It’s been only a few months since the BIG championship game – Kansas vs. Syracuse. We sat in our easy chairs, on our couches, and at our favorite sports pub to watch the game. For a short time, we laid down the colors of our favorite teams and picked up the Jayhawks’ crimson and blue. Williams’ road to this game wasn’t easy. He persevered, which led him to where he is today, back home in North Carolina.
Williams started his collegiate coaching career at the University of North Carolina under mentor and head coach Dean Smith. Smith, a highly respected basketball coach, taught Williams the game, how to coach, and how to win. He instilled in Williams the desire to make his teams more than just a group of young men, but a fraternity, devoted to each other’s successes on and off the court. During Williams’ assistant coaching stint at UNC, he was part of a team that was the dominant force in the Atlantic Coast Conference, arguably one of the nation’s strongest overall basketball leagues. From 1981 to his last season at UNC in 1988, the Tar Heels ranked in the final Top 10 of both the Associated Press and coaches’ poll. In 1982 and 1984, UNC ranked No. 1 in at least one of the two major polls. Williams also helped lead the Tar Heels to the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen every year between 1981 until he left in 1988, and to NCAA victory in 1982.
That’s an impressive run as an assistant coach, but Williams had bigger dreams. He commented, “I could have stayed at UNC for another 20 years and would have been perfectly happy. But I always wanted to know if I could be a good head coach.”
In 1989, Williams got that chance when hired as head coach for Kansas University, replacing Larry Brown. Williams accepted the challenge to lead a university like Kansas, with its rich traditions. He became only the seventh basketball coach at KU in over 100 years.
When Williams arrived, the KU basketball program was under severe penalties and restrictions due to violations. Despite this road block, Williams brought his team back and started a 15-year legacy that put KU back on the list of the most respected schools in the nation. He led the Jayhawks to 12 straight 20-win seasons. He won seven conference championships and was dubbed on KU’s list of all-time coaching wins, second to only Phog Allen. He captured the Big 12 Conference league title in 1997 and 1998. He had post season crowns in 1997, 1998 and 1999. He led KU to 13 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances including the Final Four in 1991, 1993, 2002 and 2003.
Among all active NCAA Division I coaches, Williams has the most victories without a championship…yet. Williams left the Jayhawks with an impressive 15-season record of 418-101. Now he’s back home where he started his collegiate coaching career. He’s back at his alma mater where he learned about basketball, about leadership, and about life. And we’re thankful he’s back in the midwest tonight as our keynote speaker.