Finally, the Jayhawks have made it to the hallowed ground, the top tier of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Final Four, for the first time since 2003. Congratulations to Coach Self and the team for showing what they were capable of and getting rid of the early-exit curse that the Jayhawks have suffered from in the last few years!
Now I have to find somewhere to watch the upcoming semifinal championship game on Saturday evening-- wonder if I should show up in Super Jayhawk to a sports bar (hosting KU Alumni), like Croc did for the Gators in last year's tournament? Wonder if I could get some people interested in that...
It might be better for me to be in costume during this game, because I will have to deal with....
One thing that I knew the media hype machine would start talking about immediately is Kansas' erstwhile and complicated relationship with North Carolina, especially now that the big showdown with UNC is coming near. There are of course Jayhawk fans that are very passionate about the whole thing, and still upset five years after Coach Roy Williams left right after the 2003 NCAA Tournament Championship loss to Syracuse. It was hard enough losing the NCAA TItle Game, but losing Coach Roy was really hard, especially since he went back to UNC almost immediately after the loss before we could even lick our wounds.
There are KU fans that span the whole gamut, from mad, resentful, pissed off at North Carolina forever, angry at Dean Smith, take your pick. The last five years has seen all the Jayhawk basketball blogs rife with the internicene warfare between the Roy-haters and the Self-haters.
I prefer to take the long view.
Kansas Basketball and North Carolina basketball have been intertwined for a long time, like it or not. Dean Smith played on the 1952 Kansas National Championship team, and ended up coaching at North Carolina. There, he developed the "Carolina system" that Kansas used so effectively later. Not to mention that he gave us the last two coaches before our current one, 20 years' worth of winning seasons, six final fours, and the 1988 NCAA National Championship. They are two of the top three winningest basketball programs in the history of basketball, period.
But back to Coach Roy.
I met Coach Roy in 1989, so long ago that his hair was still black, and no one knew who he was. The NIT Tournament back then mistakenly listed him as "Ron Williams". I saw his live talk show "Hawk Talk" with Bob and Max in the Kansas Union, and I was amazed that he just hung out and chatted with people after the show and would let ordinary students like me come and talk to him. He was one of the nicest people you could possibly meet, and had a bone-crushing handshake. (I still remember, nearly 20 years later).
The Kansas Jayhawks basketball program was still reeling from the NCAA Sanctions that had been placed on it due to the recruiting violations under Larry Brown - which had put the program into a rebuilding climb back up. The Jayhawks were banned from postseason play the next season after they had won the NCAA Tournament in 1988, and 1989 was a rough year, where they went 19-12 and lost a number of recruits and scholarships. Roy had his hands full, that's for sure, especially with pretty much all of the "Danny and the Miracles" graduated and gone.
And there we were, the Jayhawk faithful, cheering Coach Roy as he turned things around and started making Kansas Basketball great again, starting with the Final Four in 1991. That one was a heartbreaking loss to Duke, who started their own dynasty of NCAA Titles in the 90's, but the fact that the Jayhawks had even come back after only three seasons from the rebuilding year was nothing short of amazing. Roy brought the Carolina system with him, and he made Kansas basketball a blast to watch.
I was there, with my fellow KU fans as he brought us to two Final Fours in 1991 and 1993. We would camp out in front of Allen Fieldhouse for days before the iconic Kansas-Missouri game, and Roy would bring donuts and pizza to the faithful. He would launch T-shirts into the stands when he came out before a game. We loved the guy. He did it again in 2002 and 2003, consecutively, bringing KU to the Final Four with Collinson and Hinrich, and even though KU lost to Maryland and Syracuse in those years, he did us proud.
Some of you know that I had to leave Kansas myself when my economic situation wasn't working there, and after five years of trying to work in what passed for the technology business in Kansas City and driving nearly 30,000 miles a year to various jobs there, I finally had to go back to California and return to Silicon Valley and the Bay Area where I grew up. So I can't really blame Roy for wanting to go home, especially back to where all of his family and everyone he grew up with. It was a gut-wrenching decision to sell my house and give up any hope of ever owning a house again, leaving my birthplace and a place where I had spent over half my life, to come back to California. But sometimes this stuff has to happen, and that's how it is, regardless of hurt feelings and longings for what might have been. I personally blame Matt Doherty, who managed to pretty much sink the North Carolina basketball program during his time there and give Roy no choice but to go back and save his alma mater. I was actually glad for Roy in 2005 when he finally got his first National Championship, not for us Jayhawks, as it turns out, but for his beloved Tar Heels, especially as we had gotten knocked out by one of the "B" schools that year.
So this brings us to 2008. Roy has been back at North Carolina for five years, and turned the entire program around, and they're a basketball powerhouse feared by all else, getting the No. 1 overall seed and steamrolling pretty much everyone they encountered all the way through this year's tournament. Kansas has not played North Carolina since 1993, where it was Roy leading the Jayhawks and Dean Smith himself leading North Carolina in the semifinal of the Final Four that year. Carolina beat the Jayhawks and went on to win it all, and that's one of the losses that still gives a twinge in this Jayhawk's heart. The Jayhawks and the Tar Heels have not tangled ever since.
And so now, five or fifteen years later, depending on how you look at it, the showdown looms.
It's going to be Bill Self's Jayhawks vs. Roy Williams' Tar Heels, in what promises to be an iconic game for the ages. I love Roy and I appreciate all he did for the Jayhawks in the fifteen years that he was there for us, second only to Phog Allen in terms of wins and duration of stay, but on Saturday he will just be another opposing coach to me and I'll root for the Jayhawks to show Roy just how far that the Jayhawks have come since he left.
I am a Jayhawk, like my father before me. (and Mom too). Much as I respect Carolina and feel about Roy, I will be pulling hard for the Jayhawks to send Roy back home to Chapel Hill empty-handed.