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Sunday, July 2, 2000

Williams had KU support from start

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It was 12 years ago this same time of year and Kansas was seeking a new basketball coach. Young Roy Williams, a North Carolina assistant, turned out to be the choice, to the surprise and chagrin of some, many of whom had wanted KU to hire a man with major college head coaching experience.

Coach Larry Brown had won a national college title with the help of Danny Manning and the Miracles. Brown was ardently wooed by UCLA, informally took the job he held previously, then reneged, only to be lured to San Antonio as coach of the professional Spurs.

A common sentiment was that Kansas could not hope to retain the success and public attention that Brown had helped focus on the school, the program and the state.

Athletics director Bob Frederick had, indeed, gone after several high-profile coaches such as Gary Williams, who saw service at Ohio State and now runs the show at Maryland. KU faced some sanctions for violations that had been detected during the Brown tenure and knowledgeable coaches were wary.

But the fact is, Roy Williams, then a 10-year assistant to KU alum Dean Smith at North Carolina, was always in the hunt much more than many realized.

First off, the prestigious Smith was insistent that Roy be given a good look by a search committee. It included such Jayhawk notables as Maurice King, an all-league basketball star of the 1955-57 era that included an NCAA title contest, and Galen Fiss, onetime KU football fullback-linebacker and a longtime all-pro linebacker with the Cleveland Browns in some of their best years.

Another major foot was placed in the door by the late Dick Harp, former KU basketball star, assistant and head coach who had been one of Dean Smith's tutors in his playing days on Mount Oread. Smith long had tried to get Harp to come to North Carolina as a basketball aide but Harp had family obligations and a key role with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

In the late 1980s, things broke right and Harp joined Smith's staff as an administrative assistant for four years.

During that time, Harp became well-acquainted with Williams and frequently let KU authorities, among them Frederick who had played at KU under Harp, know of Roy's high potential.

Williams has often joked that he probably was a third or even fourth choice for the KU job in the summer of 1988, after people like Gary Williams had said "no thanks." But Williams was high on the list from the outset of the search. King and Fiss both agreed they were impressed with Williams from the "get-go" and were quick to give firm final approval.

Could Williams maintain the success and stupendous public support of the Larry Brown era? Some could recall 1959 when Kansas and Colorado played the first Saturday afternoon game ever televised nationally. KU turned heaven and earth to fill Allen Fieldhouse. Tickets were sold for $2 each, and on a buy-one, get-one-free basis. And still only about 7,000 spectators were in the hall.

Would things revert to that level under a mere assistant coach?

It was during the time between the Larry Brown resignation and the Williams hiring that I called Dean Smith at UNC to get his full spin on Roy and what KU should do. I was fortunate enough to cover KU when Smith was a player under Harp and Phog Allen (1951-53) and I knew he would be frank.

"Kansas could not get a better young man to head up the program," Smith said without hesitation. "He is bright, lively, organized, dedicated to the game and has been a joy to have on our staff. KU better grab him as fast as it can because someone else is going to do it and KU will wish it had."

Then Smith threw in a playful aside: "He'll be a great coach . . . and he will be there." The reference was to the reputation of Larry Brown for fabled vagabond shoes that kept him shuffling from one job to another.

Brown was also a Carolina prot of Smith and got quite upset at such a reference. Whether Larry ever admonished The Master about it is unknown, but Dean wanted to emphasize that Williams would be no "win-and-run" coach at guru Dean's beloved alma mater.

The Smith evaluation of Williams, then 38, proved dead solid perfect. The unheralded assistant overcame a number of early obstacles posed by the post-Brown sanctions and registered the best 12-year won-lost record in big school annals. As Smith promised, he was here.

In today's climate of short-term, shift-for-money coaches, Williams's 12 years rates as something of an eternity. And there has been good citizenship and the excellence along with the longevity in the program.

One longtime KU devotee with an extensive record of aid and leadership remarked Friday: "If everyone who came to KU as a coach, teacher, administrator or what-have-you would do as much for the school and the state in 12 years as Roy Williams has done, imagine what kind of a university we'd have. We're sad if he goes, but think what he managed to do while he was here."

On a personal note, my wife and I and a pair of close friends took a lengthy motor trip through the North Carolina region in 1997. All of us are native Kansans who are fortunate enough to have traveled quite a bit. We still were awed by the Carolina flora, fauna and beauty in springtime.

Up to then, I'd generally thought Williams (like Phog Allen) would never want to leave an empire he had created here for the uncertainty of following a legend at Carolina. After seeing that UNC region in one of its finest hours, I quickly concluded he would considering the package he could command.

Not long after that, I exchanged a few pleasantries with Roy's wife, Wanda, and told her that after seeing the region where she and Roy grew up I could understand their affection for it . . . and that I'd be able to understand if they eventually chose to leave Kansas for their Carolina roots.

Wanda said nothing, but offered a faint, knowing smile and a slight wink. Then and there I concluded: "When the time is right to return, they're gone."

Nothing is yet carved into stone but for many, Roy's deciding not to go home to UNC will be a bigger surprise than the hiring of a low-profile assistant for the Kansas job 12 years ago. And they're doing the final considerations in the Carolina region.

The longer Roy and Wanda ponder in a setting like that, the more likely it appears they may soon be heading east, "Goin' Home," so to speak.

Roy has said he will give his decision before July 7. He was hired on July 8, 1988. Twelve great years for him and KU. Twelve more would be even better, but don't bet the farm it will happen.

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