in that. I wish him the best of
To a man the players hope they can dispel the reputation they
earned in some precincts last season as mutinous brats, a notion
bolstered, fairly or unfairly, by images of them visiting
Baddour's office the week before Doherty was forced out. "People
put the blame on us like we got Coach Doherty fired," says May.
"We didn't go to Dick Baddour. He came to us. We just told him
stuff that happened during the year."
These days, the young Tar Heels say all the right things about
how they appreciate "a clean slate" (McCants), how they're "so
hungry" (Felton) for the new season, how "everything has been
clicking so far" (May), but they acknowledge something else too:
They don't know Williams very well at all. Not yet. Between June
27 and Sept. 5 Williams spent only five days in Chapel Hill,
splitting the rest of his time between the recruiting trail--he
landed four crucial commitments for next year's freshman class,
headed by 6'8" forward Marvin Williams of Bremerton, Wash.--and
the Olympic qualifying tournament, serving on the staff of U.S.
coach Larry Brown.
In the short time they spent with Williams last spring, the young
Heels got a taste of what they can expect. On the one hand,
Williams reassured players like McCants in individual meetings.
("He told me he wasn't worried about me as a person, that he's
expecting me to be a leader," McCants says.) At the same time,
the new staff laid into the Tar Heels for their grades and their
punctuality. Says May, "At our first team meeting a couple of
guys thought they could roll in late. It was just two or three
minutes, but they got on us. To them you're late if you're on
time, so you'd better be early."
Yet even as the summer wore on, an apprehension lingered in some
players' minds. After all, they reasoned, didn't Doherty shadow
Williams for seven years? "A lot of guys think because Coach
Doherty was at Kansas, Coach Williams is just gonna be a tougher
Coach Doherty," May says. "Coach Williams is intense, but they're
two different types of coaches. We hope he's not the same as
Coach Doherty, but for some reason he wins, and I don't care as
long as we're winning."
As part of their research over the summer, May and McCants
eagerly pumped Kansas guard Keith Langford for the skinny on
Williams at Jordan's camp in Santa Barbara, Calif. While Langford
didn't sugarcoat things--"Expect to work your ass off all the
time," he told them--he also explained how he had come to trust
Williams after his initial wariness. "There were certain days I
didn't really like him, but he's gonna get the best out of you,"
Langford says. "I told them personal stories about how humble he
is, how he has a modest house and isn't just trying to impress
recruits all the time. Over two years we really started to
develop a relationship."
It certainly says something that despite Langford's anger over
Williams's departure from Lawrence--he hinted to reporters that
he might transfer--he called Williams the next day to apologize.
"If I can respect him, I can also respect what he wanted to do,"
This year's Tar Heels should be reminiscent of Williams's Kansas
teams, which employed a high-speed version of the secondary break
Doherty learned from Williams. "We won't be stopping to set up so
many plays because we're gonna push the ball upcourt and get a
fast-break layup or an open three," Felton says with unvarnished
glee. "It's not a big adjustment, but it's a challenge because we
have to get into shape."
For his part, Williams says he hasn't watched a single tape of
last season, the better to form his own impressions once practice
started. "What happened last year may not be the style I'm gonna
play," he says, "and emotionally, whether any of us like to admit
it or not, these kids went through some turmoil last year. What
was happening in their lives off the court had a great deal to do
with how they played on the court."
As summer turned into fall, the vibe was undeniably optimistic.
May was delighted to hear that the new staff, unlike Doherty's,
would let him use a one-two jump stop on his half-hook.
(Doherty's staff mandated the two-footed stop.) "As long as you
make 60 percent of your shots, I don't care what you do,"
Holladay told May. And on the first day of conditioning in
September, junior swingman Jawad Williams redlined to the point
of throwing up. "I've never done that in my life," he told Haase,
"but I'll trade that for a Final Four."
Ultimately, Doherty's demise in Chapel Hill came down to this:
Doherty, the Carolina guy, wasn't Carolina enough. Smith and
Williams, by contrast, are bound more tightly than Smith &
Wesson. It's an oft-told (though nonetheless poignant) story: As
the son of an alcoholic father, a boy raised near his native
Asheville by his saintly single mother, Mimmie, who worked
yeoman's hours to make ends meet, Williams found the structure he
craved in Smith's hermetic roundball universe (SI, March 10,
1997). Williams absorbed every nuance of the Carolina philosophy,
taking notes from the moment he joined the freshman team, in '68,
to the day he reluctantly left Smith's side for Kansas 20 years
You can see Smith in the way Williams schedules every practice
down to the minute, the way he always gives his team a Thought
for the Day, the way his players dive on the floor, take charges
and point to their teammates in gratitude for assists. The
resemblance is uncanny. As former Tar Heel Jeff Lebo, now the
coach at Chattanooga, puts it, "When I saw Kansas the last three
years, I saw North Carolina."
Even after Williams turned down Carolina in 2000, he and Smith
(who upon retirement became a consultant to the athletic
department) never missed a golf date, never stopped talking hoops
over the phone. Williams still picks up his mentor's Final Four
tickets so that Smith can avoid standing in line, and on one
recent day Williams tiptoed into Smith's basement office, "just
to see if I felt like we'd put him in a dungeon where there's one
light hanging from the ceiling and one table and one chair and it
smells bad." A torture chamber it wasn't. ("I like it," says
Smith, "I have two secretaries, and I'm out of the way so nobody
Truth be told, while Doherty strained to put his own stamp on the
Tar Heels' program, Smith (Kansas, class of '53) became KU's de
facto fourth assistant. It was Smith who suggested posting a
picture of the Georgia Dome, site of the Final Four, in the
lockers of every Jayhawk two years ago, and Smith who gave
Williams the idea of having his team sign a pledge last season:
If I truly want to win a national championship, I pledge that I
will box out on every possession.
Williams vows to continue consulting his old boss on X's and O's
this season, and he holds out hope that Smith will start
attending every home game, not just the rare ones that aren't
televised. "People think part of the reason I didn't come three
years ago was because it wasn't gonna be my program, which is far
from the truth," Williams says. "Coach Smith and I will talk
basketball, and we will talk quite a bit. Why would I not want to
use such a great resource?"
Granted, Williams and Smith don't share the same DNA. Not
exactly. "I'm not gonna wear a coat and tie to the office every
day like Coach Smith did," Williams says. "If I curse at all,
it's more than he ever does. And he's much more innovative. I
copy people. I'm not the dumbest guy on the block, but he is more
intelligent than 99.9 percent of basketball coaches." Williams
notes that whereas he reads for entertainment (his recent
favorites include Rick Reilly's Missing Links), Smith reads for
intellectual enrichment, devouring such tomes as Parables of
In some ways, though, Williams interprets the Smith Gospels even
more strictly than than the man who created them. Consider: In
the year 2003, Williams, a devout Southern Baptist, still
requires all his recruits to attend church (or synagogue, mosque
etc.) during the first semester of their freshman years. It's an
old Smith rule, but while Smith softened his stance in the 1960s,
allowing players to abstain with a note from their parents,
Williams has never relented.
Ever the puritan, Williams is possessed of a manic zeal for
following rules. "He really goes by the book," Nick Collison
says. "We'd have a barbecue at an assistant coach's house, and
then three months later we'd each get a bill for $6.59." When
Williams takes the NCAA's annual recruiting rules compliance
test--a 40-question, open-book exam required of all
coaches--he'll challenge himself by doing it closed-book instead.
"My record is 19 minutes, and the most I've ever missed is two,"
he says proudly.
That sort of relentless and uncompromising virtue is precisely
what Williams's supporters adore in him and what his detractors
resent. Though he's among the most respected teachers in the
game, the term rival coaches often use to describe Williams is
sanctimonious. Five years ago Williams famously reported Florida
for possible violations in its recruiting battle for Mike Miller
(the NCAA turned up no evidence of wrongdoing), and he admits he
has blown the whistle on coaches in his own conference. "I don't
think coaches should say, 'Well, he's cheating,' but then do
nothing," he says. "If somebody robs a bank, they should be
called on the carpet for that."
It isn't complicated, really. Williams subscribes to a few sacred
beliefs. No one will outwork him. No one will agonize more about
doing "the right thing." No one will adhere more strictly to the
rules, whether they're handed down by the NCAA or Smith or the
Lord Almighty. He is not an innovator, remember, but a copier,
one who clings to the Carolina blueprint as an article of faith.
So when the desperation rang in his ears last spring--We need
you, Coach--there was only one thing to do. Three decades ago
Dean Smith helped bring order and stability to Roy Williams's
world. The least Williams can do now is to repay the favor.
Questions and answers: Grant Wahl's College Basketball Mailbag,
every Wednesday during the season at SI.com/basketball/ncaa.
"COACH SMITH AND I WILL TALK BASKETBALL," SAYS WILLIAMS, "AND WE
WILL TALK QUITE A BIT"
WILLIAMS AND SMITH DON'T SHARE THE SAME DNA. "HE'S MORE
INNOVATIVE," SAYS WILLIAMS. "I COPY"
"NORTH CAROLINA," WILLIAMS TOLD JAYHAWKS RECRUITS, "IS THE ONLY
PLACE I WOULD HAVE LEFT KANSAS FOR"
DURING HIS SEVEN DAYS OF SELF-TORTURE, WILLIAMS WOULD WAKE IN THE
MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT AND THROW UP
WILLIAMS HAS A LINE FOR ANYONE WHO SUGGESTS THAT HE ALONE MAKES
THE DIFFERENCE: OL' ROY AIN'T THAT GOOD