Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Kansas and Roy Williams

Journalists love stories that can easily be pegged to headlines in a way that is not complicated. In the week-end NCAA Regionals, most were hoping to see Davidson end up playing in-state rival, UNC, so that they could write Davidson versus Goliath stories all week. Davidson fell just short, so the journalists are making due with their next best story, which is the match-up between Roy Williams and the team that he led for well over a decade, the Kansas Jawhawks in the National Semi-final.

So, why should I be any different?

The two schools, North Carolina and Kansas have a fairly long history of trading favorite sons as coaches back and forth. Originally, UNC's Frank McGuire, fresh off an undefeated championship in which his team defeated Kansas, 54-53 in triple overtime, hired Kansas grad Dean Smith to be his top assistant back in the late 1950s. Kansas would later attempt to lure Smith back home, but would settle for one of his former assistants and players, Larry Brown, who took Kansas to its only championship since Smith had been a player at Kansas.

The peripatetic Brown decided to quit at the top, and Kansas then hired Roy Williams, another Smith assistant and J.V. player, who had been expected to take the top job at George Mason(that certainly might have changed history). Smith, himself, during this period, requested that his former Kansas coach, Dick Harp take a position as UNC assistant coach. After Williams returned to Carolina, his coaching staff was made up of, you guessed it, primarily Kansas grads.

The two universities rarely play, due to the lack of inclination by Smith and Williams to face their alma maters, but have played 3 times in the Final Four previously, with UNC getting the better of it and defeating Kansas twice on the way to national titles in 1957 and 1993. Williams and Kansas defeated Smith and UNC in 1991 but then lost to Duke in that year's title game, something that was hard for both Kansas, as well as Carolina fans to swallow.

Roy Williams took Kansas to the greatest sustained period of excellence in its last 50 years, but could not quite win the championship. After spurning one attempt by UNC to hire him in the wake of Dean Smith's retirement, Williams then finally decided to return home to North Carolina.

To put it mildly, many of his former idolizing fans in Kansas were not happy with this development. I don't want to paint all Kansas fans with this brush. Some continue to be both Kansas fans first, and Roy Williams fans, second; and they are almost certainly the happiest and most psychologically well-adjusted among those interested in the outcome next week-end. http://pod01.prospero.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?msg=23947.15&nav=messages&webtag=kr-kansastm

http://www.kansascity.com/159/story/554954.html

I am assuming that anyone reading this has a bit of background already, but even though coaches change jobs and universities all the time, for those disaffected Kansas fans, this was of a different order. Williams is known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve and this unusual vulnerability, together with the incredible triumphs and a few devastating defeats, had apparently resulted in a bond between coach, team and fans, almost unparalleled in college sports history.

While fans generally harbor some resentment when a coach leaves, I personally, have never seen bitterness to this extent. Some have mentioned Rick Pitino who left Kentucky and then took the job with Kentucky's chief rival as a parallel, but that is a bit different. Pitino seemed to be looking to deliberately antagonize his former school, as might have been the case with Frank McGuire taking the South Carolina job after leaving North Carolina.

Roy Williams, on the other hand, refused to schedule his former school and continues to profess his devoted affection to Kansas and its fans. To little effect--at least with respect to many of them. Virtually every Kansas newspaper that prints a story about UNC playing in the NCAA tournament every year since he left, carries the requisite quote from some unhinged Kansan with words to the effect of, "well I sure hope Kansas can win, but if not, at least, please God don't let North Carolina win."

Kansas basketball site and newspaper forums bristle with the interaction among those who still admire Williams and those who simply cannot get over his leaving. Try as I might to avoid them I am mesmerized by the depth of feeling on all sides.

See generally, comments at the bottom:, http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2008/apr/01/new_chapter ("Get some therapy!")

and another about Kansans for Roy, well, sort of:
http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2008/apr/01/taking_two_sides/

The psychological issues present here are fascinating. Mack Brown, UNC's former football coach, and Bill Self, Kansas's current basketball coach, left programs that they never made any great pretense of loving, and although not particularly popular in the places they left , UNC and Illinois fans don't seem to have anywhere close to the animus that Kansas fans have.

My own feeling as a UNC grad is that Texas's Mack Brown is basically someone over whom it is not worth wasting much in the way of emotional resources, not to mention probably the most likely current coach to join the guy from Miami as a national title-winner on the unemployment lines since he can't seem to beat Oklahoma consistently, but I digress.

And of course, one thing, if the only thing, that North Carolinians and Kansans can agree about, even in those few and far between seasons of football success--Kansas just had one--is that there are exceedingly few football coaches worth crying over.

Roy Williams, on the other hand, had essentially told the Kansas fans that "I will always love you and never leave you," and then did. I guess part of the moral of the story is never to make promises you cannot keep.

I think the other thing that is apparent, is that Roy Williams is worth crying over.

Unlike Mack Brown, Roy Williams is a truly remarkable coach and human being and not being wanted by him hurts and perhaps implies that Kansas wasn't good enough to keep such a stellar person, not to mention having him leave for the "younger, more attractive trophy wife. "

Kansas and Roy had enjoyed the years of unparalleled success and suffered the agony of coming so close so many times, and Kansans had grown affectionate of Williams' not inconsiderable idiosyncricities. Kansas wanted to win a title with Roy Williams, not some other guy, and Kansas definitely did not want to see Roy's new bride carry away the ultimate spoils of his success as he moved into the peak of his coaching prowess with one national title winner in his name, finally, at UNC, and top five finishes in three of his first five years. It also didn't help that UNC seemed to be on television virtually every time Kansans turned on their sets. Kansas, on the other hand, was in another time zone and while certainly featured more than most basketball programs, many of its games were only regionally televised.

Bill Self, the new coach, who has pretty much equalled Williams' success at Kansas, has certainly had his own share of coming close and not quite getting over the hump, but it will never quite be the same with him and Kansas. He hasn't shown the same vulnerability as Williams, the kind of uncomfortable and yet, endearing vulnerability that most of us only share with our closest friends and relatives.

Roy Williams is basketball's version of Sally Field, shouting to the Academy, "you like me! You actually like me." Field has been laughed at and lampooned for years for basically losing control over her emotions in front of her professional peers upon receipt of her Oscar. And yet, I would submit that she may very well be the most popular actress of her generation, precisely because once people get over their discomfort from having someone let down their guard in front of them, many of these people will form a psychological attachment due to the shared intimacy of such unguarded actions. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sally_Field#Film

Williams made no secret during his tenure at Kansas of his less than affluent upbringing and his generally absent, alcoholic father. Like many such children, he doesn't drink alcohol at all and some may see classic, pattern attributes in him as a child of an alcoholic. http://alcoholism.about.com/cs/adult/a/aa073097.htm

Unlike so many coaches who strive to be seen as generals, both on the floor and off, Williams, always the general on the floor, was known for crying in public after some of basketball's tough knocks. You've probably never seen Bobby Knight cry in public, but then again, Bobby Knight, owner of the most wins in history, has a winning percentage that is mediocre compared to Williams' career winning percentage. There is probably no fiercer competitor in basketball among coaches than Roy Williams.

He was also a known "mama's boy." Williams never denied the truth of the Coca-Cola story published in Sports Illustrated in 1997, and even later did an advertisement which kiddingly reflected upon his deep devotion to his mother who ironed shirts so that he could drink a Coca-Cola after school with his friends, spending the few extra dimes she earned doing so.

Just to make the point crystal clear, friends says that Williams is known for always having cases and cases of Coca-Cola in his home, lest he run out at an inopportune time.

That story might even have been enough to embarrass Sally Field, but for Williams and Kansans, it just bound them even closer together, as did the crushing defeat to Arizona, just a few weeks after the SI article.

Williams, who had been on the way to a season, even his mentor Dean Smith had never quite had, seemed destined for both a national title and a new record for wins, becoming the first team to win more than 40 in one year. Unfortunately, 37-1 Kansas ran into eventual National Champion and highly underrated Arizona, which went out to a double digit lead in the last minutes. Probably most teams would have been done at this point, but Kansas put together a remarkable comeback, erasing ten points off the deficit and possessed the ball with just seconds to go, in a position to tie.

It was not to be and in some ways, the valiant comeback just made it worse--just that much more of a tease and obsession for Williams and the Kansas fans who wanted that to be his year. What had gone wrong? What could Williams have possibly done differently to prevent the upset? Ultimately, Williams took refuge in the notion that there wasn't a single thing he would change.

The NCAA tournament's one and done format is a harsh mistress and a beguiling mistress, but most of all, she is a mysterious mistress, often favoring the less worthy and the weak as she spurns the Sampsons and Chamberlains who would seek to enjoy her whims, while extending her favor to the Lorenzo Charles's and Harold Jensen's of the world.

There would go on to be two more such disappointments as Kansas would lose in the Final Four in 2002 and then in the National Final in 2003, when his team uncharacteristically could not make any free throws, resulting in a bitter loss to Syracuse, after once again another great comeback that fell just short.

But maybe even more agonizing to the Kansas fans was the rumor that Roy had been in renewed discussions to take the UNC job. This was after previously turning down his alma-mater in 2000, in another of his almost patented public displays of insecurity during which he wavered back and forth between going and leaving and then ended up turning down UNC during a nationally-televised "I'm Staying!" pep rally that seemed to cement his fortunes in Kansas, while kicking dirt in the faces of his North Carolinian suitors and particularly angering his former colleague Bill Guthridge, Dean Smith's successor.

But people in North Carolina, apparently, are are quite forgiving, especially when it comes to basketball, and in 2003, on the eve of the Final Four, with the once hallowed UNC basketball program in almost total chaos, UNC came again bidding for Williams' services. Torn between two sick family members back in North Carolina and his love for his alma mater, and his "oath" to Kansas, Williams opted this time to take the job, leaving Kansas in the immediate wake of a defeat, perhaps almost as painful as the loss to Arizona back in 1997.

Kansas continued in its basketball tradition with almost no change after Williams' departure. Kansas has been in the top ten virtually every week since Williams left and has also suffered the same crushing losses that have been a state tradition going back to the loss by Wilt Chamberlain and the Jayhawks in triple-overtime to UNC in 1957.

Unique among the so-called five top programs in college basketball, which include UNC, Duke, Kentucky, UCLA and Kansas, only Kansas has not won multiple championships since the demise of the UCLA dynasty in 1974, winning only as an upset winner in 1988, when little was expected of them. Each time that Kansas has been touted as the best team in the nation, or at least, arguably the best, the Jayhawks have gone down in smoldering flames, since Dean Smith played 29 seconds for them when they won the title in 1952.

Now, Kansas is, arguably, the best team in the country this year, and Kansans have a shot at Williams in a competitive game for the first time since he left five years ago. With a win, Kansas might win a title for the first time in 20 years and perhaps finally put to rest the demons of its former beloved son's infidelity. But I don't think so. Sure, it would be fun for some to stick it to the wayward son and even more fun to finally garner another title.

But this thing goes too deep. For many, I believe that what these "haters" unknowingly hope for is that UNC will once again thwart their Jayhawks, allowing them to continue to brandish their anger against the Prodigal Son who this time is never destined to return, because they actually get more emotional return this way, and Williams is more than happy to accomodate them, because as much as he might have wanted them to "like me," there is only one thing that Roy Williams hungers for more than acceptance, and that is victory.

10 comments:

Jackie Manuel said...

I could not imagine having a legendary coach leave for another program. That said, Kansas supporters always knew it was a possibility. I think most of the KU fan base regrets his decision to return to Chapel Hill, but I doubt many of them actually dislike him for it. Those that do are missing what Roy did for that program and therefore not worth serious consideration.

William O. Douglas Loeffler said...

Addendum: Some outlets are reporting that Oklahoma State, which doesn't have a lot to offer except for oil, now wants its favorite son to come home:

http://cbs.sportsline.com/collegebasketball/story/10753551

Wayfaring Man said...

Sir,
Your post is one of the most well-written dissections of the Kansas v. Williams dispute that I have read. Well done.
In the $0.02 department, I must, however, disagree with you about Jayhawk fans harboring the subliminal hope that they might lose in order that their whipping boy maintains his status as top straw man for the bridesmaid KU program. We don’t have as many Championship wins as say, UCLA, but then, y’all don’t either.
What really hacked people off here was the sheer meretricious-ness of Deputy Dawg’s exit after such a disastrous loss. And as die-hard Jayhawk, the reversal of the iron-clad "I'm Staying" guarantee certainly rankled me. But don’t get me wrong: we don’t want him back. All the cornball hokeyness, the lurid ties, the spitting in the river shtick, the Coca Cola: aw, shucks, dog-gonnit, you can keep him.
We’re finally recruiting good players from east of the Mississippi – something that never occurred during Andy Taylor’s tenure. We’re playing better defense, too. We actually use our time outs: that’s refreshing. We may not beat you in the coming game – UNC is incredibly tough and is to be respected – but let’s face it – if the roles were reversed, and we lured Dean Smith back here and then two years later he won the National title for us when he couldn’t get it done for you, and after he said he’d stay , well, that might just sting a bit, mightn’t it?
I can't say that I speak for most Jayhawks, some, or even any of them, but I'm hopeful that pounding a stake into the heart of The Turncoat will allow my anger to subside. Besides, it makes my skin crawl to have to pull for the villainous Duke scum and their loathsome, chitinous-haired, and seemingly ageless, android Coach Krryzzkjyzewjkzwwzkjzeerzzzkeriskwyzzzki, and I just as soon square our accounts with Roy so I can move on.
Good luck on Saturday. No offense, but I'm hopeful it's WE who get to make Roy cry this time.

Swadehead said...

First, I must commend you on the absolute Everest-level arrogance and self-importance in your writing. (Believe me, as a KU fan, I know arrogance, and yours is top-notch.) It is only slightly outdone by the depth of subtlety in your condescending digs at Kansas basketball. It is a bit surprising that a person with such obvious education and proper ettiquette would so blatantly disrespect the Good Book and not honor the father of thy program.

After reading a story in the Raleigh paper this week and now your own mind numbing drivel,I am certain that revisionist history is not only a phrase, but surely MUST be a major at UNC. I don't think I've ever seen such a deft touch at misdirection that wasn't associated with a political scandal.

While it is true that Roy is the object of some Kansas' fan's ire, he is not the sole target and for most not the target at all. That honor belongs to Dean Smith and the UNC Athletic Director.

I know I probably don't need to recount the truth to you, but since you've probably lied to yourself about it as much as UNC fans have lied to one another and anyone else who will listen, to the point that you all probably have grown to believe it, I'll tell you anyway.

What bothers Kansas fans is not so much Roy leaving, but rather UNC interfering with our title run in 2003.

It was just before our title game that UNC decided to announce the firing of Coach Matt Doherty. All of the speculation would, of course, fall on Roy (Or 'Fredo' as UNC fans liked to call him when he declined UNC's offer the first time). So instead of the attention being on the game, it was on what Roy's decision would be. Roy, not being very good at hiding his part in the sh*tbaggery, wouldn't just say 'no, I'm not leaving' and stop the speculation. The players, instead of focusing on the game, were worrying about if the coach they came to Kansas to play for would even be their coach the following year. (Things like this tend to throw off the concentration of 18-20 year old kids in front of a national tv audience.) And the whole spectacle cost KU the National Championship.

Dean, being more concerned with his own legacy than anything else figured he better not let Roy get that NC, lest that cement Roy's love for KU and he once again decide to stay in Lawrence.

Carolina fans, not wanting to see the cold hard truth of the actions of their Athletic Department first spun and then have gradually bought into the 'KU can't get over Fredo', I mean, 'Roy' angle to supplement their denial of what a snake oil salesman the great Dean Smith really is.

Kansas fans have seen The Carolina Way and it made us want to take a shower after.

William O. Douglas Loeffler said...

I don't disagree with the comments about it being bad form to not wait until the end of the 2003 title game to initiate contact with Williams. I watched that game on ESPN Classic and I still can't believe Kansas almost won, given how poorly they played and how many free throws they missed and maybe it did affect them but I guess there is no way to prove it.

What is happening this year with OSU is not much better. I think some of that is due to the fact that coaching interviews and decisions tend to be made at the Final Four site.

And let me say for the record, that I think that Roy Williams should have stayed at Kansas. I thought he made the right decision the first time by staying, but given that he chose to return, I cannot help but appreciate and admire his talents.

And that are not a few Carolina people who remember that Danny Manning was headed to UNC until Kansas's coach hired his father as an assistant. Surprisingly, though, Manning's dad wasn't the coach for head coach after Larry Brown left. Go figure.

If there was an overall point to the article, I think it was the hope that people might see some of the insecurity that Coach Williams has and cut him a break. I don't think he ever set out to hurt anyone and I think it is clear that he has had some hurt in his life. Both of the family members that he was concerned about and which affected his decision, have died since he returned.

Swadehead said...

The OSU situation, while equally devious from a timing standpoint, is not quite the same in that OSU does not have the shared history that UNC and KU have. Although, if memory serves, Henry Iba also traces his roots to Kansas as well. For years, Kansas and Carolina referred to one another as sister programs, until, of course, little sister decided to bed big sister's husband. Perhaps OSU has taken a page from the Dean Smith playbook and seeing if they will have the same success UNC did. But if OSU were to make the offer and Bill Self were to accept it, I think it would be less about basketball than money and going home. With all due respect to OSU, they simply don't have the heritage and tradition that KU and Carolina have.

As for Roy 'should have stayed' at Kansas, perhaps so, but who knows? I have often wondered if Roy felt the same way upon showing up to his first practices at UNC only to find it was still Dean's program and he was just allowed to blow the whistle. As a Kansas fan, I am perfectly happy with the results of what began with Matt Doherty's demise. Self is a genuinely good man and fantastic coach and I find that I enjoy his style of play more than I did Roy's. Something I wouldn't have thought. Fifteen years of Roy not quite getting it done got old as well. (Which of course made his winning the title at UNC all the more painful for KU fans, especially given that it was against Illinois.)

On the Manning issue, I can't disagree. But one can't help but wonder if the bitterness over that stems from Manning choosing KU or Larry Brown beating his mentor at his own game? And in the interest of full disclosure, Ronnie Chalmers, father of Mario Chalmers is on the coach's staff at KU now.

As mentioned in my previous post, most of the ill will over Roy is not directed at Roy. But rather at Dean Smith and the UNC athletic department. The 'KU's bitter/jealous/obsessed' story is just a convenient way for the Carolina faithful to deflect all the attention on the story away from the facts.

Not that Roy is above suspicion in some of the events surrounding his departure. There was some questionable contact with David Padgett after his departure and a move he made earlier that year to change the criteria for having one's jersey retired at AFH. Roy managed to get a couple of his players in the rafters, but apparently had no interest in going back in KU's storied history and making sure the likes of Darnell Valentine and Bill Bridges received the same honor, (Bill Self took care of that), leading one to wonder if, when the Doherty firing announcement was made, it was really news to Roy as it was to everyone else. And then there's his refusal to recruit east of the Mississippi in deference to Dean. Hindsight is 20/20, but that in itself shows he was always a Tarheel and never truly a Jayhawk.

Personally, I don't begrudge Roy making the choice to go home. From that standpoint, I understand it. In fact, I would contend that had Dean left well enough alone and Roy won the '03 Championship and then announced his leaving, Kansas fans would have been sad and hurt, but ultimately would have understood, thanked him for his service and said 'go with God.' Larry Brown left KU after the '88 championship with the program on probation and was welcomed with open arms at KU basketball's 110th anniversary this year.

Wayfaring Man said...

The results are in, and for many Kansas fans, this one included, the outcome was purgative. I shall now no longer root for the Duke scum, as, I'm sure you'll agree, they have been poor proxies of late for a bitter Jayhawk.

And in the insecurity department, the game told us a lot of things, foremost among them that despite all the hype, all the ACC-focused media attention, all the "oh, and lets not forget the -what's their names - oh, yeah, the Jayhawks," Kansas had blood in its eye last night, confounded the Billy Packers and surprised a lot of East Coast types.

Good luck next year.

Anonymous said...

No timeouts, no adjustments, Jayhawk shirt in the National Championship. Bill Self looking to go, Roy looking to come back?

Wayfaring Man said...

Personally, I thought Williams showed a lot of class in his comments about Kansas during halftime of the final game, and his choice of shirt decor surprised me greatly. Not that I was displeased, of course, but I wonder how UNC fans will react?

As for Self - not that y'all care - rumor has it that T. Boone is offering a four year $10 million contract plus a $4 million signing bonus. I think Kansas will match that now and give Self immunity from all criminal prosecution (including murder), taxes, and utlity bills for life.

They'd be crazy not to.

Swadehead said...

As I sit here on this Tuesday morning, perusing the paper about the 2008 National Champion Kansas Jayhawks, I couldn't help but wonder a bout a few things.

First, did WODL happen to see the game? I think this one was NATIONALLY televised, but it's possible that he, like other UNC fans, were still in shock from their Final Four exit and couldn't bear to watch.

If WODL had seen the game, did he see his beloved Roy, sitting behind the KU bench with his Jayhawk sticker on his sweater? What was that again about Kansas fans not being able to let go?

Is WODL, like the rest of the UNC faithful, still asking himself the lingering questions from Sunday morning? 'Why did UNC come out so timid?' 'What happened to the UNC team we saw in the previous four games of the tourney?' 'What does Roy mean 'he didn't prepare them? How does a coach not prepare his team to play in a Final Four game?' I, myself do not know the answer to these questions. And THAT is the beauty of being a Kansas fan, especially on this particular day. Because as a Kansas fan I NO LONGER HAVE TO SEARCH FOR THOSE ANSWERS. I don't even have to ask the questions. He's your coach now. It's your cross to bear now. You got your wish. Live with it.

Karma is a cruel bitch. And now, on this Tuesday morning, as the Kansas Jayhawks wake up as the 2008 National Champions, it begs the cosmic question: Did UNC pull off the perfect coaching heist in getting Roy Williams, or did the universe, with a perfect poker face, play a flawless game of Old Maid?

Will UNC be back next year and come even closer to winning it all? Or has Chapel Hill become that inescapable place in the Twilight Zone where falling short plays out forever on an endless loop? I can't answer that question. But as a Kansas fan, I don't have to.

Come back, WODL. Your pompous ass hasn't had much to say since Saturday. Perhaps you're too busy wondering.