Even though Roy Williams's Kansas team was playing at the Final Four in New Orleans two weeks ago, that didn't keep him from holding to a Tar Heel-related tradition. Every year, Williams goes out of his way to pick up Dean Smith's package of tickets, the better for " Coach Smith," as Williams still calls him, to avoid a five-minute-long wait in line. "You don't have to keep doing that," Smith always protests. "You're no longer my assistant."
"I just call it respect," Williams says. "If there's any way I can make Coach Smith's life a little bit easier...."
It's impossible to overstate how deferential Williams remains toward the man he assisted for 10 years at North Carolina (1978-88), which helps explain why Williams left Kansas on Monday to take over the reeling program in Chapel Hill. Three years after Williams had turned down the Carolina job, one week after his Jayhawks had lost to Syracuse in the national title game, Ol' Roy was going home.
The announcement concluded a bizarre courting ritual in which two venerable basketball schools took turns whacking their putative leaders—Kansas athletic director Al Bohl and UNC coach Matt Doherty—in a Darwinian battle for Williams's allegiance. Jayhawks fans will be understandably bitter. Wasn't this the same Williams who told them in July 2000 that he would leave Lawrence only if he was fired or retired? Yet one could also follow the thought process of Williams, who felt he had betrayed Smith and the Carolina family when he declined their job offer that same month. Asked last year if he had repaired the damage done by that decision, Williams said, "I'm not sure that I ever can."
Williams, 52, left a secure place for one fraught with challenges. Can he restore order to a program whose talented but petulant freshmen-led by Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton and Sean May—orchestrated a coup against Doherty? Can he work with an athletic director, Dick Baddour, whose timing in the removal of Doherty turned Williams's own Final Four-into a nightmare of questions about North Carolina? Most important, can Williams win his long-awaited national title in Smith's shadow, in front of Tar Heels faithful who will expect nothing less?
Clearly, North Carolina has the talent to be a top 10 team next season. Whether or not Williams can make it Blue Heaven again, he'll give everything trying. After all, Dean Smith will be watching.