|Williams mixes small-town charm, big-time ambition|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 05 April 2009 22:08|
He knew the summer after ninth grade what he was going to do for the rest of his life, even where. He married his high school sweetheart. He's made a point to bring the man who inspired him, Buddy Baldwin, a U.S. history teacher and basketball coach at T.C. Roberson High, to every one of the seven Final Fours that Williams has reached.
He calls himself ``corny'' and tells stories so folksy they make most people misty-eyed, including himself with nearly every retelling. A personal favorite is the time Williams talked lovingly about his mother taking on extra work, other people's laundry, ironing and such, just so he'd have enough to buy a soda pop with the other kids from the neighborhood after playing ball.
And then on the eve of the national championship game, Williams reminds you how much winning means, how much it always meant to him, by coming out with this:
t's stay poor for a little while longer.'''
To be fair, the North Carolina coach was just responding to a question about Monday night's opponent being the rallying point for a city and state suffering through the worst days of a decades-long slump. The quest by Tom Izzo and his Michigan State Spartans to pierce the gloom encompassing the area and spread a few smiles for a handful of days has become the overarching story of this NCAA tournament.
It's not that Williams doesn't care. If anything, he cares too much.
When the time comes to collect testimonials from former players and fellow coaches about what he's done for them, you will have amassed enough pages so that when laid end to end, they would stretch from Detroit all the way back to the door of his office in Chapel Hill. Even Izzo felt compelled to add an entry Sunday.
``I think he stands for what's right about college basketball, and that's what we're aspiring to do,'' he said.
So it's easy to forget that somewhere in the middle of that paper trail would be this: Michael Jordan, who knows a thing or two about playing for keeps and starred at North Carolina when Williams was one of Dean Smith's assistants, called him one of the most competitive S.O.B.s he ever met. Williams does not disagree.
``I think every team does have some of the personality of their coach. I think I'm fairly competitive,'' he said, ``and demanding.
ink our players understand that part of it. And I'm hopeful they'll be that way the rest of their lives, that they can get something from me other than just basketball.''
The image that everyone carries of Carolina basketball is blue-blooded recruits like Jordan, James Worthy, Vince Carter and a dozen more playing elegant, fast-paced offense, winning, winning, winning some more, and then cutting down the nets. Williams' pedigree places him squarely inside that tradition. He played for Smith at Carolina, spent 10 years there as his assistant, and after 15 years at Kansas, returned to Chapel Hill in 2003 as head coach.
Williams has had so much success during every leg of that journey - four Final Fours at Kansas, three more appearances and a national championship in the last five years at Carolina - that it's important to remember the road was a lot rougher than even he likes to recall. As his failure to win it all at Kansas stretched beyond a decade, Williams hid his competitive streak behind a series of stunts he said were designed to change his luck.
Once, he stopped the team bus so he could spit in the Mississippi River on the way to a Final Four. Another time, he patted the gravestone of Dr. James Naismith, Kansas' first coach and the man credited with inventing basketball. He would bring a stuffed monkey to meetings and told the players to feel free to knock it off his back.
old the story of how Smith had to sweat through seven Final Fours to get his; and how the first thing Smith did afterward was turn to Williams and say, ``I'm not that much better a coach now than I was two and a half hours ago.''
His reputation buoyed by the title in 2005, Williams is still not above the occasional motivational stunt. When tournament time rolls around, he steps up to a dry-erase board in the locker room and writes down the number of teams left at the end of every round. On Sunday morning, just hours after the Tar Heels dismantled Villanova, that number would have read ``2.''
It's a safe bet that before Carolina takes the floor inside Ford Field, where an overwhelming majority of the 72,000-plus fans will be wearing green and rooting on their working-class heroes, Williams will tell a tale or two. They'll be packed with ``us-against-the-world'' references and some variation on his memorable line about ``never being beaten by a building.'' And then he'll promise them the chance to celebrate in a way they haven't been able to all season long.
``If you just look at the way we celebrated things, like when we won the regionals or the (ACC) regular season, we really don't get too excited,'' junior Deon Thompson said. ``I think that's just a reflection of Coach Williams, the simple fact of how he's never satisfied.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org