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
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:
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.