Commentary

Williams torn between North Carolina and Kansas

Originally Published: April 4, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- Randy Towner won't be here Saturday.

Forget being here. Scot Buxton can't even bear to watch.

Towner and Buxton are Kansas fans. They're also North Carolina coach Roy Williams' best friends from his 15 years in Lawrence. They take golfing trips with Roy every year, and there is talk of their all retiring to the same place one day.

If just the Jayhawks had made the Final Four, Towner and Buxton would be here living it up on the Riverwalk. If just the Tar Heels had made the Final Four, Towner and Buxton would be here living it up on the Riverwalk.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Craig Jones/Getty ImagesRoy Williams reacts during the 2003 national championship game against Syracuse in what would be his last game in charge of Kansas before leaving for UNC.
But this karmic collision of Roy and the Jayhawks has them both so conflicted that they won't even bother coming to San Antonio until Monday. By then, either their favorite school or favorite coach will be in the NCAA tournament final. Until then, this is less comfortable than a wool suit in a sauna.

It's so uncomfortable that Towner will stay home and watch it on TV.

"I'm as staunch a Kansas fan as there can be, and I'll be rooting for Roy Williams," said Towner, club pro at Alvamar Country Club in Lawrence. "When you're talking about friendship, that's different. … Just politically, I think I need to be [away from the Alamodome]."

Buxton will take conflict avoidance a step further -- he's going to the movies during the game. He might go back and watch the TiVo'd version later, or he might just get the final score and move on.

"I'll probably be the only guy in Lawrence, Kansas, at the movies," Buxton said. "I'm probably the only coward in the bunch."

You have to wonder: If it's this bad for these guys, what's this week been like for Roy?


Part of being Roy Williams is being attuned to criticism the way Tiger Woods is attuned to shutter clicks in his backswing. He has rabbit ears. If there's a blogger in Bangladesh banging on Roy, chances are it will bother him.

"If he has a fault, it's that he takes things too seriously and unfortunately hears too much of the bad stuff," said Williams' son, Scott. "Of course, the ones speaking loudest are the ones speaking negatively. You don't hear from the other side as much.

"He is particularly emotional, particularly sensitive."

You can imagine, then, what it must be like for Williams to be ripped by people who once adored him. What it will be like to hear people wearing royal blue and red -- his colors, for 15 glorious years -- booing him in the Alamodome. What it will be like trying to beat the Jayhawks and further the divide between himself and a place he cherishes.

It's killing him.

"There's no doubt in my mind, he will not have an issue of focus -- that is one of his true gifts," Scott Williams said. "But with all the buildup to the game, when he's not on the court, he'll absolutely struggle with it. He still looks at Kansas as the place that gave him a chance to do something special. He still loves the university. And I know for a fact he cheers for them every time."

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But not this time. And there are plenty of Kansas fans who stopped cheering for Ol' Roy five years ago.

In 2003, when he left the job he said three years earlier he'd never leave, the flak flew. Kansas fans have a rather lofty image of themselves -- except where Carolina is involved. Dean Smith was a Kansas native and graduate who went to Carolina, became a legend and never went back. Roy was supposed to be their Dean, in reverse.

And then he dumped them.

"You're basically telling people, 'I want to be someplace else instead of here,'" Buxton said. "When you tell people that, they can look at the body of work and all you've done here, but they'll also look at it from a relationship standpoint. You're rejecting them. There's an inferiority sort of thing there."

And it spawned a fury. "Benedict Williams" T-shirts were hot sellers in Lawrence. So were "I Don't Give A S--- About Carolina" T-shirts, mimicking Roy's famous cussing at TV reporter Bonnie Bernstein after losing the '03 national title game. Bernstein had asked him about the job he wound up taking one week later.

Williams' players took shots on his way out the door, too. Keith Langford was critical. So was Wayne Simien, who had come back from shoulder injuries to play in Williams' final season at Kansas.

"I literally gave my arm for that man," Simien said at the time.

During the 2003 Final Four, most of the media covering Kansas refused to believe Williams would leave Lawrence. They believed Roy meant it when the Asheville, N.C., native turned down his alma mater the first time, in 2000, saying he simply couldn't leave his players. They bought the whole St. Roy the Pious mystique -- that Williams was the human embodiment of altruism and thought only of his players and the university, not what was best for himself.

They were duped. Turned out Roy was just another basketball coach, not kin to Mother Teresa.

If he has a fault, it's that he takes things too seriously and unfortunately hears too much of the bad stuff. Of course, the ones speaking loudest are the ones speaking negatively. You don't hear from the other side as much.

--Scott Williams

Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock wrote, "Williams, a good man caught in a horrible situation, will regret this decision for the rest of his life."

Williams was stung by the backlash to the point of tears (he can go there in an instant). Ol' Roy loves to be loved and hates to be hated.

"It's almost like he's human," Towner said drolly. "But as I always tell Roy, 'There's a reason you guys get to live in big houses. This is part of what you get when you sign up for this.'"

In the days after his relocation, Williams told K.C. Star columnist Joe Posnanski that he slept fitfully and would wake up in the middle of the night to vomit. He appeared publicly tortured rejecting Carolina in 2000, and publicly tortured embracing Carolina in '03.

"The first time [when he turned down mentor Dean Smith and Carolina], he made the tougher decision of the two," Scott Williams said. "The second time it was the tougher decision, too. It would've been easier to stay at Kansas. When he said he wanted to stay there for the rest of his career, that was absolutely the truth. When there's other personal issues involved, those things change."

Among the things that changed was the name of Williams' boss, the Kansas athletic director. It went from his close friend Bob Frederick to a man who became a bitter adversary, Al Bohl. Williams criticized Bohl on his way out the door. Bohl responded in kind, calling Williams "hateful and vindictive."

So Roy moved on. More or less. If you visit his house, it still brims with Kansas mementoes.

"There's still more Kansas than North Carolina memorabilia," Scott Williams said. "That's what he tells recruits when he brings them by the house: 'You are part of what's going to change this.'"

The 2005 national championship team went a long way toward balancing the hardware. It also was the last bauble Williams needed for Hall of Fame induction, which was granted last year. Former Kansas players like Aaron Miles, Michael Lee and, yes, Wayne Simien showed up for the induction.

"He absolutely loved that," Scott Williams said. "Sometimes Pops just loses sight of the fact that those are the people [and their opinions] who truly matter."

Said Carolina assistant coach Jerod Haase, a former Jayhawk under Williams: "[His Kansas players] still think the world of Coach. As time goes on, I think it will continue to get a little better for the fans."

At least until Saturday. What happens when the coach who jilted them is standing between his old school and the national title?


Larry Sinks owns Victory Sportswear in Lawrence. He's the guy who printed the "Benedict Williams" T-shirts and many others. ("Kansas: The Birthplace of North Carolina Basketball" has been a big seller this week. So has "Beat the Tar out of Benedict Williams.")

Sinks sees Saturday as Armageddon.

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Elsa/Getty ImagesRoy Williams' presence at UNC brought about the desired effect, as the Tar Heels won the NCAA tournament in 2005.
"I think this is the biggest game in Kansas basketball history," Sinks declared. "At least for the people of this generation. People want to win this game so bad."

Kansas hasn't won a national title since Danny Manning delivered one in 1988. Roy took over the next year and was supposed to get the Jayhawks there. He won nine conference titles, went to four Final Fours, took KU to the tournament every year they were eligible (they were banned for NCAA violations his first season).

He just never won the last game.

When he finally grabbed a handful of Final Four net on an April Monday in '05, it only deepened the Carolina jealousy in Kansas. Now Williams and his old school finally cross paths for the first time in five years -- and a title could hang in the balance.

Haase estimates that 95 percent of the Kansas fan base has forgiven and forgotten. Sinks says it's 80-20 the other way -- 80 percent are still mad at Williams for leaving.

"Actually, I don't know if mad's the word," Sinks said. "They just want revenge."

And if they get it? If Kansas beats Roy Williams' North Carolina Tar Heels Saturday?

"It's my hope that all of this will go away," Buxton said. "If Kansas were to win that game and the national championship, only a very few people would hold onto it."

To those fans who do hold onto it, Towner has a simple message:

"Let it go, for God's sakes."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.