The Candidates: Roy Williams

Until he says otherwise, and maybe even if he does, Roy Williams is the leading candidate for Carolina's coaching job. And hard as it might be for some in the jilted and divided Tar Heel fan base to swallow, don't bet against Williams finally answering the call to come home.

Let's dispense with the mystery, shall we?

By now, various people will have cluttered your mind with their expert opinions about the possible evolution of North Carolina's search for a new head basketball coach. You will have heard names sublime (think Kentucky's Tubby Smith, Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson, or Illinois's Bill Self) and ridiculous (did you really for a moment think that Michael Jordan was college coaching material?). You will have been confronted by the great quandary over whether Tar Heel athletic director Dick Baddour should look inside the family or outside. You will have consulted every conceivable oracle, from Dick Vitale to your magic 8-ball.

Well forget it. When Baddour arrived at his office Wednesday morning after an exceptionally short and restless night's sleep, he poured himself his third cup of coffee, sat down at his desk, and reached for just one card in his Rolodex. You know the one. Toward the back. The card he just about tore up and burned three years ago. The one filed under "W."

Until he says otherwise, and maybe even if he does, Roy Williams is the leading candidate for Carolina's coaching job. And hard as it might be for some in the jilted and divided Tar Heel fan base to swallow, don't bet against Williams finally answering the call to come home.

If you've been paying attention, you know you should be deeply skeptical of anyone who tells you that Williams to UNC is a "done deal." If Williams proved anything to the Tar Heel faithful the last time we did this dance, it's that he has a hard time picking his partner. But for a variety of reasons--a poor relationship with Kansas AD Al Bohl, the imminent graduation of two much-loved seniors, a realigned sense of duty, or the desperate need of the program that gave him his start--many knowledgeable people are of the opinion that this time a job offer from Carolina will really stick.

So let's pause for a moment to reconsider what might have been, and to review what might yet be.

The Good: At a time when even the university's biggest backers are lamenting a loss of reputation in UNC's athletic department, Williams restores instant credibility. A proven recruiter with a broad base that has consistently landed talent from around the nation, Williams would immediately counter Mike Krzyewski's perceived ability to pick players at will and restore balance to college basketball's biggest rivalry. Coming off back-to-back trips to the Final Four, and with the third highest winning percentage of any active coach in the college ranks, Williams is a proven commodity on the court, with an unblemished track record as a tough but well-loved teacher, a likeable leader, and a successful manager of one of the sport's premier programs. In his fifteenth season with the Jayhawks, he trails only the legendary Phog Allen in total victories at the Kansas.

At 52, Williams is a seasoned veteran of two of the toughest conferences, yet he is young enough to promise years of stability. Though two of the best-known members of his own coaching tree, Steve Robinson and Matt Doherty, have been unable to survive the rigors of head coaching in the ACC, Williams knows how to assemble a team of assistants who counterbalance his strengths and weaknesses. Like any candidate for the job, he will choose from his own list, but those assistants are likely to be proven names as well, whether selected from a list of the usual suspects among Tar Heel alums or from Williams's current staff.

His teams at Kansas have typified the best attributes of Carolina teams past--solid fundamentals, hard-nosed defense, hustle, and chemistry. Yet into the Dean Smith tradition of half-court offense he has injected a certain fast-break flash that players and fans alike love. It makes for attractive, entertaining basketball.

Long viewed as the favorite son of the Carolina coaching family, Williams most importantly brings the ability to mend rifts in that family, from players to influential alumni and donors to average fans. While some continue to harbor a grudge against him for his infamous eleventh-hour decision to stay at Kansas in 2000, do not think for a minute that the vast majority of those who love Tar Heel basketball would not celebrate Williams's homecoming like the return of a long-lost brother. Three words could melt away stinging memories of "I'm staying": "I'm coming home."

The Bad: While Williams is unquestionably skilled as a recruiter and motivator, he is not generally regarded as a master tactician. Neither does he bring Dean Smith's unparalleled reputation for developing sometimes average talent into NBA-caliber players. But his stars have certainly shown improvement under his guidance, and with the possible exception of point guard Jacque Vaughn, the big names--Greg Ostertag, Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, and Scot Pollard--have been successful as professionals.

But the biggest knock on Roy Williams ought to be familiar to those who revered Smith through the 1970s--he can't win the big one. Headed into his fourth Final Four in 15 years, he has come up empty in each previous trip, and despite rosters that included the likes of Rex Walters, Ostertag, Pierce, and LaFrentz, Williams's Jayhawk teams have often been early exits from the Big XII and NCAA tournaments. Still, it is hard to argue with Williams's 417-100 record as a head coach, particularly when you take into account the increasing strength of the Big XII as a conference from top to bottom. And you never know what might happen between today and next Monday night in New Orleans.

The Big Question: Why would 2003 be any different that 2000? If Williams cited his mentor's trademark loyalty as his reason for staying at Kansas three years ago, would he really go back on his commitment to the Jayhawk program now? Indeed, aren't things harder now, with Dick Baddour having turned his back on one of Williams's protégés at both UNC and Kansas? As he continues to build his own legacy in Lawrence, why in heaven's name would he leave it behind for the pressure cooker that is Carolina basketball today?

Then again, on the eve of his team's national semifinal game against Marquette, if he didn't want the job, or at least to think seriously about it, why hasn't Williams clearly said he isn't interested?

Time will tell. But this much seems certain. If Baddour gets Williams to Chapel Hill this time, he won't be leaving without signing on the dotted line.

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