For many Kansas Jayhawks fans in April of 2003, Roy Williams leaving KU to replace Matt Doherty at North Carolina felt like insult to injury. The Jayhawks had just ended a beautiful 2 year run of Final Four finishes, but had failed to finish the job on both trips. Bad shot selection and a costly time out violation cost them in a heated game against the Juan Dixon–led Maryland Terrapins in the 2002 tournament. It was a disappointing way to end the season; especially being the first team to go undefeated in Big 12 conference play.
Despite losing two critical big men the following year (Drew Gooden to the NBA draft and Wayne Simien to a shoulder injury), the Jayhawks got back to the Final Four and almost overcame a poor first half and poor free throw shooting (they shot 11-31 from the charity stripe) only to come up short. Not only did they lose the National Championship by a mere 3 points, but they lost two of their storied players to graduation in Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, and on top of that they lost their head coach. It was a tender time for the KU faithful.
Hard Work puts this time period–and Roy Williams as a whole–in perspective. It is a touching and honest tale that gives us insight into what makes him tick. Williams discusses his family background growing up in Asheville, North Carolina and we follow him to his decision (inspired by his own high school coach Buddy Baldwin) to pursue a career in coaching during his junior year in high school. From there, he goes on to attend the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he plays on the junior varsity team and watches the Dean Smith run practices during his free time; sitting high in the bleachers while taking notes.
Through hard work and determination Williams pays his way through school by taking odd jobs until he finally graduates and finds a job coaching high school, while maintaining his connection at UNC–a connection that pays in dividends as he takes a pay cut to become an assistant coach for Dean Smith. It is Roy Williams who has a hand in recruiting such notable players as Rick Fox, Sam Perkins, and the GOAT himself, Michael Jordan.
After ten years of hard work for coach Dean Smith (a KU alum), that Williams leaves for Lawrence, Kansas (not without a great deal of hand wringing) after another UNC alum, Larry Brown leaves for an NBA job.
I picked up this book hoping to get some insight into the Lawrence to Chapel Hill parallel, and the coaching pipeline that started with Dean Smith. Unfortunately, Williams does little romanticizing about his time in Lawrence. It almost feels like he left Chapel Hill only for the sake of building his resume for when it was time to take over for Coach Smith. There are very little off the court details to his time in Lawrence, and I couldn’t help but wonder if taking the KU job helped him feel closer to Dean Smith and Larry Brown, having understood the culture surrounding both basketball programs.
Most of the details about his time in Lawrence involve recruiting and learning the ropes as the head coach of a major program. Although Roy Williams is a coaching legend, Hall of Famer, and one of the most decorated men to ever pick up a clipboard, there was a time when he faced a great deal of scrutiny. Despite going to two Final Fours in his first four years of coaching (Kansas was ineligible for post season play due to violations during the Larry Brown era), the media loved floating around the narrative that Roy couldn’t win the big one. No matter how talented the team, each season ended with Williams at a press conference crying into the microphone. It was an image I got used to seeing as a teenager in middle and high school.
Considering how tough it was at the time to get big time players to come to Lawrence to play basketball (players like Jason Kidd, Tayshaun Prince, Harold Minor, Thomas Hill, and Jimmy King all passed on coming to Kansas for various reasons–Larry Brown almost left the program in 1987 because he was afraid he couldn’t get big time recruits to come play there), one has to consider how well Williams performed his job as head coach at Kansas. Despite some good recruiting eras, the only Williams recruited player to come out of KU and go on to be a stud in the NBA was future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce. At their professional best, Scot Pollard, Raef LaFrentz, Jacque Vaughn, Gooden, Hinrich, and Collison (who almost went to Duke which means Carlos Boozer might have been a Jayhawk, YUK!) were really good role players. Even now as the coach of UNC, despite already having won 3 national titles (narrowly missing out on a fourth because of a Villanova buzzer beater two seasons ago), San Antonio Spur, Danny Green happens to be the best NBA player to ever play for Roy at Chapel Hill.
Before picking up this book, I wasn’t sure what to think about Roy Williams. As a kid, I couldn’t tell if his “aw shucks” demeanor and Huckleberry Hound accent was corny or earnest. I always found his emotional press conferences endearing. Most of the time, he talked about how badly he felt for his players, and often spoke of the disappointment that he couldn’t win them a championship. Hard Work was a revealing read however, and there is a simplicity and self awareness about Roy Williams that you don’t find with many coaches of big time programs. Many high profile coaches come off as smug, pompous and self righteous, or at their worst, fast talking hucksters and pimps.
As for his coaching, there is no doubt what kind of legacy he will leave when he finally decides to hang it up. He is not even 70 yet, but I don’t get the sense he is ready to rest on his laurels. UNC is the kind of basketball program that sells itself, and he doesn’t have to work as hard to get big time recruits to come to Chapel Hill. Years ago, I was wondering if he was close to retire from the stress of running a big time program. Now I understand that Coach Williams enjoys the challenge and its part of his competitive nature to scream and yell on the sideline as if every possession were the last. It took lots of hard work, but it feels like Roy has cracked the code, and he may win another four or five titles when its all said and done.
And for those Jayhawks fans who were upset back in 2003, it looks as if things worked out for both parties. Williams’ replacement, Bill Self has created his own legacy in Lawrence, winning 14 straight conference titles, and took KU took a title by his fifth year of coaching (defeating a talented North Carolina team in the Final Four on the way to that championship). Kansas fans can hang their hat on jump-starting the UNC program by giving them their storied coach in Dean Smith. Coach Smith returned the favor by sending pupils Larry Brown and Roy Williams back to Lawrence to keep the winning tradition alive. But if you think about it, Williams grew up in Asheville, married his wife while being a student at North Carolina, cut his teeth as a coach at Carolina, and even though his son and daughter both went to Lawrence High School; they also both attended school in Chapel Hill (his son Scott won a state title at Lawrence High and went on to play for Bill Gutheridge, while his daughter was on the UNC dance team). KU fans should have seen the move coming a mile away. Coach Williams was always a Tar Heel; he was just on loan to Kansas until the program needed him again.
Bobby Mickey is the alter ego of writer and poet Edward Austin Robertson. When he isn’t involved in some basketball related activity, actively looking for parties to deejay or venues to perform comedy, he can be found recording podcasts with Craig Stein at Fullsass Studios. For booking inquiries, send contact info to firstname.lastname@example.org