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Return of the Native
Grant Wahl
April 13, 2005
After 15 seasons in Kansas, Roy Williams came home to Chapel Hill to restore the Tar Heels' legacy
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April 13, 2005

Return Of The Native

After 15 seasons in Kansas, Roy Williams came home to Chapel Hill to restore the Tar Heels' legacy

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On April 14, 2003, a week after the championship game, Williams called Smith with some final questions: Coach, do you think everyone there will be pleased with me coming back? Would I be their choice? Are you sure that you want me to take this job? When Smith said yes to all three, Williams ended the misery--sort of. At the press conference announcing his arrival in Chapel Hill, he wore a tie festooned with Jayhawks.

The scene in Lawrence in the days surrounding Williams's departure was like one Hoosiers moment after another. After Bohl was fired in a last-ditch attempt to keep Williams, Bohl lashed out in a bizarre press conference on his front lawn, charging that the coach was vindictive and hateful. ("My lawyer called and said this is bad," Williams says, "but in a way it shows people what you've been putting up with.") Locals churned out BENEDICT WILLIAMS T-shirts. At the team banquet senior Nick Collison's dad, Dave, shouted down a heckler who yelled "Traitor!" at Williams, and two dozen former Jayhawks lined up outside to shake the coach's hand. Roy and his wife, Wanda, broke down in tears. "I was still their coach," he says.

Williams laughs when asked if he's considered seeking therapy. "I've wondered," he says. "I think I'm gonna be fine, but my makeup is that I care what people think. That statement about dying or retiring, that really haunted me. Those BENEDICT WILLIAMS T-shirts, that hit me harder than anything has ever hit me."

There were lighter moments, of course, like the time in Lawrence last summer when one woman, spying Williams at a restaurant, theatrically stuck out her tongue and left the premises. But some topics aren't joking matters. For instance, don't ever expect Williams to put the Jayhawks on Carolina's schedule. And if the Tar Heels ever drew Kansas in the postseason? "You mean one of those 'miracles' that happen in the tournament?" Williams says. "I think I'd strangle everyone on the committee."

On the other hand, at least it would mean Carolina was back in the tournament.

When the 53-year-old Williams led his first Tar Heels practice in the wee hours of Oct. 18, 2003, at a raucous Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, he took the latest step in a daunting restoration project. See, his task isn't just to stop the losing, though that will be challenge enough, but to resuscitate the powder-blue empire that Smith built over 36 years and a record 879 victories. It's about nothing less than saving college basketball's first family. "We have to win or I'm not gonna be sitting here in four years," Williams says. "But if I cannot get everybody, particularly the former players, back on the same page with us, and supporting us, and not going to bed until they find out what Carolina did that night, then I will not have done the job I want to do. And that may be even more important to me than winning."

For his part Smith has never liked the term Carolina Family, favoring Carolina fraternity. But whatever you choose to call that brotherhood--from Michael Jordan to Phil Ford, James Worthy to Larry Brown, Vince Carter to Billy Cunningham--everyone agrees that it's special. "You ever see the movie Soul Food? That's it," says former Tar Heels point guard Kenny Smith. "I know Antawn Jamison's father as well as anyone's dad, and I never played with Antawn. I used to think all schools were like that until I got to the NBA and realized they weren't."

But as soon as Doherty, class of '84, took over for the retired Bill Guthridge three years ago, the Family began squabbling as it never had before. Many blamed Doherty, a former Williams assistant at Kansas, for what they saw as a willful desecration of Carolina tradition. The new coach not only brought his own staff from Notre Dame, forcing Ford--Guthridge's most popular assistant and UNC's alltime leading scorer--into athletic administration, but Doherty's brusque style also hastened the departures of three longtime basketball secretaries, including Angela Lee, the liaison to three decades of former players.

Yet Doherty wasn't the only lightning rod. Other Family members, most notably former Smith lieutenants Guthridge and Eddie Fogler, were still upset with Williams for leaving Carolina at the altar in 2000. Still others fumed about what they thought was the unseemly manner in which Baddour and UNC chancellor James Moeser guillotined Doherty in the spring of 2003, enlisting his players to turn state's evidence and then publicly questioning his leadership after he resigned. What had happened to the genteel Carolina way? "There's no way that 18- and 19-year-olds should be dictating the future of a coach," argued Jordan, Doherty's ex-teammate, who railed at anyone who would listen about the nerve of today's "new-jack players."

Over time the alums who once migrated from the NBA to Chapel Hill each summer slowly began withdrawing from a program they no longer recognized. "If you go to Thanksgiving dinner with your mom and dad every year and one year the turkey doesn't taste right, that's one thing, but we almost stopped having dinners," Kenny Smith says. "Everyone realizes now that all you need to do to get the Family back is continue what Coach Smith already established. It's hard for someone coming in with his own aspirations and ideas to understand sometimes. The biggest thing Coach Williams realizes is that you don't have to do anything."

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