Williams latest in Kansas-North Carolina pipeline

Wednesday, July 8, 1998

Now we know once and for all that the yellow brick road connects with tobacco road.

The Sunflower State has three major colleges and two of those schools have basketball coaches who were once assistant coaches at North Carolina—Eddie Folger at Wichita State and Roy Williams at Kansas. The road runs the other way, too. North Carolina head coach Dean Smith, as everyone knows, is a former Kansas basketball player. At the same time, Bill Guthridge, Smith's top aide for the last 21 years, played basketball and was an assistant coach at Kansas State.

Who's Roy Williams? Well, he's not that big old friendly guy all of us old-timers remember frolicking with Annette and Cubby and the other Mousketeers.

This Roy Williams is 37 years old and a native of Asheville, N.C. He's been an assistant coach at North Carolina for the last decade after spending five years as head coach at Owen High in Swannanoa, N.C. Swannanoa??? Is that way down upon the Swannanoa River?

Obviously, the Jayhawks' new head coach is about as well known in Kansas as the third ruler of the Ming Dynasty. He could have walked down Massachusetts Street for weeks and nobody would have recognized him (unless, of course, somebody was visiting here from Swannanoa).

Is this guy a good coach?

Well, the North Carolina media guide calls him "one of the best young coaches in college basketball," adding that he has gained a "wealth of experience in all phases of what many consider the top college basketball program in the nation."

Further, according to the UNC media guide, Williams has "already turned down a couple of Division I head coaching jobs" and that he wants to be a head coach in the future. Well, the future is now.

"Roy is a highly organized person who has all the characteristics of a great coach," Smith is quoted as saying in the guide. "He genuinely cares a great deal about his players... His goal is to be a head coach and he will be an outstanding one.

"He is respected in our profession. In fact, several college head coaches have come to Chapel Hill for advice and ideas from Roy. He has certainly proven himself as a college coach with the job his junior varsity teams have done against junior colleges and prep schools."

Fine, you're saying, Roy Williams has been a terrific assistant coach, but Kansas should have hired someone with head coaching experience.

I'll say this, there are only two schools in the universe that could possibly send an assistant coach to become head coach at Kansas. One is North Carolina where a recommendation from Smith is tantamount to a message from heaven. The other is Kansas.

Twice in the past, assistant coaches have been promoted on Mount Oread. The first was Dick Harp who was elevated to replace Phog Allen; the second was Ted Owens who ascended to Harp's spot.

Incidentally, I don't have to tell you that Harp is currently Smith's administrative assistant at North Carolina, do I? I didn't think so. Follow the yellow brick road.

Does it mean anything here that three of the last four Kansas head coaches—and there have only been seven in history—were assistant coaches before taking over the KU program?

One of them—Owens—lasted 19 years and that span is second only to the legendary Phog Allen in longevity. Harp was head coach for eight years. Brown, who was head coach of the NBA New Jersey Nets when he cam to Kansas, has the shortest tenure of any KU basketball coach—five years.

Where does Roy Williams fit into all this?

For one thing, he's a lucky guy. He bided his time, and finally the timing was right for him to secure one of the top college coaching jobs in the country.

Sometimes, it's better—as coaches say—to be lucky than good. In the case of Williams, though, he's apparently good and lucky.