Roy Williams gathered his golf buddies last week in a cottage in western North Carolina to report some disturbing news.
Williams, North Carolina’s 10th-year basketball coach who ran Kansas University’s program for 15 years, told his pals during their annual excursion that he needed surgery to remove a tumor from his right kidney and might need similar surgery on the left kidney.
“He’s in great health, so obviously it was a shock to everybody,” said Randy Towner, general manager at Firekeeper Golf Course in Mayetta, who is a longtime friend of Williams. Towner was speaking Wednesday afternoon, shortly after Williams underwent a robotic partial nephrectomy at UNC Hospitals to remove the tumor from his right kidney.
Dr. Eric Wallen, professor of urology at UNC, and co-surgeon Dr. Mathew Raynor led the surgical team, which took 31⁄2 hours to complete the operation. Doctors have not determined whether the tumor, which was discovered during a physical exam, was malignant or benign, ESPN reported, and that may impact whether Williams has to have a second surgery next month. Test results are expected within a week.
“He’ll be fine. It’s all scary, but the odds are well in his favor. I told him, ‘You’ve got a pretty good winning percentage anyway (.801),’’’ Towner said with a laugh. “I said, ‘You may have coached in some must-win situations, but they don’t mean much compared to this.' I think he’ll coach a lot of games and win at least one more national championship before he hangs it up.”
Dr. Wallen said Williams, 62, should be able to coach when the Tar Heels begin practice for the 2012-13 season on Oct. 12.
“The surgery went well and according to plan,” Wallen said. “Coach Williams did great. I fully expect him to coach this season and for years to come. He could miss some practice time if we perform another procedure sometime in October, but he would be able to resume his coaching duties prior to the start of the regular season.”
There is no follow-up chemo or radiation for kidney cancer if the tumor turns out to be cancerous.
“Obviously, health is more important than basketball. We all wish him a speedy recovery to get himself back to 100 percent real soon,” KU coach Bill Self told the Journal-World. “Roy obviously did a remarkable job at the University of Kansas. Remarkable. He’s a great ambassador for our sport, and certainly everybody in the athletics community I’m sure sends their well-wishes with us.”
UNC assistant coach Steve Robinson expects Williams will have to slow down a bit in coming weeks.
“Coach is coach. He’s going to be anxious, and he can’t sit still very long,” Robinson told the Associated Press. “But we just want him to make sure he has a full recovery.”
C.B. McGrath, a Tar Heels assistant who played and coached under Williams at KU, said everyone wants Williams to return as soon as he can.
“All of our veterans know what they’re supposed to do. All of us working for coach all these years know what we’re supposed to do. So things are going to be fine as usual with the program. We just obviously are more worried about coach Williams and his health,” McGrath told the AP.
Williams, who in past seasons has had occasional bouts with vertigo and back problems, had shoulder surgery three years ago to repair a torn labrum.
He called a team meeting Tuesday night to tell the players he would have surgery Wednesday.
“When we all heard, it was just that awkward silence in the room,” senior guard Dexter Strickland said. “We didn’t expect that at all, especially from him. You can’t really explain it.”
Williams, who has 675 wins in 24 seasons, won NCAA championships with the Tar Heels in 2005 and 2009.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with coach Williams and his family for a full recovery,” UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said. “Obviously, his health and prognosis are my greatest concerns. He’s in great hands with the medical staff at UNC Hospitals. The basketball team is also in outstanding hands with Steve Robinson, C.B. McGrath, Hubert Davis and Joe Holladay. As coach Williams frequently says, he has the best staff in the country and I know they will do an excellent job as coach Williams recuperates. We will be ready for his return as soon as he is able to do so, but I have stressed to him that he returns only when he has been given the medical approval and he is ready to do that. Hopefully that will be soon and for a long, long time to come.”
“I think all of us are in charge,” said UNC's Robinson, who worked as an assistant on Williams' staff at KU. “We’ve all got our duties and our responsibilities, and I don’t think we have one single person where we say, ‘OK, this guy is in charge of everything.’ You know who’s in charge of everything? Roy Williams is in charge.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report