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Return of the Native
Grant Wahl
April 13, 2005
After 15 seasons in Kansas, Roy Williams came home to Chapel Hill to restore the Tar Heels' legacy
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April 13, 2005

Return Of The Native

After 15 seasons in Kansas, Roy Williams came home to Chapel Hill to restore the Tar Heels' legacy

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The swear word. Yes, Roy Williams dropped an s bomb on national TV in April 2003. Yes, he's sorry. Yes, it was out of character. (Anyone, coach or player, who curses even once during Williams's practices has to run wind sprints.) But what did his outburst reveal anyway? That badgering him with the same loaded question--Are you going to Carolina? Are you going to Carolina?--would make him angry? That he really didn't "give as---" about North Carolina, the place closest to his heart? Please.

But Williams did expose his soul that night, did in fact answer that loaded question, and he did so with one simple word--the final word, it just so happens, of his 3,244-word postgame press conference.

Thanks for not pursuing it any farther--further.

Imagine that. Stuck in the white-hot center of a firestorm--from the unceasing Carolina queries, the pain of a crushing defeat, all those emotions tumbling out of him-- Williams stopped and corrected himself. Dean Smith would have smiled. Years ago, whenever Smith used the terms farther or further, the old coach, Williams's mentor, would stop practice, turn to his team and explain the difference. "Farther pertains to distance," Smith would say, "but if we're going to discuss this, we can discuss it further as we walk."

The second that Williams unleashed that f word, anybody in the Carolina Family could have told you: He's coming. You can't change how you're wired, can't change your family roots, least of all when that family--the most storied clan in college basketball--is quaking at its very foundations. Roy Williams may have been speaking that night in New Orleans, but the last word? Dean Smith got the last word.

Five months later, on a gorgeous fall day in Chapel Hill, Williams is still deliberating, still chewing over the Decision.

"It's strange," he says. "I know I did the right thing. But if you had told me the feelings I was gonna have about myself standing up in front of my [ Kansas] team and the feelings I would have calling our four recruits, I couldn't have come here. There's no doubt in my mind. And yet even saying that, I still think I did the right thing. I'm not looking back. But that is the lowest I have ever felt about myself. I've never felt like, Gosh, Roy, you're hurting people."

During his seven days of self-torture, Williams would wake in the middle of the night and throw up. Shouldn't he just stay at Kansas, his adopted home? He'd had so much success there in 15 years: nine regular-season conference titles, four Final Fours, a winning percentage (.805) so far beyond any other active coach's that he could lose every game this season and still be on top. The fans worshipped him. It was public knowledge that a KU donor was ready to name a building on campus after Ol' Roy. And what about those promises? Like the one he made after turning down Carolina in 2000, that his next big press conference would be to announce he was either "dying or retiring." Or the line he had for any prospect who asked if he'd ever leave Lawrence: I've turned down 11 different NBA teams. I've said no to North Carolina, and that's the only place I would have ever left Kansas for.

Then he'd think of Carolina. Williams couldn't turn down Dean Smith again, could he? Who would have imagined he'd get a second chance? It must be fate. And he'd hear the voices of all those proud former Tar Heels: We need you, Coach. Nobody had begged him like that in 2000. But Carolina was still Carolina then, with four starters returning from a Final Four team, not the shell of a program it had become under Matt Doherty, the fiery young coach who'd lost his players, alienated the Carolina Family and been forced to resign. Thirty-six losses in two years! No team in the country had fallen further--no, farther--than UNC.

Twice Williams resolved to call Dick Baddour, the Carolina athletic director, and turn down the job. Twice he stopped before dialing. In the end, he says, there were "a thousand reasons" why Carolina won by split decision, but one outstripped the others. In 2001 Kansas had forced out Bob Frederick, the athletic director who'd hired Williams, and replaced him with Fresno State's Al Bohl, a fast-talking football man who quickly earned a reputation as a blowhard. "The dissatisfaction I had for the last year and a half at Kansas was the biggest factor," Williams says. "Except for the time I was on the court, I wasn't real happy."

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