"The thing that amazes me most about Roy is how he's gone from a total unknown to truly one of the elite," says Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, one of Williams's chief conference rivals. "He has accomplished so much so quickly."
Just as remarkable is the fact that Williams almost didn't take the Kansas job. It was July 7, 1988, and Williams had just cut short a Bermuda vacation with his wife, Wanda—the first he had taken alone with her in four years—to answer Kansas athletic director Bob Frederick's request that he fly at once to Lawrence for an interview. Just three months earlier Danny Manning and the Miracles had cut down the nets in Kansas City after beating Oklahoma 83-79 for the national title, but no sooner had the cheering stopped than Larry Brown, the Jayhawks' coach, bolted for the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA, leaving behind an empty chair and a scent of impropriety strong enough that the NCAA had come sniffing.
At the urging of Smith, a Kansas alumnus, Frederick had already met once with Williams, at the Atlanta airport when Roy and Wanda were en route to Bermuda. Before that two-hour meeting was over, Frederick sensed that he had found his man—the heir to James Naismith, Phog Allen and the 90 years of basketball tradition in Lawrence.
"I know I'll catch a lot of heat for this in Kansas," Frederick had told Smith after his first meeting with Williams. In fact, Frederick caught heat for it in his own household. The night before Williams was to arrive in Kansas, as Frederick was undressing for bed, his wife, Margey, asked him, "Who are you going to hire?" Her husband did not answer. Reading a message in his silence, she said, "You're not going to hire that no-name assistant from North Carolina, are you?"
"Yes, I am," he replied firmly.
"You can't do that," she said. "The alumni will kill you. They want a big-time coach."
So it was, the very next evening, that this obscure, unproven lieutenant of Smith's—who wasn't even his first assistant, mind you, but his second—sat uneasily in Frederick's office, facing a skeptical search committee and trying desperately to come to terms with his own ambivalence.
Because Williams had grown up in a family devastated by alcohol, he had emerged from adolescence reaching for those moorings—predictability and structure—that had always been denied him. Williams had found those things in Chapel Hill during the years he had safely cocooned himself in the regimented world according to Smith, and now suddenly there he was on the brink of trading them away for the chance, with all its uncertainties, to run his own show.
That he was also hounded by doubts about his own abilities—"Coach, are you sure that you think I can do this?" he had asked Smith—only paralyzed him further. True to himself, thinking that he ought to share his doubts with Frederick and the others, even at the risk of scaring them away, Williams launched into a moving soliloquy about his love for Chapel Hill and North Carolina.
He told his interviewers about how he had grown up in Asheville and gone to high school there; about how he had played freshman basketball as a walk-on at North Carolina in 1968-69 and, not having been good enough to make the varsity, as a sophomore had begun to keep team stats and dream of one day coaching in Chapel Hill; about how he had married a North Carolina girl, born and bred; about how they had raised their two children, Scott and Kimberly, in the state; about how he had gone home again to Asheville as a high school coach and then had been invited by Smith to join the Tar Heels' staff as a part-time assistant; and about how he and Wanda had packed up the U-Haul and left the mountains of western Carolina to fulfill their dream.