There is nothing particularly remarkable-looking about Roy Williams, who has a face as flat as western Kansas and a voice like an easy chair. The flashiest thing about him may be his gold watch, although even that is usually buried under the sleeve of the same blue warm-up jacket he's been wearing for the better part of the last decade.
So it is strange to Williams, then, that as his No. 2 seed Jayhawks prepare to play No. 1 seed Arizona in Saturday's West Region final, he is being perceived as college basketball's most alluring pin-up boy. "I don't like rumors," he said today, aware of being the subject of most of the local gossip, despite that two of the sport's top teams are about to face each other relatively early in the NCAA tournament.
The questions were certainly titillating: Was Williams interested in the UCLA coaching job, vacant since the Bruins dismissed Steve Lavin? Westwood, after all, isn't too far a drive from Anaheim. What about the North Carolina job? Matt Doherty happens to still be on the payroll for that one, but with reports coming out of Chapel Hill of players meeting with the athletic director and possibly even threatening to transfer, rumors of Williams taking over there had begun swirling as well.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted a piece of the suddenly glamorous Roy Williams. Whether he liked it or not.
"A guy asked me about [North Carolina] last night, and I'm thinking, Jiminy Christmas, just give me a chance to enjoy this game," he said of Kansas's 69-65 win over Duke. By this afternoon, he seemed more understanding of the queries. A longtime assistant to legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith, Williams had, after all, been offered the Tar Heels job three years ago and turned it down. He never thought the chatter would surface again.
"In my mind, I've already had that crossroad. When I made that decision, that's what I thought it was going to be, and I haven't thought about it since," he said. "I thought, 'Now everyone will leave me alone.' "
Williams knows better, of course. He has been doing this long enough to see the coaching carousel at work, even if he's never been one to take it for a ride. He had watched more than two dozen other head coaching jobs open and close in his time at Kansas with barely a nod, but he called the time he took making his decision to stay in Lawrence in 2000 instead of returning to Chapel Hill, then to replace the retiring Bill Guthridge, "the worst seven days of my life," adding, "I felt like I couldn't make the perfect decision because I was going to disappoint people no matter what I did."
What made up his mind in the end, he said, was his desire to stay with a program he had helped rebuild. After serving for 10 seasons as an assistant to Smith, Williams arrived at Kansas in the summer of 1988, just as Danny Manning and much of that year's NCAA champion squad was leaving. He was only there a few weeks when he learned the school would be hit with a host of sanctions and recruiting restrictions for NCAA violations incurred in previous years.
Williams responded the way he always does, digging in and handling each problem logically, methodically, calmly. Nothing too flashy, just fundamentals, and sure enough, the Jayhawks have made 14 straight NCAA tournament appearances in the years since.
Some have been exciting, some heartbreaking. A loss to Arizona in the round of 16 in 1997 nearly shook Williams completely, although it also gave him some valuable perspective.
"My number one goal was to win the national championship," he said. "After that point, it made me realize, this is stupid. There are a lot of good teams out there that don't win. So I changed my number one goal to be to live long enough to coach my grandkids."
He was still feeling a little shaky until he began talking to two of the seniors on his current team. Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich are both sons of basketball coaches, and when Williams came to recruit them, there was no talk of cars, or illegal payouts, or fringe benefits on the side.
"I'm not trying to be too dramatic -- I'd gotten very disgusted with college recruiting, some things had gone on for a few years that really bothered me," Williams said. "Recruiting these guys made me realize there are still great families out there concerned with what's best for their sons. I didn't have to talk to any agents, hangers-on -- just talked to mom, dad and the boy."
Williams will be counting on Collison and Hinrich once again Saturday, when Kansas faces an Arizona team that embarrassed the Jayhawks earlier this season, overcoming a 20-point deficit on Kansas's own floor, 91-74. The loss was soon drowned out by a storm of publicity over the theft of $80 of candy from a vending machine at the hotel where the Wildcats had been staying -- a witness implicated a player, but no charges were filed -- but even with all the ensuing distraction, no one on the Kansas squad has forgotten the pain of the Arizona comeback.
The Wildcats, too, remember that game, as well as how well Kansas has played in the time since. They also remember how good Williams is, whether he looks the part or not.
"We know how good they were when they were just drilling us in the first half, until we stepped our defense up," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said. "It's going to be a good game."