Thad: Roy Takes the Reins

Better late than never? Good things come to those who wait? Everything happens for a reason?

I'm not sure what the most appropriate cliche is to describe the seismic shift in college basketball which took place Monday afternoon and evening, as Roy Williams confirmed Carolina fans' fondest hopes and Jayhawk fans' worst nightmare by getting on the plane from Lawrence to Chapel Hill.

I do know this: Suddenly, the North Carolina basketball program is on firmer footing for the future than any time since Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace bolted Chapel Hill after their sophomore seasons 8 years ago, and possibly even longer than that. By the spring of 1995, debate about what would happen when Dean stepped down was in full swing, to be followed by questions about how long Bill Guthridge would stay head coach, to be followed in turn by the initial optimism and eventual turmoil which accompanied Matt Doherty's tenure. During that time, questions about coaching stability have consumed gallons of newspaper ink and countless hours by Internet-surfing Tar Heel fanatics, haunted recruiting, polarized the fan base and in general turned Carolina basketball into the most sensationalized prime time soap opera since Melrose Place went off the air.

Guess what, folks--all that is over, at least for the rest of this decade. North Carolina is now led by one of the elite coaches of this generation, with a first class track record in all aspects of running a program. Still just 52 years old, Williams is at the peak of his coaching abilities, too, at that sweet spot of being seasoned enough to have seen it all yet young enough still to be hungry.

Very early in Williams's tenure at Kansas, Dean Smith began commenting that his protege's teams ran Carolina's system better than Carolina did. Williams's teams have played an attractive style of fast-break oriented basketball that prioritizes teamwork and good decision-making over sheer athleticism or brawn, but does so while maintaining an aggressive, "we're going to make things happen and you have to adjust" mentality.

Seeing Williams blend that coaching approach with Carolina's returning talents should be a joy to behold come next fall. Indeed if there's any bad part about yesterday, it's that we have to wait six months to see that begin to unfold.

But more urgent matters face Williams in the short term. This hire is not just about hiring the best coach available, it is also about healing and restoring the Carolina family. Calling on Phil Ford to play a guiding role in this transition is a helpful step, and the possibility remains that Ford will eventually join Joe Holladay and Steve Robinson on the staff. Other, smaller steps will probably need to be taken too to re-knit the family atmosphere in Chapel Hill. As Monday night's press conference illustrated, however, just being himself will probably be the most important thing Williams can do to make that happen.

Fans will immediately note the tears that flowed from Williams's cheeks Monday in Lawrence, the choked voice. There's no question that like Matt Doherty, Williams is an emotional guy. He is also a coach who yells a lot and will challenge you (as I found out firsthand playing for Roy at Carolina basketball camp nearly two decades ago). But emotion and yelling were not the cause of the fractured player-coach relationships of the past 3 seasons: issues of trust and respect were.

Roy Williams is a master of fostering respectful relationships, while also being tough as nails--just about any Kansas player will tell you that (and even some former UNC basketball campers, too!) There is no question in my mind that the poisonous rumors and reports of behind the scenes dissension of recent seasons in Chapel Hill are going to come to a screeching halt with this hire.

A lot is going to be written and said the rest of this week and in the months to come about the events of the past three weeks, but there is one very important point in all this that should not be lost in the shuffle. It doesn't have anything to do with basketball--it has to do with acceptance and forgiveness.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the degree to which people in the innermost circle of Carolina basketball felt not just disappointed but downright angry when Roy Williams told Dick Baddour, Dean Smith, and Bill Guthridge "no" 3 summers ago. Many prominent people associated with Carolina basketball, believing an understanding was in place for Williams to succeed Guthridge when the time came, remained upset in some degree or another for most of those years.

One (the only one?) who did not was Dean Smith, who immediately and publicly expressed his understanding of Williams's decision, and by all accounts did not let the disappointment affect his relationship with the former Kansas coach.

In the past few months, the "Dean Smith is messing up Carolina basketball" line has gained increasing cachet, as writers and others have tried to lay the problems of recent times at Smith's feet. No public figure, not even Smith, should be immune to public scrutiny. But the fact is, the final scorecard on this episode is going to show that Dean Smith helped bail out not only a program but perhaps even a university by making the pitch to Roy to come home.

And, he did it not with promises of more money or a great new team to work with or even better access to the beach--he did it through the strength of a relationship which Smith refused to let fray even when others were disappointed and upset beyond words.

Forgiveness and acceptance are good for their own sake--their value doesn't derive from whether they help produce better "results" (although usually they do). Smith probably didn't have this scenario in mind when he refused to "kick Roy out of the family." But, rest assured, Monday night's announcement in Chapel Hill never could have happened if Smith had let a disappointment, no matter how profound, interfere with a friendship.

Hopefully and in all probability there will be no further need to call on Dean to bail this program out in the years to come. I don't think there will be. But if this was Dean Smith's last major tangible contribution to Carolina basketball, the esteemed teacher and coach surely saved his best lesson for last.

*

Two more quick thoughts: First, while it's reasonable to be extremely excited about Roy Williams working with Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants, and the gang, it will be important to keep expectations at least somewhat realistic and to show some patience in the on-court department. It can be fairly pointed out that whereas Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge left their respective successors one excellent team and then a rebuilding job, Williams is inheriting talented players who figure to be in place for two more years.

On the other hand, Smith and Guthridge both handed off battle-tested veteran teams which had both been through serious struggles and had turned the corner in learning to win at the highest level, with terrific Final Four runs in 1997 and 2000. The current group of Carolina players doesn't yet have that set of credentials or that level of maturity. Could Carolina conceivably go all the way next year? Yes it could, but let's first focus on achieving the more modest goals which have eluded UNC the last two years, and try not to jump ship if this group still has some setbacks in front of it on the way back to the top.

Second, it goes without saying that this is an extremely painful time for Kansas basketball fans. How would Carolina fans if Dean Smith had accepted KU's offer to coach his alma mater back in 1983? Probably as a disappointment on a level just short of a death in the family. The reports of Kansas players leaving their farewell meeting with Williams in tears says it all about just what Williams accomplished over his 15 years in Lawrence. That's the way it should be when a coach leaves.

This is not a time to rub it in or gloat. It's unfortunate there is only one Roy Williams to go around--there should be more of them. Here's hoping that the historic Kansas-North Carolina basketball connection remains strong, and that things go well for Kansas basketball in their coaching search and in the future. I'll still be rooting for the Jayhawks in winters to come (and I'm pretty sure Dean and Roy will be, too).


Thad Williamson is the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html#bookstorelink. Thad welcomes your emails at thad@uncbasketball.com.

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