Williams digs in his Heels

College basketball: After 418 wins, the coach is 0-0 as he returns to his Carolina roots, trying to resurrect a powerhouse.

November 22, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - He is 53 years old and starting all over again. No matter what Roy Williams accomplished in his first head coaching job at Kansas, he hasn't done anything yet at North Carolina.

He is simply another guy who is trying to replace Dean Smith.

That is why some folks back in Lawrence wondered whether Williams made the right decision last spring in returning to his roots and attempting to resurrect the Tar Heels as a national power.

Those, at least, who are still talking to him.

"One of my best friends said he couldn't understand why the Kansas people were upset," Williams recalled recently, sitting in the office that Smith once occupied in a building that bears his name.

"He said, `You gave up more than anybody.' I asked him what he meant. He said, `Coaches who go to one place and coach that one place for their entire careers are thought of differently than somebody else.'"

In succeeding Matt Doherty, Williams surrendered the chance of being regarded at Kansas as a modern-day Phog Allen to the current generation of Jayhawks fans, beloved as much for who he is and what he stands for as for his coaching record.

The record - 418 victories in 15 seasons and four Final Four appearances, including the past two years - has been wiped clean. The new ledger at North Carolina begins tonight, when the No. 9 Tar Heels open their season at home against Old Dominion.

"A lot of people think, `Oh yeah, we're back,'" Williams said. "It doesn't happen like that. There's a lot of sweat and hard work. I'm being truthful when I tell them, `Old Roy is not that good because that's the only significant change.' We finished seventh [in the ACC] last year."

Tough Kansas parting

At least he's got the "we" part down now, meaning the Tar Heels, because it got a little confusing where he was emotionally in those first frantic, fretful days after accepting athletic director Dick Baddour's offer.

There was the first news conference here when Williams talked more about Kansas than he did about North Carolina and was still wearing a tie with the Jayhawks insignia on it. There was the tearful and slightly tense team banquet in Lawrence a few days later, and the subsequent trips back and forth.

Now, thankfully, there is only basketball.

"I do believe things are going to be smoother, things are going to be less chaotic and more cohesive," said Williams, alluding to the three tumultuous seasons under Doherty. "A lot of that is the maturity of the guys and not because of what Roy Williams brings."

What does Williams bring that Doherty, who was named national Coach of the Year after finishing 26-7 his first season, lacked?

"They demand respect," Melvin Scott, a junior guard from Baltimore, said of Williams and his experienced staff that includes former Florida State coach Steve Robinson. "We listened to coaches last year, but to see all that experience, you have to listen to what they say [this year]. Even if you don't agree with it at the moment, these coaches have won a lot of games."

In fact, Williams has the highest winning percentage (.805) of any active coach in the country and the third highest of all time, right behind legends Clair Bee and Adolph Rupp and ahead of John Wooden.

"He's in the NCAA tournament every year, so whatever he's doing has got to be right," said point guard Raymond Felton, who along with fellow sophomores Rashad McCants and Sean May is expected to carry the Tar Heels this season. "All we have to do is listen and try to get better every day."

Williams said he didn't look at any tapes from last season until four days before the start of practice last month. He watched one: a three-point win at home over Duke to close the regular season. That win - and the one over Maryland in the first round of the ACC tournament - seemed to make Doherty's job safe.

But shortly after North Carolina finished its season with a National Invitation Tournament loss to Georgetown, the whispers began. Williams said he heard them first from his old high school coach outside Asheville, N.C. They grew stronger as Kansas advanced through the NCAA tournament and reached a climax at the Final Four in New Orleans.

That was where, minutes after the Jayhawks lost to Syracuse in the championship game, Williams made his now famous "I could give a ---- about North Carolina right now" comment to a television reporter. Smith's post-game visit to the hotel suite where Williams and his family were staying only fueled speculation that an offer was about to be - or already had been - made.

Smith: `We need you'

"Coach Smith only did one thing differently than he did the last time," said Williams, referring to the discussions in the summer of 2000 to succeed Bill Guthridge, Smith's former assistant whose three years resulted in an 80-28 record and two Final Fours. "Both times he made references to `I want you to do what you want to do. It's not going to change our relationship. You have to do what makes you most comfortable.'

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