Roy Williams says KU has ‘warm place in my heart’ as Hall of Fame induction nears

Kansas City Star file photo

Roy Williams, a man who has spent 57 of his 72 years on Earth living in his home state of North Carolina, is about to be honored for his 15 years of service in the state of Kansas.

Williams, who amassed a 418-101 record (201-17 at home) in 15 seasons as men’s basketball coach at the University of Kansas, on Sunday will be one of 10 individuals enshrined into the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane.

Williams — his KU teams won nine regular-season conference titles, reached four Final Fours and two NCAA title games — says he is appreciative of this “great honor.”

“There is a warm place in my heart (for KU) and always will be,” Williams said Thursday night in a phone interview with The Star. “It will be a place if somebody mentions Lawrence, Kansas or mentions Allen Fieldhouse or mentions my 15 years it’ll bring a smile to my face until the day I die.

“My close friends and my family know how special it is to me. Last year when I went back for the (KU-Iowa State) game, the reception I received in Allen Fieldhouse was off the charts. It was really off the charts and it was very much appreciated.”

He received a standing ovation from 16,300 fans in the fieldhouse when introduced after the first TV time out of KU’s 62-61 win over the Cyclones on Jan. 11. Recently retired from coaching the North Carolina Tar Heels for 18 years, he had decided to attend a game with his wife Wanda after having not been back in the fieldhouse for a game since leaving KU after the 2002-03 campaign.

KU also played a special highlight video on the center scoreboard in Williams’ honor.

“You think about your first chance,” said Williams. He was hired off Dean Smith’s North Carolina coaching staff with no head college coaching experience to replace Larry Brown after the 1987-88 NCAA title season.

“You think about Chancellor (Gene) Budig and (athletic director) Bob Frederick giving me that chance (to replace Brown who left for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs). I was comfortable, you could say confident some people would probably say cocky, too, that I could do the job,” Williams added with a laugh.

“But still the kids have to accept it (the change). Not one single time did those kids (on 1988-89 KU team) say, ‘Hey we won a national championship last year (and) we didn’t have to do this kind of stuff.’ They accepted what I asked them to do and tried to do it to the best of their abilities.

“The way I was accepted by the players at Kansas, those first two years particularly, if it hadn’t been for them there’s no way I’d have been able to continue coaching as a head coach for 33 years (15 at KU; 18 at North Carolina). That was the secret. Those kids were pretty darn good or Roy would have been mowing greens at some golf course (for a living). That’s where I would have been.”

Williams said he appreciated not only Budig and Frederick for hiring him, but also his first KU coaching staff.

“Steve Robinson, Jerry Green, Kevin Stallings and Mark Turgeon. All those guys ended up being head coaches and coaches of the year in their league.,” Williams said.

He said he knew KU would be a special place to coach partly because his mentor, Smith, played basketball at KU and always spoke fondly of being a Jayhawk and all things KU.

“When I was at Kansas … I had never been on the campus until the night they offered me the job,” Williams said. “I fell in love with Allen Fieldhouse (immediately). The first year (1988-89) ... the games, the students, I fell in love with the fans of Kansas basketball and I fell in love with the traditions of Kansas basketball.”

Williams said his 15-year tenure couldn’t be classified as perfect, “because we didn’t win the national championship and that was a goal all the time. When I was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2007 one thing people talk about is during my acceptance speech I apologized to the ’97 Kansas team because that team was good enough to be a national champion. There’s a big hole in my heart not winning a national championship at Kansas, but a bigger one not getting that group of kids there because they were an awesome group of players and kids.”

He said more than all the big wins, “I remember the relationships.”

He rattled off the names of several Williams-era Jayhawks including Jeff Boschee, Nick Collison, Drew Gooden, Jerod Haase, Kirk Hinrich, Adonis Jordan, Raef LaFrentz, Wayne Simien, Jacque Vaughn, Rex Walters to name a few.

“I absolutely loved the battles against Oklahoma State when Big Country (Bryant Reeves) was there, always the games with Missouri, an unbelievable run to the NIT (title) when we beat LSU at LSU and UNLV in the Garden (his second season at KU). I can think of really big games but it’s those players … how more lucky can I be than to coach those kids that were there?” he said.

Williams is planning on attending Sunday’s Hall of Fame ceremony in person along with some of his former players and friends from his time at KU. The Kansas athletic department purchased a table for representatives of the school to also attend.

Hopefully weather will not affect Williams’ travel plans, as Hurricane Ian could soak Carolina with rain in coming days.

Other members of the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2022 set for induction Sunday: Emily Bloss Carpenter (Emporia State basketball), Clint Bowyer (racing), Elwood “Bingo” DeMoss (Negro Leagues baseball), Kendall Gammon (Pittsburg State, Chiefs football), Tara Holloway Churchill (Emporia State basketball), Bill James (baseball author, Red Sox executive), Jesse Nelson (Olpe High basketball coach), George Toma (KC Royals, Chiefs groundskeeper) and Gordon Vadakin (Wichita State bowling coach).