One man's quest to overcome being 'winningest coach to never win'
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — As he jogs across the parquet, a sea of University of North Carolina blue washing across the bleachers, Roy Williams has finally come home to Tobacco Road.
After 15 years, the former assistant to legendary Tar Heel coach Dean Smith returned, almost reluctantly, last year to Chapel Hill after a buoyant career at the University of Kansas.
As he left behind hurt feelings to take a job he had turned down twice, the man who coached Michael Jordan told friends he knows exactly the number of miles between Lawrence and Chapel Hill.
Now, as he prepares to take another team to college basketball's vaunted Final Four, the question of the ages is whether the man known for being the winningest coach never to win a title can - finally - throw off that ignoble sobriquet. For a coach who wins nearly 80 percent of his games, it's another test, in prime time, of his ability to muster that elusive ingredient to carry his team over the top when it really counts.
Certainly, fans from Lawrence to Chapel Hill will parse every twitch, every glare and glance, to witness the true grit of the suited man knocking on the pantheon of Tobacco Road. Roy Williams is "a guy I compare to Dan Marino," says Tar Heel fan Damian Mescanti. "He's got all the skills, can break all the records, but until he wins the big game and wins it all - well, it's the difference between being good and being great."
To be sure, if Williams's Heels hold off the run-and-gun challenges from the well-coached squads from Illinois, Michigan State, and Louisville, he wouldn't be alone among famous local coaches to take so long to win. Coach K at Duke went four times, back when reporters called him Mike, before winning, and the venerable Dean Smith's teams left Chapel Hill six times for the big dance before finally coming home with the net and the title.
Still, the weight of expectations weighs heavy on the former high school basketball coach from the North Carolina mountains, who spit in the Mississippi River for good luck after arriving in St. Louis Wednesday.
Not only did he take four unsuccessful trips to the Final Four during his 15 years with the Kansas University Jayhawks, but he arguably coached the best basketball team to never win a title in 1997, a series of springtime follies known forever in Lawrence as "March Sadness." After losing to Arizona, which went on to win the title, Williams made his oft-quoted edict: Keep knocking on the door because "one of these times we're going to kick that sucker down."
Williams can certainly feel pretty good about his accomplishments. Dean Smith considers him the best coach in the country, perhaps to no one's surprise. Michael Jordan has said the Tar Heels are "in good hands" with Williams. After the team's rough start with the coach last year, Tar Heel center Sean May says that he wants to win the championship not for Chapel Hill, not for the fans, not for himself, but for Williams.
Behind Smith and Arizona's Lute Olsen, Williams has the longest streak of consecutive trips - 15 - to the NCAA tourney. One of the reasons: His first emphasis, confidants say, is on character. A day after a season loss at Kentucky, he and his players spent a morning working with 100 Special Olympics athletes on free throws and dribbling at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill.
With his own brand of intensity and competitiveness, Williams doesn't throw chairs like Bobby Knight or gripe like Coach K. Instead, he exhibits more of the controlled, Wizard of Oz quality of his mentor, Dean Smith, who built the Tar Heels into a perennial stronghold in the 1980s. Though his players are known to run just about everywhere they go, he also stresses defense, holding teams to an average of 45 percent shooting from the floor for the last 17 years, while his own teams shot 49.4 percent over the same time period.
"He's different from Dean Smith, in that Dean was more like the wizard behind the curtain, and even though Roy runs practices similar to Dean, the curtain isn't quite as opaque," says Barry Jacobs, a local basketball commentator.
For players, Williams brings an elusive element of loyalty and expectations, extending his attention to even the lowliest bench warmer. He's verbose, upbeat, excited - and, most of all, competitive.
"Even as a kid who sat there at the end of the bench, I knew he cared about me when he yelled at me in practice; it felt good that I was special enough to be yelled at," says Joel Branstrom, a walk-on reserve forward in the 1997 season at KU. "It just goes to show you the kind of guy Coach Williams is. He makes an impact on players, and the kids who buy into what he does, they're going to be rewarded."
After, he went to the Final Four in 2002 and 2003 with the Jayhawks, Williams made the move, at Smith's behest, to the cicada-infested woods of Chapel Hill, as part of a longstanding interconference feeding system (Dean Smith played at Kansas under Phog Allen, and Larry Brown, formerly of UNC, coached at Kansas). But it's also a rivalry between two of the biggest basketball schools in history. After all, Wilt Chamberlain played at KU, Jordan at UNC.
It was a dramatic exit, made worse by Williams' honesty. He had previously turned down the job because, he said, of a love for his players. "Everything at this level becomes bigger than it is, and symbolic as well as real," says Mark Hersey, a KU history professor. "You know, Bear Bryant when he left Texas A&M said, 'Mama called, I got to go,' and he went to Alabama. If Roy Williams had said something similar, people would have appreciated that. But players felt that they weren't worth staying for, and that upset a lot of people."
But beyond the hurt of his departure, questions linger about the toughness of his teams. How big a role the coach plays in the last seconds of a nail-biter, however, is what will fuel debates on sofas and bar stools across the country on Saturday night. And it may be what keeps Williams going, too. "You move on and you try again, that's why people coach," says Mr. Branstrom. "They like the challenge of getting uncommon people to achieve a common goal, to win."