- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

Roy Williams has come home, and North Carolina’s legion of rabid fans expect a return to college basketball’s upper echelon to soon follow.

The Tar Heels’ storied program of Frank McGuire, Dean Smith, Bobby Jones, Michael Jordan and Vince Carter once set the standard for programs nationwide. It was a model of consistency for winning with class.

But lately around Chapel Hill, Carolina blues have set in.

The four-time national champion Tar Heels’ run of 31 consecutive 20-win seasons and 27 NCAA tournament appearances ended with an unimaginable 8-20 record under coach Matt Doherty in 2001-02.

That only served as a precursor to the upheaval that took place last season after North Carolina failed to reach March Madness for a second season. Players were upset with practice habits, complained of abuse from coaches and had overall “trust issues” with Doherty. They went over the coach’s head to the athletic director and staged a coup that resulted in Doherty’s ouster.

“The whole thing had crumbled,” CBS analyst Billy Packer said. “Internally from the administration, players, fans, Matt’s inexperience. All the way from Phil Ford not being hired from the beginning in favor of Matt’s assistants from Notre Dame.”

The outlook remained gloomy until Williams, coming off a second consecutive Final Four appearance with Kansas, heard the desperate cries from Chapel Hill and agreed to become the program’s savior. Williams returns with the highest winning percentage (.805) of any active college coach. With a 418-101 record, he is most certainly on his way to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

When the native of Asheville, N.C., accepted a job he had turned down in 2000, Carolina Nation was ecstatic. Williams, UNC Class of ‘72 and a Smith disciple, had directed Kansas to four Final Fours in his 15 seasons. But a week after Williams’ latest trip to college basketball’s showcase — which resulted in a loss to Syracuse in the title game — he returned to salvage the Tar Heels.

“The program was able to right itself immediately,” said Packer, a former Wake Forest player and longtime Carolina watcher. “Roy Williams, if everybody stays healthy, is going to have a top-10 team.”

Williams spent a decade as an assistant to Smith and was on the bench when the Tar Heels of Jordan and James Worthy defeated Georgetown and Patrick Ewing for the 1982 national title. Now 53, Williams has a string of 14 consecutive 20-win seasons and 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances.

“North Carolina basketball has been successful for a long, long time,” Williams said. “We had a blip the last two years where it wasn’t what all the North Carolina fans wanted, and particularly what the coaches wanted.”

Yet just three years ago, Williams was being reviled in North Carolina after he turned down the job as Bill Guthridge’s successor and essentially vowed he would finish his career at Kansas. Doherty was a surprise hire after several more prominent Tar Heels — including Larry Brown and George Karl — withdrew their names. Doherty went 26-7 with Guthridge’s players his first season, but by 2001-02 everything was falling apart. Over Doherty’s last two seasons, North Carolina was 27-36 — and a horrific 10-22 in the ACC.

After Doherty left, the circumstances were different for Williams. He had done everything possible — except win a national championship — at Kansas. Stars Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison were gone, and his beloved Tar Heels were in dire straits. Even Smith reportedly pleaded with Williams to take the job.

Williams says he was so much of a wreck while making the decision that twice he woke up vomiting. One week after leading the Jayhawks to the championship game, Williams was back at his alma mater and taking what the Tar Heels faithful considered his rightful place.

“I was a Tar Heel born,” he said at the time. “When I die, I will be a Tar Heel dead.”

And the new king has no interest in sharing his power. Williams believed the players had too much influence in forcing Doherty’s dismissal and has been openly critical of the role played by the university’s administration in the situation.

“I didn’t like the way it was handled,” Williams said. “I think that the input of the players and the players’ revolt and the players’ mutiny, or whatever you want to call it — there is no doubt that was a huge factor in [Dohertys firing]. We can’t do anything to change that now except how you deal with your own team. And I am going to deal with my own team the way I always have. It’s not a democracy. You are going to do it the way I tell you to do it.”

After playing at Carolina only on the freshman team in 1968-69, Williams returned as an assistant coach from 1978 to 1988 until Smith, a Kansas graduate, helped him land the Jayhawks’ job. Williams’ only son, Scott, played for North Carolina from 1997 to 1999.

Although there appeared to be a rift between Doherty and Smith, Williams understandably is not threatened by Smith’s iconic status.

“I am going to talk to Coach Smith a lot — I would be silly not to talk to him,” Williams said. “We do have our differences, but we are closer than any two other coaches can ever be. Almost all the foundation is still what Coach Smith taught me. What he believed in and what I believe in is the same. He will gamble a little more. I will be a little more conservative, particularly on the defensive end.”

Williams averaged 28 wins in his 15 seasons at Kansas, and won nine regular-season conference championships. His Jayhawks made two national title games, losing the first to Duke in 1991.

Even though he hasn’t coached a game inside Dean Smith Center, Williams already has resurrected the Tar Heels in a public sense. North Carolina has returned to the Associated Press preseason top-10 for the first time in three seasons.

The No. 9 Tar Heels return a talented group of players, led by preseason All-American Raymond Felton, and the addition of Williams gives them one of the nation’s best basketball minds.

“I watched him take Kansas to the Final Four the last two years,” said Felton, a sophomore who averaged 15.9 points and 6.7 assists last season. “It shows that what he is doing has to be right. We can be possible ACC champions, a possible Final Four team and possibly win a national championship.”

North Carolina should be better with the return of top inside player Sean May, a 6-foot-8 sophomore who missed most of last season with a broken foot. Williams has instituted a more uptempo offense designed to beat the defense downcourt.

Players say they have already seen a change in tone and direction under Williams, who they believe is more consistent and has a much tighter on-court system than Doherty.

“[Last season] we played more of a game where we let our [Amateur Athletic Union] ball come out of us sometimes,” said Jawad Williams, a junior forward. “We did what we did in high school, and that couldn’t get it done. We are going to work more as a unit this year. Coach said shooters are going to shoot and defenders are going to play defense. That’s fine with me. Roles need to be defined and defined early for a team to be successful.”

The new coach has done his best to temper expectations but without much success. A media poll picked North Carolina second in the ACC behind Duke. The Tar Heels finished tied for sixth last season but return all five starters and their seven leading scorers. Sophomore shooting guard Rashad McCants averaged a team-high 17 points.

Yet Williams cautions that the Tar Heels are not back “just because Ol’ Roy is back.” He sees some talent but little depth. North Carolina suffered a blow when swingman David Noel, a part-time starter, broke a thumb in practice and is expected to miss the first month of the season. The coach also has some questions about the character of this group.

“What I am hoping is the same goal and dream that I had at Kansas, where every year we are talked about as one of those teams that has a chance to be there on the last Monday night,” Williams said. “I don’t think it is realistic now. We have no backup point guard now. … There is no big guy that has proven he can play on this level. There wasn’t on last year’s team. It’s still the same.”

Except that now a coaching legend is sitting on the Tar Heels bench.

Roy Williams has come home.

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