The framed, signed photo of Roy Williams still hangs in the back corner of the Amyx Barber Shop on Massachusetts Street. It didn’t come down when he left Kansas for North Carolina, 10 years ago next month.
“He’s always been there,” said Mike Amyx, Williams’ barber for the 15 years Williams coached at Kansas, the mayor of Lawrence for some of that. Even now, the shop receives a Tar Heels media guide in the mail every year.
As the Tar Heels prepare to face Kansas for the second time in a year Sunday, Lawrence remains very much a part of Williams’ life. He acknowledged Friday that if he couldn’t win his 700th game in Chapel Hill, doing it less than an hour from Lawrence was a decent substitute.
“You go downtown, which is Massachusetts Street,” Williams said. “And you say, ‘My God, this is Franklin Street.’ And then you go down at one end and you step over a little rock wall and you’re on campus. And the campus is up on a little hill. They call it a mountain, Mt. Oread, and it’s not much to us, but it’s up on a little hill. Coming up on 54, into Chapel Hill, what is it? It’s up on a little hill.
“It is the most unusual thing in the world how similar the campuses are. It’s all green, rolling hills to me, but you go 10 miles outside the town in any direction it’s as flat as this hallway right here. Cornfields and that kind of thing. It’s a college town, a college campus, a college atmosphere, which is what I think of when I think of Chapel Hill.”
Williams wasn’t able to make the comparison until after he accepted the job in 1988, having arrived after dark and negotiated late into the night without seeing any of Lawrence other than Allen Fieldhouse, although that was all he needed to see.
“That night, when they offered me the job, the office was at Allen Fieldhouse, so I walked out into the Fieldhouse,” Williams said. “I said, ‘This is a gym. This is my kind of place. It’s a gym.’ And this sounds like a cut to the Smith Center and it’s not meant to be, but it’s just I’m an old basketball coach and I said ‘This is a big-time gym.’ ”
This is Roy Williams’ Lawrence.
1. HALLOWED SHRINES
On the east side of town, in two different cemeteries, rest the bodies of two giants of the game. At the entrance to Memorial Park, there’s a stone memorial to Dr. James Naismith that gets most of the attention, but his actual grave is at the back of the cemetery.
Naismith died in 1939, but on Saturday, three basketballs and two Kansas stocking hats sat next to the grave marker he shares with his wife Maude, offerings to the man who invented basketball.
Only a few blocks away, in Oak Hill Cemetery, lies the body of the man who built on Naismith’s legacy at Kansas, the coach for 39 seasons before he retired in 1955, Dr. Forrest C. “Phog” Allen, a large granite headstone marking the Allen family plot.
“Game day, I would go by Dr. Naismith and Doc Allen’s gravesites,” Williams said. “We would run from Allen Fieldhouse to one cemetery and pat Dr. Naismith’s grave and then over to the other one and get Dr. Allen’s. The history there was really important to me. Now, what is really important to me at North Carolina? The history.
“The burden I felt when I came back is I’ve got to get everybody back together again. I knew I had to win, because I’d be fired if I didn’t. But that second thought is I had to get everybody back on board again, the family, the history. And that’s what I tried to do in Lawrence, is appreciate the real history of the place.”
2. THE ELDRIDGE HOTEL
A stout brick building on a corner of Massachusetts in downtown Lawrence, the Eldridge is built on the site of the Free State Hotel, twice burned by pro-slavery forces, the second time in 1863 as part of the Quantrill raids on Lawrence that killed 150 people. It was rebuilt as the Eldridge on the spot.
The current building dates from 1925, but the original cornerstone of the Eldridge is on prominent display in the lobby, which also houses one of the town’s best restaurants.
“I’d go to the Eldredge Hotel on the end of Massachusetts Street and they have the story up about Quantrill’s Raiders coming in and burning the town,” Williams said. “And I like Westerns.”
3. ALVAMAR COUNTRY CLUB
For most of his time in Lawrence, Williams and his family lived in a modest house on the west side of town. Through his neighbor’s yards across the street, Williams could see the 11th fairway at Alvamar Country Club as well as the back end of the driving range.
He’d take advantage of that geography, with his good friend Randy Towner, then the golf pro there, giving him special privileges.
“I could cross the 11th fairway and I was at the back of the driving range,” Williams said. “I would hit the balls back toward the tee. The only people that were allowed to hit balls from out there were the golf-team members and coach Williams. It was a pretty good deal.”
4. ALLEN FIELDHOUSE
One of the great arenas in college basketball, Allen Fieldhouse was opened in 1955, its namesake’s final season as Kansas’ coach. Its red-and-blue wooden bleachers stretch to the high corners of the rafters, where a banner reads, “PAY HEED ALL WHO ENTER/BEWARE OF ‘THE PHOG’ ”
Outside, in a commemorative plaza, an inscribed paving block thanking Roy Williams for 15 years at Kansas bears a unique signature: Dean Smith.
“I said this before I left, the day I ever walked in Allen Fieldhouse and I didn’t get cold chills, I’d know it was time to stop,” Williams said. “I feel the same in the Smith Center. If I walk out on game night, and I don’t have cold chills, I’ll quit. Someone asked me the other day if I would ever consider coming and playing a home-and-home against Kansas, I said no. My athletic director would understand, the Pope will understand, because I will never walk out of that far tunnel. That will never happen.”
5. THE AMYX BARBER SHOP
Amyx has another piece of Williams memorabilia. It doesn’t hang on the wall, because he’s too afraid of anything happening to it. It’s a framed lithograph of the coach, inscribed, “Best wishes always, and thanks to my barber shop,” and signed by Williams. The words “my barber shop” are underlined twice.
Williams gave it to Amyx the day he left Kansas for North Carolina, one of many pieces of himself he left behind in Lawrence when he came back to Chapel Hill.
“I was there 15 years, had wonderful players that I loved, it was family and always will be,” Williams said. “It’s not immoral to love two institutions.”