Hiring Williams at Kansas a gamble that paid off
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- If Roy Williams was an assistant at North Carolina under Dean Smith today, the chances that Williams would have landed the Kansas job are slim.
Athletic directors at the highest-profile schools -- the blue bloods like Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, North Carolina and UCLA -- are not likely to take a chance on an assistant from another school in a traditional hiring cycle anymore. In the traditional hiring format (excluding Steve Lavin's unique hiring at UCLA in 1996 and Carolina promoting longtime assistant Bill Guthridge in 1997), only one of these schools has hired an assistant coach as its head coach since 1988.
It was Kansas. And his name was Roy Williams.
Nineteen years later, Williams will be inducted in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame here Friday night. So it's safe to say that the risk then-Kansas athletic director Bob Frederick took nearly 20 years ago paid dividends.
"I thought it was a tremendous gamble, I tell you," Williams said Thursday night in Springfield. "I don't know if I would have done it for sure. I jokingly said I was choice No. 93. I know I wasn't [No.] 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7. But you think about it, nobody would do anything like that."
Williams said he's convinced that Frederick took the chance because of the respect he had for Smith and former Kansas coach Dick Harp, a Kansas grad and a former Jayhawk coach in the late 1950s and early '60s who spent two years on the North Carolina bench next to Williams.
"Still, I'm amazed the more I think about it over time that Bob would be willing to take that chance," Williams said.
So why did he?
Frederick, who is in Springfield for Williams' induction, said he first met Williams in the Atlanta airport after Williams had completed a vacation in the Caribbean. He said he immediately recognized how organized Williams was and how much respect he had for the Kansas tradition.
The latter was critical to Frederick, considering that KU was coming off a five-year run by Larry Brown that ended with a national title in 1988 but also was stained by NCAA violations.
"At the time, Larry left there after only five years and that was the shortest time we ever had a coach, and I didn't want to get in the cycle of every few years," said Frederick, who is semi-retired and teaches a course on sports law and sports marketing in the sports managing program at KU in Lawrence.
"I was just impressed by his knowledge of what it took to be a head coach and it was clear to me that Dean Smith spent a lot of time on how to be a head coach," Frederick said. "But I was lucky also, on some things that you can't tell on an interview, and the biggest one was the fact that he was so driven to be successful."
Frederick couldn't have been more attuned to Williams. If there is one quality that stands out about Williams it is his drive -- to win in anything, on the court and in recruiting.
When he made the statement that he would be at Kansas forever, that's what he meant. He had no idea that Matt Doherty would only be there two years.
Still, it is the recruiting side that makes Williams hard to beat. Even though it was Williams' first head-coaching job and the specter of NCAA violations was hovering over Kansas, Williams still was able to land a recruiting class of Adonis Jordan, Harold Miner and Thomas Hill. When the penalties were handed down, only Jordan stayed with KU. Still Williams, hired in July, was able to land a top class and recruit with sanctions that included no on-campus visits.
"He had to do the job in the home," Frederick said. "I was telling somebody the other day about him in recruiting, and I thought about that after the first two or three years he would eventually back off and let his assistants do all the work like a lot of head coaches do. But to this day, he is still intensely driven to be successful in everything he does, and in that part I was lucky."
That's true. Go to any April, July or September major high school evaluation event and you'll likely see Williams at one point. He is known, like Arizona's Lute Olson, to be one of the last in a venue watching the late-night games. And he had to do that this past summer while battling an ongoing vertigo (dizziness) problem that can be at times debilitating.
"I'm proud of that quality, whether or not it's driven by fear of failure," Williams said. "If I'm going to recruit you to play for my team, I want to know that person as much as I possibly can. I don't want to sit back and let my assistants recruit and let them bring him to me. That's one of the reasons I would struggle coaching in the NBA because the coach doesn't pick his players. For me, I get to pick my players.
"This summer and every summer, I tell my staff that you're not going to be out working a day that I'm not."
Loyalty might be Williams' second-most recognizable trait. It's easy to question this since he did leave Kansas for North Carolina. But Williams has been very public about how much he wrestled with the decision to go to North Carolina when the Tar Heels had an opening in 2000 and 2003. And it's not a reach to say that had Frederick remained the athletic director, even with the turmoil at Carolina after Matt Doherty's forced push out the door in 2003, that Williams might have stayed. Dealing with a new athletic director, at the time Al Bohl, made the decision a tad bit easier. Even then he wrestled with it more than anything he has chosen in his life.
"When he made the statement that he would be at Kansas forever, that's what he meant," Frederick said. "He had no idea that Matt Doherty would only be there two years."
Frederick said when the heavily favored Jayhawks lost to eventual champion Arizona in 1997, a number of boosters wanted Frederick to "back the Brinks truck" up to Williams. So he went into Williams' office with the chancellor's blessing to offer him whatever he wanted -- a lifetime contract, a home and more -- but, according to Frederick, Williams said, "I don't think so. I've never had very much money growing up and now I've got more money then I could possibly spend. But there is one thing."
Frederick said he took a deep breath, not knowing what was going to come next, when Williams said, "Is there any chance I could get a reserved parking space at the university?' I said to him I'll take care of that."
Williams said 23 former players from both Kansas and North Carolina were expected to be in attendance at Friday night's induction ceremony. Smith was slated to introduce Williams.
As Bob Knight, Mike Krzyzewski, Olson, Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun know, getting into the Hall of Fame is hardly an end to a stellar coaching career.
"My competitiveness is still there," Williams said, "and this will fuel it even more to make those people that chose me to be in the Hall of Fame, to make them feel they made the right decision."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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