|Tuesday, April 15
Updated: April 16, 8:41 PM ET
Williams couldn't say no twice to alma mater
By Andy Katz
Roy Williams' decision to return to North Carolina on Monday was based on his desire to return to his roots -- both basketball and personal.
He didn't say former coach Dean Smith told him to return. He didn't have to -- it's understood within the Carolina program that disappointing coach Smith doesn't happen twice, let alone once, for most members of the clan.
"Coach Williams and all the former players have such a respect and thankfulness to play for coach Smith that that when he tells you something, you do it,'' said Chattanooga coach Jeff Lebo, a former Carolina player. "Coach Williams had a hard decision to make. But when coach Smith calls or says something, you have to give it a very, heavy thought. The one thing you never want to do as a player is to disappoint him.''
Smith is indeed the father figure in the Carolina program, and Lebo is convinced that Williams was pained over telling Smith no three years ago, when the job last opened. Instead, Williams agonized over the decision and, after a week of soul searching, decided to stay at Kansas. North Carolina hired, reportedly against Smith's wishes, former Carolina player Matt Doherty.
That reign lasted three years. Doherty left the program two weeks ago. After Kansas finished the season by losing to Syracuse in the national title game, North Carolina was back, asking Williams again. Williams said during Monday night's news conference that he spoke with Smith during this decision process, but not as often as he had three years ago.
Williams said Smith told him then that he should make the decision that was best personally for him. Williams noted that Kansas fans were upset with Smith for the last job search, so he didn't want to lean on him too much this time.
Yet, that probably weighed heavily on Williams' mind. Every Carolina "family member" has said that Smith was the dominant figure in their lives in basketball. A number of them told ESPN.com over the past few weeks that they didn't want to see an outsider replace Doherty. They expected Williams to say yes to Smith and Carolina this time.
"That probably had something to do with it this time,'' Lebo said of Williams' first refusal to come to Chapel Hill in 2000. "Coach Williams is an emotional guy. He knows that coach Smith got him his start in basketball and when he was asked to come back the first time, it didn't work out. It disappointed Coach and it disappointed a lot of North Carolina people the first time.
"That's a hard thing to live with because of the relationship with coach,'' Lebo said. "Coach Smith and coach Williams have a special relationship and that disappointment of knowing what happened probably weighed on him the last couple of years.''
And this latest decision was clearly just as hard as the last one, if not harder.
Williams said that he nearly called North Carolina athletics director Dick Baddour twice over the weekend and told him he wasn't coming back to UNC. Williams wears his heart on his sleeve and had a hard time saying goodbye to his Kansas players Monday, leaving a meeting teary-eyed. It wasn't an easy call.
His opening monologue Monday night at North Carolina, in which he thanked and saluted Kansas, was one of the most unique statements at a college basketball news conference. It spoke volumes as to why he made the decision he made.
"Unless you've been involved or played there, you can't explain what it's like to play at Carolina,'' Lebo said. "Roy understands the massive responsibility and the guy can coach the game of basketball. He's classy and he fits everything coach Smith believes in.''
The timing to leave Kansas is better for Williams now than three years ago. His good friend, Bob Frederick, was still the athletics director then. Frederick hired Williams, but he was forced out and replaced by Al Bohl two years ago (Bohl was fired last week, although sources within Kansas say he wasn't let go just because Williams didn't get along with him or with the hope Williams would stay; there were other coaches who wanted Bohl gone as well).
In 2000, Kansas' future was bright with Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich finishing their freshmen season. A year ago, Williams coached the trio to a Final Four; without Gooden this year, Kansas went to the national title game. The Jayhawks are still stocked next season with juniors-to-be Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles and Keith Langford as well as incoming freshman David Padgett.
But Williams is walking into an even better situation -- at least next season -- in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels should be a Final Four contender with sophomores-to-be Raymond Felton at the point, Rashad McCants at shooting guard and Sean May inside, once he's healthy after suffering a broken foot which curtailed much of his freshman season. The Tar Heels had two of the best role players in the ACC in Jawad Williams in David Noel, too.
Williams also will be the peacemaker in the Carolina program. He'll bring back former assistant Phil Ford, at least initially. Doherty came under fire early in his three-year tenure when he didn't retain Ford or any other assistant from Bill Guthridge's staff. Doherty told ESPN in an interview two weeks ago that he asked if it were OK to bring his staff with him from Notre Dame and was told yes.
Williams said during his news conference Monday that Ford would be a bridge between his current staff and when the rest of his assistants come from Kansas. Williams said he would bring his entire staff with him if assistant Joe Holladay doesn't get the Jayhawks' head coaching position (Holladay isn't expected to get the job). Williams said he hadn't talked to Ford about the present position. It's unclear if Ford would be retained in some form if everyone from Williams' Kansas staff comes to North Carolina.
Still, Williams is making it clear that his staff will be the North Carolina staff, not Williams' staff. Williams also hinted that he would repair any other open wounds caused by dissension within the Carolina program. He did say he talked to Doherty, but didn't say if Doherty would be back in the "Carolina family" in a public nature.
Williams, 52, will likely finish his career at North Carolina. But his legacy will be hard to pin down. Kansas sources said that if he stayed in Lawrence, he would have had something named after him. The court is already named for James Naismith and the arena after Phog Allen, but Williams could have had a practice facility or another building named after him whenever he retired.
The emotion of his departure is still raw. A few fans called the Kansas sports information department Monday in tears over Williams' decision. The players were bitter over his departure. A number of people in the athletic department felt a bit burned and betrayed.
But they know this decision was done on Williams' terms. He waited until he fulfilled his Kansas obligations by going through with the Wooden Award ceremonies in Los Angeles over the weekend. He accepted a Legends of Coaching Award based on his 15 years at Kansas. He also stood by Collison, who was one of the five finalists for the Wooden Award (which eventually went to Texas' T.J. Ford).
As Williams entered Allen Fieldhouse on Wednesday for the first time since he left to become the North Carolina coach Monday, he told local reporters and at least one KU staff member that he would attend Thursday night's team banquet.
No administrator, as of late Wednesday night, had spoken to Williams about not attending. A few Kansas administrators had expressed concern that it would be too awkward for Williams to be at the banquet. They could still speak to him Thursday morning in anticipation of the 8 p.m. ET event.
Williams made sure he let the Kansas faithful how much he loves the Jayhawk nation. He said his heart is torn. But his legacy will now reside in Chapel Hill, under the shadow of Smith.
Whether or not he or any one basketball coach at North Carolina can truly have his own identity in the post-Smith era is still unknown.
North Carolina is Smith's program. And it always will be as long as the Tar Heels keep every coaching search in the family.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.