clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2017 NCAA Final Four: It’s Hard to Root Against Roy Williams

New, comments

At least it is for this Kansas fan.

NCAA Men's Final Four - Practice Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Before I say anything else, let me say that it's easy to root against North Carolina. When your school is one of just four schools in men's college basketball history to amass 2,000 wins, as Kansas is, whenever one of the other three schools (Kentucky, Carolina, Duke) takes the court it's a competition of legacies.

When it comes to rooting against Roy Williams though, at least for this Kansas alumnus and fan, well that one is a little more difficult.

For 15 seasons, spanning my eighth through 23rd years of life, Williams was the head coach of Kansas basketball. I went to junior high and high school with his daughter, Kim. He and his family were active and prized members of the Lawrence community. To my younger mind, Williams was THE Jayhawks coach. Coach Phog Allen's name may have been on the gym, but he hadn't been on the Kansas bench since the 1950s, so long ago that he might as well have been a mythological character no different than the Jayhawk itself.

The spring of 1988 was my family's first in Lawrence, Kansas. We arrived just in time to see Larry Brown take the Jayhawks on an improbable title run before bolting for the San Antonio Spurs and the NBA just a few months later. Brown was the man in Lawrence, but as a second grader turning third grader that summer of '88, I had no real understanding of who he was, why he was leaving and why his leaving was directly tied to why Kansas would not be able to defend its title in the spring of '89.

When Williams took over for Brown for the 1988-89 season, little was known about this guy who'd spent a decade on Dean Smith's bench as an assistant at North Carolina. In many ways, Williams had an impossible task in earning the support of Kansas fans in filling the larger than life shoes of Brown.

Brown would go on to firmly establish himself as one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. He's the only coach to win both an NCAA title and the NBA Finals. At Kansas, Brown is credited with taking the Jayhawks program from that of the likes of K-State (that is, a once proud tradition stumbling toward irrelevance) to the heights of becoming one of the four crown jewels of the sport. In five years, Brown got Kansas to two Final Fours and won a championship. But when you're living the life of Larry at the college level, you're living on borrowed time before inevitable sanctions and suspensions end the fun. Brown bolted from UCLA and Kansas before the hammer of NCAA sanctions dropped on both schools. Most recently, despite turning SMU into a solid program he again left the Mustangs mired in sanctions during his last year in Dallas.

When Brown left Lawrence, Kansas could have easily regressed if former Kansas Athletic Director, the late Bob Frederick, hired the wrong man for the job. In many ways, Frederick took a huge chance in hiring Williams to replace Brown. But man, did it pay off. In 15 seasons as the head coach of the Jayhawks, Williams took Kansas to the first 14 of the now NCAA record 28 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. He averaged 28 wins a season, appeared in four Final Fours, and twice played for the National Title.

Back then I always just assumed Williams would retire as Kansas coach. In some ways, I think Williams thought this too when he decided not to go to North Carolina in the spring of 2000 after Bill Guthridge retired. He had no way of knowing his protégé and former North Carolina player, Matt Doherty, would flame out after just three seasons in Chapel Hill, especially after posting 26 wins and taking the Tar Heels to the NCAA Tournament in Doherty’s first season. Given how young Doherty was at the time - just 38 years old – Williams had to have assumed Doherty would be there for a long time.

Williams last three seasons in Lawrence marked, arguably, his best of all his 15. That 2002 Jayhawks squad, with Drew Gooden, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich along with assist machine Aaron Miles running point, Jeff Boschee bombing threes, and Keith Langford, Wayne Simien and Mike Lee coming off the bench, was the best Williams put on the floor at Kansas. They just ran through teams, an absolute offensive juggernaut. When that '02 team came up just short in a Final Four loss to Maryland, Williams brought the Jayhawks right back to the Final Four the very next year despite losing Gooden to the pros and Simien to injury. The day after Kansas beat Duke in the Sweet Sixteen of that 2003 NCAA Tournament, North Carolina fired Doherty. The speculation that Williams would leave Lawrence began immediately. Still, the Jayhawks went through Arizona in the Elite Eight, and then destroyed Dwayne Wade and Marquette in the Final Four.

Few people expected Kansas to lose to Carmelo Anthony and the Syracuse Orange in the National Final. The pain of that loss, losing all that experience in seniors Hinrich and Collison, the opening of Williams dream job for the second time in four years, and the bumbling of former Kansas Athletic Director Al Bohl all made Williams' decision to return home to Chapel Hill too hard to pass up a second time.

Kansas fans were pissed, feeling they'd just been dumped. While I didn't totally agree with the tenor of much of that anger, it was, in a small way, justified. I hated to see him go too.

And I'll admit it was brutal to watch Kansas lose in the first round of the 2005 Tournament and then two weeks later watch Williams raise the NCAA Title trophy for the Tar Heels. The knock on Williams while he was at Kansas was that he could never win the big one. And then he did it in just his second season at Carolina.

The anti-Roy sentiment and pining reached an all time high in Lawrence after that Tar Heel Title. This was especially unfair to Bill Self, Williams' replacement at Kansas. When Self won Kansas its first NCAA Title since '88, it was only fitting that the Jayhawks had to go through Williams' Tar Heels. North Carolina was the #1 overall seed of that 2008 Tournament, with just two losses all season, they were the most feared team in the field. Self's Jayhawks ran right through them.

I won't lie, as much as I loved Williams, I was gleefully cheering in the bar that night every time they showed his face during that insane 40-12 run the Jayhawks went on in the first half of that National Semi-Final. But Williams proved not only his class, but the sincerity of his claim that he loved the University of Kansas when he showed up to the National Title game between Kansas and Memphis with a large Jayhawk sticker on his shirt. And after Tar Heel faithful gave him grief about doing so, he quickly smacked them down.

After that game and that championship for Kansas, any bad blood between Kansas fans and Roy Williams is completely petty and uncalled for. Williams' exit from Lawrence wound up benefiting both schools. Williams saved the Tar Heel program from mediocrity. In his 14 years since leaving Lawrence, he has outpaced even his mentor, Dean Smith, in terms of overall success during such a short period of time. Meanwhile, at Kansas, Self did in five years what Williams failed to do in 15.

Williams was always going to be a title coach eventually. Yeah, it sucks that he never got it done at Kansas, but as a fan of the man, I'm glad he finally got to cut down the nets.

And well, Dadgummit, while “I could give a sh*t" about North Carolina's success tonight in yet another Final Four, it's hard to root against ole Roy.