The six years following Dean Smith's retirement sorely tested the faith of North Carolina basketball fans. With the hiring of former Kansas coach Roy Williams, a native son and longtime Smith assistant, Tar Heel loyalists now believe they'll reassume their rightful place among the game's elite.
Williams's move is expected to have a ripple effect throughout the ACC, too, shuffling the power base that has bounced like a Ping-Pong ball between Duke and Maryland recently. Instead of having two coaches and two basketball programs with national profiles (Mike Krzyzewski's Duke and Gary Williams's Maryland), the ACC suddenly has three.
"The price of pool just went up in the ACC," said former ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan. "It went back up to Dean's day."
Meantime in the heartland, anxiety is rife over how Roy Williams's departure will affect Kansas and the Big 12, whose basketball clout had surpassed the ACC's of late, placing two of its teams in the NCAA Final Four this year and last.
Even without Williams, the Big 12 is stocked with proven coaches: Eddie Sutton, Kelvin Sampson, Rick Barnes and Bob Knight, to name a few. But Kansas, which considers itself the cradle of college basketball, has a rich basketball reputation to uphold and fans with expectations as lofty as North Carolina's. Finding someone with the credentials to follow Williams, whose teams won four of every five games they played, and work in the shadow of basketball founder James Naismith, the Jayhawks' first coach, won't be easy.
Former Kansas athletic director Bob Frederick faced a similar burden in replacing Larry Brown following the Jayhawks' 1988 championship season.
"I thought, 'My goodness! Can we possibly go on in the same level that we have been the last couple years?' " Frederick recalled. On Smith's advice, he hired Williams, a relative no-name assistant at the time. And Kansas didn't miss a beat.
"My guess is it will continue," Frederick said.
Kevin Weiberg, commissioner of the Big 12, agrees.
"It's obviously a disappointment when you lose a coach of that quality in your conference," Weiberg says. "But [Williams] left the program in very good shape, and there is a great foundation there at the University of Kansas for whoever may come in. They can move forward without missing a beat."
Like Corrigan, basketball fans and pundits alike felt the ACC's balance of power shift the moment they heard Williams had accepted the North Carolina job. Barry Jacobs, who chronicled the ACC's 50-year history in his book, "Golden Glory," thought immediately of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, as fiery as any in the nation when Smith and Krzyzewski guided each team. But as North Carolina showed signs of slowing under Bill Guthridge and missed the NCAA tournament the last two seasons under Matt Doherty, the white-hot passion that marked the rivals' games cooled and Maryland filled the void, emerging as Duke's most worthy foil.
During the tenures of Guthridge and Doherty, North Carolina beat Duke only five times in 18 tries, losing seven of the last eight meetings. With Williams running the Tar Heels, Jacobs predicts North Carolina and Duke will learn to love hating each other once again.
The ACC will reap the benefits, but former Missouri coach Norm Stewart snickers at the idea that the North Carolina-Duke rivalry needs spicing up.
"I don't think you have to worry about that rivalry," Stewart says. "That's like tying two cats together and throwing them over the clothesline! Roy has competed against everybody in the country."
There's already a history between Williams and Krzyzewski. The two have gone head-to-head over top recruits, such as Thomas Hill, Shane Battier and Nick Collison. Duke beat Kansas in the 1991 NCAA championship game, the first of Krzyzewski's three titles. The two coaches tangled in a mid-court shouting match during a second-round NCAA tournament game in 2000. And Kansas bounced Duke from this season's NCAA tournament, 69-65, marking the first time in decades that no ACC team advanced to the round of 8 in an NCAA tournament.
One week into the job, Williams is being expected to restore the ACC's luster and quell the muttering that it's not the basketball force it once was. Most expect the Tar Heels to do well next season, as Doherty left behind a nucleus of good players led by standout point guard Raymond Felton.
But Gary Williams points out that the Tar Heels won 19 games last season -- with victories over Duke, Stanford, Connecticut and the Terrapins among them.
"It doesn't matter whether Roy Williams is the coach or Matt Doherty is the coach," Gary Williams said. "We're not intimidated. We just go play. We've established ourselves in the league by working hard. And what we've done for the last 10 years isn't a flash in the pan. It's here. We're a force in the ACC, and we'll continue to be a force. Whatever Carolina does, that's fine."
Whether other ACC coaches and fans like North Carolina or not, the league has been at its best when the Tar Heels were playing well -- demanding to be booed or cheered, rather than dismissed as irrelevant. Whenever Smith walked out of the room during ACC meetings, according to Jacobs, Maryland's Lefty Driesell was known to mutter, "We've got to get that guy!"
But when North Carolina struggled, it hurt the rest of the conference. The Tar Heels' 8-20 record in 2001-02 was a drag on all of its opponents' strength of schedule rating, and it diminished the conference's national prestige.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford insists the conference hasn't lost any ground in the basketball pecking order. The league has placed a team in the NCAA Final Four 14 of the last 16 years, he notes.
"There is a standard that has been set in men's basketball in this league," Swofford says. "And it is a real challenge to maintain. But I think that it will be maintained. And when you've got three coaches like Gary, Mike and Roy that have such a high recognition factor and such high respect, it is a real plus."
Jacobs said the ACC was projected to be stronger in 2003-04 even before Roy Williams was hired. Now, it will certainly generate even more buzz.
"It will inevitably bring more attention to the ACC than it's had last year, except for people writing, 'What's wrong with the ACC?' " Jacobs says. "We won't be saying that next year."
Staff writer Josh Barr contributed to this report.