Chapter 8: Decision, decision

November 1, 2009 

An excerpt from North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams' autobiography, "Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court." The book, which was written with Tim Crothers, will be available on Tuesday. In this chapter, Williams tells why he turned down the UNC job down while he was at Kansas.


In April 1997 Coach Smith, Coach Guthridge, Coach Fogler, and I met in Fort Myers, Florida, for a two-day golf vacation. During that trip, Coach Smith brought up the idea that he was thinking of retiring before the start of the next season. The subject of me possibly replacing him came up. "I can't tell you if I would take the job, because I don't know what I'd tell my players," I said. "Somebody tell me what I would tell my players."

Coach Smith retired in October. It was a sad day for college basketball and for me, because the man I saw as the role model for our entire sport was walking away. By that time, Coach Guthridge had decided to be his successor, but in my mind Coach Guthridge was only going to coach North Carolina for one season. He and I talked regularly during his first year, and he wavered about whether he wanted to coach UNC for a second season in 1999. He decided to come back, and then we spent another season talking periodically about whether he would coach a third. Whenever the subject of who would take his place came up, I told Coach Guthridge that I just didn't know what I would do if faced with that possibility. Those conversations drove me crazy because I was constantly enduring these heart-wrenching thoughts about having to make a choice between the two schools I dearly loved, Kansas and North Carolina. So when Coach Guthridge decided to remain at UNC for a third season in 2000, I called Coach Smith and told him that I was never going to even think about the North Carolina job again until it was actually open.

During our conversations in the spring of 2000, I got the impression that Coach Guthridge really didn't think he would coach the Tar Heels for another season. He sounded more likely to leave this time. One night during that summer, he called and told me he was pretty sure he was going to resign.

"Roy," he said, "I want you to take this job. You've got a good job, but whoever takes this job is going to get a great job."

I said, "Coach, I understand that."

The next day Wanda called me at my Kansas summer basketball camp. She told me to call Coach Guthridge. She had talked to him and she thought he might be wavering about the decision to quit. "You may be able to talk him out of this," she said. "You may be able to talk him into staying."

So I called Coach Guthridge. I really wanted him to continue coaching the Tar Heels so that I wouldn't have to face a decision about possibly coming back to UNC. "Coach," I said, "you don't have to do this. Just don't do it. Go ahead and coach another year."

The next day Coach Guthridge announced that he was retiring. I held a press conference in Lawrence later that day, and I explained that if the North Carolina job was offered to me, I would have to go back to Chapel Hill and talk to people before I could make any decision about coaching the Tar Heels.

"What do you have to find out?" one of the reporters asked. "You were there for 10 years."

"Yes, and I haven't been there for 12 years," I said. "I think I have the right to do that."

That night Dick Baddour, UNC's athletic director, called me at home and said, "Roy, we want you to come back and be the basketball coach at North Carolina."

"Dick," I said, "this is really going to be a hard decision. I'm going to need some time to get this clear in my mind. I won't drag this out, but give me a week to think about it."

It was a frenzy. I'd never seen anything like it before. I talked to Bob Frederick and Chancellor Robert Hemenway, who had replaced Chancellor Budig, and I asked them to give me some time to think.

Bob told me, "You write whatever contract you want and we'll sign it. You want a lifetime contract? We'll sign it."

I told him, "No, I'm satisfied with my contract

He said, "OK, other than that, you've got to make your decision. We're not going to put pressure on you."

The day before I left for Chapel Hill, I played 18 holes of golf with two good buddies, Randy Towner and Scot Buxton. When we were loading our clubs back in our cars in the parking lot, I said, "Boys, I think I've just played the last round of golf I'll ever play with you as the head coach at Kansas."

I did really feel that way, but I wanted something to tell me it was all right to leave. I know that sounds corny, but that's me.

I flew back to North Carolina with Wanda, and Scott drove up from Charlotte where he was working. Kimberly was a student at UNC. Coach Smith and his wife, Dick Baddour and his wife, and Wanda and I went out to dinner that night. They were recruiting me. Coach Smith said, "I want you to do what you want to do. I would love for you to be back here, but it's got to be what you want to do."

That night, I said to Wanda, "Let's go for a walk tomorrow morning before everybody else is up and see if the Davie Poplar will fall or something will give me a sign that it's all right to break my word to Nick Collison, because, honey, I told him I was going to be at Kansas for his whole career."

So the next morning we got up and walked and the Davie Poplar did not fall. Wanda said, "How are you going to feel if you don't go to North Carolina and they win the national championship?"

I said, "How would I feel if I left Kansas and they won the national championship?"

While I was in Chapel Hill, I could feel my mind-set changing. I began to think, "You're happy at Kansas. It's your program. It has your fingerprints all over it. You've been there 12 years, your whole career, and you've always admired a coach that stays at one school his entire career." In the past, whenever Wanda and I had returned to Chapel Hill, we got chill bumps on our arms driving into town because the place meant so much to us. That didn't happen on this visit. The longer I was back in North Carolina, the more negative feelings I began to have about the move -- which was strange to me. I'd thought that would be when the needle would swing significantly in UNC's favor.

I knew Scott wanted me to come back to North Carolina. He had just finished his career as a UNC walk-on, and his teammates would often ask him about me coming back to coach. I knew Kimberly would have loved to have me on the same campus with her. Wanda had made it perfectly clear that she would be glad to return to the state where both of her kids lived. When I'd first been offered the UNC job she said, "I could have my bags packed in about 30 minutes."

We left Chapel Hill and went down to our beach house in South Carolina. Some of our neighbors were flying UNC flags and others were flying Kansas flags. Everybody was giving me their opinion. I made out lists with everything on there outside of which place had the prettiest cheerleader uniforms, and they became so cumbersome that I tore them up and threw them away. Every five minutes I would flip-flop. I'm going. No, I'm not. I'm going. No, I'm not. North Carolina is home. Kansas feels like home. I'm happy at Kansas and I know my players. I don't know the players at North Carolina. Coach Smith wants me to come back. How can I tell him no? What the heck am I going to tell Nick Collison? There's nothing I can tell Nick Collison.

I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't do anything. I flew back to Kansas City and there was a crowd waiting for me at the airport when I landed. Airport security had to escort me through the media to my car. I drove over to Allen Fieldhouse at about 2 o'clock in the morning, thinking there was not going to be anybody there, and there were probably 30 or 40 people walking like zombies around the fieldhouse. People had posted cards all the way around the arena with messages asking me to stay. Somebody had sewn a shirt to put over Dr. Allen's statue that said, "Roy, Please Stay." They had poems written on the sidewalk. I went and sat at the Chi Omega fountain in the middle of campus because that was a very peaceful spot to think. When I got back to my house I still couldn't sleep. The phone rang early the next morning, and it was one of my former high school players, David Wilson. I hadn't talked to David since I'd been at Kansas and I don't even know how he got my number.

"I saw you on the news last night when you got back to Kansas," he said, "and I want you to come back to UNC, but your players are going to love you regardless of what you do. You're always going to be our coach."

It was the toughest time that I'd ever had. It far surpassed, whatever pain, anger, and sorrow that I'd endured as a kid, because I didn't feel like I could make a decision that wouldn't hurt somebody that I really cared about. But when that young man called, it felt like a sign that the people who really cared about me would be all right if I decided to stay.

I went to my office at Allen Fieldhouse that morning and I called Bob and said, "I'm going to stay."

Bob let out a huge sigh of relief. "Coach, you have no idea how happy I am," he said. "This is a great day for Kansas basketball."

I asked him if we could put the news out in a press release, but he told me there were 60 media people in from out of town and we'd need to do a press conference.

I went back home and called Dick Baddour, and when I told him that I wasn't coming, he was silent for a few seconds. He asked me if there was anything he could do to change my mind. I said the decision was made. I said, "I've got to stay here."

Then I called Coach Smith. "I'm disappointed," he said, "but you've said it before. The people at North Carolina don't know what you have at Kansas and the people at Kansas don't know what we have here. You and I may be the only two people who know."

I walked out past the television camera crews in front of my house and I asked them not to follow me. I went across the street to the back of the driving range at the Alvamar Country Club. Several years before, they had made a practice tee there, and at some point even put up a sign that said, "For KU Golf Team and Coach Williams Only," and I went over there just to hit some balls to try to get my head clear.

When I got back to my house, Bob called and said, "Coach, we've had to change the press conference to the football stadium, because that media room over there is the only one big enough."

Ten minutes later, he called back and said, "Coach, we've got thousands of people already over at the stadium-we're going to put the press conference up on the video board."

I set a record that day. I drank eight 20-ounce Coca-Colas. I went into the press conference and I simply said, "I'm staying." The 16,000 people in the football stadium just went crazy. But I made one big mistake. I said, "The next time we're having a press conference like this, it'll either be because I'm retiring or dying."

That was the truth at the time. That was exactly the way I felt.

I was the king of the world at Kansas, but some people in North Carolina that I truly loved and I thought loved me just wiped me off the face of the earth. It hurt me so much more than anything I'd ever experienced.

That week, I told Scott and Kimmie that in life you want to have a group of people who are going to be with you regardless of what you do. I told them that some people are only going to be with you when you do what they want you to do, and there will be another group that is not going be with you at all, so you have to find a hard-core group that will always be with you.

Based on our talk when the process started, I thought Coach Guthridge would understand, but he didn't. Coach Smith handled it well and said he understood, but I knew I'd hurt him, too.

The bottom line was that I was really happy at Kansas, and that I just couldn't come to grips with what to tell Nick Collison. I had made him a promise.

From Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court, by Roy Williams with Tim Crothers. © by Roy Williams and Tim Crothers. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. "Hard Work" will be available for sale November 3 from all outlets that sell books.

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