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April 2, 2008

Emotions running high for UNC's Williams

MORE: NCAA Tournament Central

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. Outside the door and down the steps, they're waiting for him with cameras.

Roy Williams' press conference begins in 2 minutes, but as he paces about his digs at the Smith Center, the North Carolina basketball coach hardly seems hurried as he points toward the wall and begins to count.

"That's Drew Gooden and I at the Wooden Award ceremony," says Williams, motioning toward a photo. "There's Nick Collison Jeff Boschee Paul Pierce Allen Fieldhouse on Senior Day."

Each shelf is stacked with stories, each wall mounted with memories from Williams' 15-year tenure as Kansas' head coach.

A final tally reveals that 34 pieces of Jayhawks memorabilia adorn Williams' second-floor office. There's even a picture of North Carolina and NBA legend Michael Jordan wearing a Kansas shirt. Jordan requested it after working one of Williams' camps more than a decade ago.

"He was on his way to speak at a Boys and Girls Club," Williams says. "And he told me he wanted to let everyone to know where he stood."

Williams reaches for his desk and fiddles with a Kirk Hinrich bobblehead. His eyes sparkle and his voice booms with energy. Each time he talks about his former team his former school he says he can't help but smile.

If only folks in Lawrence could do the same.

Three days before North Carolina takes the court in the Final Four, the coach who tells his players to "enjoy the ride" is having trouble heeding his own advice. That's because the Tar Heels are matched against Kansas the one school Williams prayed he'd never have to play.

"He's dreading this for a number of reasons," Williams' son, Scott, said. "He's thrilled to be in the Final Four, and he won't lose his focus when he's on the court. But from a personal standpoint I know this is bothering him a great deal."

As if trying to defeat his former school isn't burdensome enough, Williams is aware that a large group of Jayhawks fans are still livid with him for leaving Kansas for North Carolina his alma mater in 2003.

Williams guided Kansas to four Final Fours during his time in Lawrence, yet the crowd goes bananas when a losing North Carolina score is announced at Allen Fieldhouse. He won more games than any coach in the 1990s, but "Benedict Williams" shirts are still seen frequently throughout town.

Kansas claimed conference championships in nine of Williams' final 13 seasons, but in the Jayhawks' pregame highlight video, his image is shown only for a few seconds.

And even then, almost on cue, fans hiss.

"I know he hears those stories, and I know it hurts him," said Boschee, who played for Williams from 1998-2002. "He's a sensitive guy. He doesn't care what people think about his coaching. But I think he listens to comments about what type of person he is. He takes great pride in his character.

"It really is ridiculous. The people who boo him are childish. They need to get over it."

Some have, but even Williams' staunchest supporters know the focus of Saturday's national semifinal won't be Kansas vs. North Carolina. It'll be Kansas vs. Roy. That, more than anything, has Williams on edge as he prepares for the most emotional game of his career.

"We can sit here for two hours and talk about all the negative things," Williams said. "But the negative things should only take about one percent of our time. This should be about a great Kansas team playing a great North Carolina team. That other stuff should command about one percent of our attention.

"The fact that it's not isn't very pleasant."

Hard feelings linger

Tuesday night, in the middle of all his game prep, media responsibilities and film sessions, Roy Williams found time for a quiet dinner at his home with family friend Ted Seagroves.

The crab legs and Caesar salad were delicious. But when he looked across the table at his buddy, Ted sensed something wasn't right.

"It was obvious," he said, "that Roy was hurting."

Earlier in the day, Williams read an Associated Press article about the family-owned barbershop where he used to get his haircut in Lawrence. Williams' picture was once displayed prominently in the front of the store. Now it hangs near the commode in the restroom or as it's been re-named, The Roy Room.

Williams at Kansas
Year Rec. NCAA tourney result
'88-89 19-12 ---
'89-90 30-5 2nd round
'90-91 27-8 Nat'l runnerup
'91-92 27-5 2nd round
'92-93 29-7 Final Four
'93-94 27-8 Sweet 16
'94-95 25-6 Sweet 16
'95-96 29-5 Elite Eight
'96-97 34-2 Sweet 16
'97-98 35-4 2nd round
'98-99 23-10 2nd round
'99-00 24-10 2nd round
'00-01 26-7 Sweet 16
'01-02 33-4 Final Four
'02-03 30-8 Nat'l runnerup
Total 418-101 (.805)
Williams at North Carolina
Year Rec. NCAA tourney result
'03-04 19-11 2nd round
'04-05 33-4 Champions
'05-06 23-8 2nd round
'06-07 31-7 Elite Eight
'07-08 36-2 Final Four (in progress)
Total 142-32 (.816)
"We figured if Roy had stuck around, they would have named a building after him," owner John Amyx said. "So we decided to name a room after him. That seemed to be the best place to see his picture, too."

Seagroves said Tuesday wasn't the first time his friend had been disappointed by a derogatory article.

"He still reads the paper and hears those comments," Seagroves said. "You can see the hurt in him when he talks about it now. I don't think he expected such strong resentment from the fans and folks there. He loves Kansas. There's a part of him that would still love to be there."

As much as those situations upset Williams, some Jayhawk faithful say they have plenty of reasons to be angry, too.

Many of them refer to Williams as a traitor and a turncoat and say he "betrayed" them when he left Kansas for North Carolina.

"People view the situation like a messy divorce or an ugly breakup," said Scott Buxton, one of Williams' closest friends in Lawrence. "It's a shame they have to be so mean-spirited about it."

For most Kansas fans, the biggest problem with Williams' departure wasn't so much that he left, but that he did so three years after vowing to finish his career as a Jayhawk.

Williams flirted with the North Carolina job when the Tar Heels tried to woo him in 2000. Then, with nearly 15,000 Kansans watching on the Memorial Stadium JumboTron, he gave his famous "I'm stayin'" speech. The future of the Jayhawks' program seemed set.

Things changed, though, over the next few years.

The Jayhawks enjoyed tremendous success on the court reaching the Final Four in 2002 and 2003 but away from it Williams was often miserable. The athletic director who hired him, Bob Frederick, had been forced out in the spring of 2001 and replaced with Al Bohl.

Williams' relationship with Bohl was strained from the get-go, and the administrative goings-on caused him so much discontent that, when the Tar Heels offered him the job again in 2003, he accepted even though Kansas had tried to appease Williams by firing Bohl less than a week earlier.

Even today, there is a faction of Kansas fans who believe Williams-to-North Carolina II was scripted, and that he and the Tar Heels administration had worked out the deal months before he officially accepted it following KU's loss to Syracuse in the national title game.

"That's so far from the truth that I wouldn't even do it the dignity of discussing it with someone," Williams said. "Other than a serious thing happening to someone in my family, there is no way a situation could bother me any worse."

Indeed, so torn was Williams that, during the week when he was attempting to make his decision, he'd wake up in the middle of the night, dart toward to the toilet and throw up.

The weekend after the Final Four, Williams still hadn't reached a decision. He flew to Los Angeles to attend the Wooden Award ceremony with Collison and stayed at the home of close friend and Kansas booster Dana Anderson.

Anderson said he and Williams discussed his situation in his living room a few hours before he drove him to the airport.

"He had tears in his eyes the whole time," Anderson said.

Williams told Anderson that his mentor, former North Carolina coach Dean Smith, had told him that he was the only coach who could get the Tar Heels' program turned around and that it was time to come home.

Smith, ironically, is a Kansas alum, and Anderson reminded Williams that the Jayhawks once tried to lure Smith back to his alma mater before it hired Ted Owens.

"Dean turned us down," Anderson said. "He told us, 'No, I've built something special at North Carolina and I have to stay.' Then they built the Dean Dome. I told Coach Williams that there will never be a Williams Dome at North Carolina. Apparently I wasn't a very good salesman."

There were other factors.

Williams' sister was not in good health, and he wanted to develop a better relationship with his father, with whom he'd never been close. His wife Wanda's family was in North Carolina, too, and his daughter, Kimberly, attended school there.

Anderson talked about those things with Williams on the drive to the airport that morning. Once they dropped the coach off, Anderson turned to his wife.

"We've lost him," he told her.

The following day Williams announced he was leaving Kansas for North Carolina. By Easter Sunday the Jayhawks had hired Illinois coach Bill Self, who led Kansas to two Elite Eight appearances prior to this year's 35-3 record and Final Four berth.

Still, five years later, there are still plenty of people who snarl at the mention of Williams' name. Not long ago a Kansas writer published an article about Williams on Dec. 25. When the writer went to church that morning he was approached by an angry fan.

"Thanks for ruining my Christmas!" the man snapped.

Joe Holladay hears those stories and shakes his head.

"Most of the people that are griping have changed jobs at least once in their life, I would think," said Holladay, Williams' top assistant at both Kansas and North Carolina. "Who hasn't changed jobs? Who hasn't moved?

"He changed jobs because he wanted to come home. His dad was sick. His wife's family lives here. His kids live and work here. He wanted to go back to where he grew up. A lot of people want to do that.

"It's been five years. You've got a great coach at Kansas. You've got a great program. It's like, get a life, you know? Get over it. Move on."

Still a Kansas fan

Sunday evening, less than an hour after the Jayhawks catapulted into the Final Four with a victory over Davidson, Williams called close friend and Kansas basketball secretary Joanie Stephens.

"Make sure you tell Bill (Self) that I said 'congratulations,'" Williams said.

Despite the animosity that has hovered in Lawrence since his departure, Williams continues to be a huge Kansas fan. He allows the children who attend his North Carolina basketball camp to wear Jayhawks jerseys, and he said his passion for the school will prevent him from ever trying to schedule a game against his old team.

A few years ago Williams said he had trouble watching Kansas on television because former players such as Wayne Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles and Michael Lee were still on the team.

"It was exhilarating to watch them win," Williams said, "and gut-wrenching to see them during the few times they'd struggle."

These days, though, Williams said he couldn't get any more enjoyment over watching players such as Sherron Collins, Russell Robinson and Darnell Jackson.

"The greatest thing and please emphasize this the greatest thing is that Bill is doing such a good job," Williams said. "His teams are winning, they're great kids. The program is moving on. That part I love.

"Those are the things I wish could dominate our feelings and our conversations this week instead of stories about someone hanging my picture over a commode."

Williams leans forward in his chair and takes a sip of his Coca-Cola.

"I don't want to come across as crass," he said, "but if someone can't come to closure with everything by now, it's almost an insult to Bill and his team. And it's an insult to me, because my gosh, it wasn't like I was there two days and left. I was there 15 years."

For all of his detractors, Williams also has scores of supporters the main ones being his former players.

Hinrich, Collison and Billy Thomas have visited Williams in Chapel Hill. Simien, Rex Walters and Greg Gurley were among those who traveled to Springfield, Mass., for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony last fall.

Sunday night, when it became apparent that Kansas would take on North Carolina in the Final Four, Williams fielded phone calls from ex-Jayhawks such as Ryan Robertson and Moulaye Niang.

"The way people have reacted to him leaving says a lot about what kind of coach he is," said Collison, now a forward with the Seattle SuperSonics. "If he hadn't done such a good job people wouldn't care that he's gone.

"Rationally, it might not make much sense. But sometimes, when people really love something like they love Kansas basketball, they don't think rationally."

Back in Lawrence, Williams still counts Buxton, Frederick and Lawrence golf pro Randy Towner among his closest friends. Self has repeatedly praised the job Williams did with Kansas' program over the past few days.

Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who coached Kansas to its last national title in 1988, also expressed his admiration for Williams on Tuesday.

"Roy shouldn't have to feel bad about anything," Brown said. "He should be proud of what he did there and happy that Bill Self is carrying it on.

"If there is anyone out there that's angry, it's because he did such a special job there (and now he's gone). If people would think about it a little while if they thought about all the positive things he did for that program and how Bill is carrying it on they'd realize it's a win-win for everyone. If I talked to Roy, I'd tell him that."

Brown said he believes that time will eventually heal the wounds that still seem to fester among certain Kansas fans. The process, albeit slowly, may already be under way. The Kansas City Star on Tuesday conducted an online poll asking readers to vote on how they would respond if they saw Williams on the famous Riverwalk in San Antonio, the site of this year's Final Four.

Twelve percent of readers said they'd push Williams into the water. Sixty-eight percent said they'd shake his hand and thank him for his time at Kansas.

"Print that out for me, would you?" Holladay said. "I want to make sure I show that to him. It will make him feel good."

Holladay hopes similar situations just simple, inconspicuous moments continue to present themselves in San Antonio this weekend. But he also realizes chances are good that Williams may be booed during the Tar Heels' public shootaround on Friday or during Saturday's pregame introductions.

Williams isn't excited about either event.

"There are two things I'm not looking forward to," he said. "I've got to answer questions about me and Kansas all weekend. And I've got to be able to stand up and listen if someone wants to yell something at me."

Williams is asked how he'll react, if he'll grit his teeth and shrug it off.

"I don't know," he said. "Probably. We'll have to see."

Will he return?

He knows the timing isn't right, and that it may not be for the next few years. Still, Anderson Kansas' biggest donor said he's "made it known" that sooner rather than later, the Jayhawks need to honor Roy Williams during halftime of a game at Allen Fieldhouse.

The mention of such a gesture seemed to cause a basketball-sized lump to swell in Williams' throat Tuesday.

Asked if he hoped it would happen one day, Williams said: "I do almost to the extent where I'd hope that it wouldn't be that big of a deal. It'd be nothing more than a coach coming back to watch one of his two favorite teams play."

In the meantime, Williams has plenty of other things to keep him busy. There's a team to coach, a game to play and, ugh, more questions to answer.

"Kansas wants so desperately to beat North Carolina so it can proceed toward a national championship," Buxton said. "But there's this other level of intensity, where it wants so badly to beat Roy, to show him he made a mistake or 'We're just as well off without you.'

"There's a lot of that undertone to the conversations that are going on in Lawrence. I'm sure he'll be glad once this one's behind him."

Especially if the Tar Heels win. That would put North Carolina one step closer to its second national championship in the last four seasons.

Then again, Williams also realizes that Kansas is an elite team, too, and that the possibility exists that his squad could lose.

If that happens Williams isn't sure what he'll do. Buxton said Williams told him he'd like to remain in San Antonio to cheer on Kansas against either UCLA or Memphis. But he's not sure he'd be welcomed in the Jayhawks' section of the stands.

It's a decision Williams wills make when or rather, if the situation presents itself. Right now only one thing is certain.

"I talked to Pops Sunday night," Scott Williams said. "Some people may not believe this, but he literally said, 'Worst-case scenario, I know I'll have someone to pull for Monday night.'"

MORE: NCAA Tournament Central

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.



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