"It's flattering, but it also shows that, with college coaches, the camera stays on us more than it should," says Roy Williams, sounding very much like Dean Smith, his mentor at North Carolina. Life in the spotlight requires a thick skin, a trait Williams admittedly lacks. "I'd love to change," he says of his easily wounded nature. "It's one of the hardest things about my job because the position, not me, the position is so public."
Williams still smarts over a brief flurry of attention paid this past summer to missteps in providing benefits to Kansas athletes. Several other KU programs were implicated in serious violations, while men's basketball was cited for minor mistakes in helping players who had completed their eligibility. Only in one instance was Williams directly involved.
The initial reaction predictably centered on the nationally prominent program directed by the famous coach, much to Williams' chagrin. Emblazoned in his mind is the headline: "Williams Approves Payment to Players."
Coaching colleagues counseled the slur would soon fade from memory, and were correct. Williams fretted, anyway, over "what the guy at the service station would think." Staying in Charlotte for an event related to his son's wedding as the story broke, he cringed to imagine the thoughts of the clerk who sold him bagels one morning.
Williams believed his years of abiding by the rules, of trying to treat the media with respect, had earned him the benefit of differentiating smoke from fire where his reputation was concerned. "I wanted it to make people say, 'Now, wait a minute, let's look at this a little more closely,' as opposed to just accepting it.... It did hurt me. It hurt me worse than anything because it attacked my integrity, and I didn't have an avenue [to reply], or didn't have enough people to say, 'Well, wait a minute. Let's slow this thing down.' "
Those not in the media frequently misunderstand how coverage works--the imperatives of deadlines, the role of editors, the responsibility for writing headlines, what constitutes news. But Williams is neither a novice nor a hard case. He may be philosophical about human frailty, but he also knows reporting errors and exaggerations are seldom corrected. Even the thick-skinned tire of seeing their comments taken out of context, their motivations misconstrued, their privacy invaded.
Williams spent five hours drafting a response to the Kansas revelations. Included in the statement, in which he said he was "deeply saddened to say there was evidently a mistake," Williams protested the coverage. "It hurts me greatly to see some of the headlines and the news crawl across the bottom of the television saying some of the things that were printed last night and today," he wrote. "There may have been a mistake, but these sensational headlines do not portray a true picture of what took place."
This led to criticism of Williams for second-guessing the media, and more hurt feelings on his part. Whether the coach was justified in taking umbrage, it's true that those on the receiving end have few avenues to question coverage or to engage in intelligent debate over media methodology.
Certainly sports has so far remained exempt from the public self-examination increasingly common at major newspapers. Sports reporters and columnists rarely criticize or question each other's journalistic lapses, at least in print, or openly discuss limits such as how much college kids ought to be criticized for their athletic performance or whether beat writers should cover the school for which they root. And by trading cute for accurate, cutting for fair, newspaper sports sections and TV segments are increasingly indistinguishable from competing Web sites, scandal sheets and radio call-in shows that promulgate innuendo, overstatement and unsourced reportage.
Fortunately for Roy Williams, the Triangle sports media are generally easygoing and accepting. Attention paid to issues not routinely revealed at games, press conferences and other managed events is uncommon. Reporters from outside the region, particularly from major metropolitan areas accustomed to dealing with pro athletics, are known to grumble quietly about the perceived kid-glove treatment accorded college coaches here.
Not that the local sports media are toothless or lacking in enterprise, as N.C. State football coach Chuck Amato has learned. Amato returned to his alma mater from Florida State in 2000 and enjoyed quick success. But he also seemed to enjoy antagonizing those who cover the Wolfpack, a practice that's come back to bite Amato now that he's struggling to win at a level commensurate with the hype he generated.
Of course second guessing coaches, even calling for their firing, is nothing new. A change in coaching regimes is exhausting to cover, but exhilarating too.
Williams is in no danger of attracting such scrutiny, yet is acutely aware how much the Triangle sports landscape has changed since he accepted the Kansas job on July 8, 1988, a date that darts to the tip of his tongue. At the time the obscure assistant coach left the area, the North Carolina men were the team to beat in ACC basketball and a perennial national power. UNC's Smith Center was new. Chapel Hill retained pretenses of being a "village." The ACC had eight members. Many newspapers in North Carolina were locally owned. Several had afternoon editions. Talk radio was relatively staid, and the Internet, cable television and home computers were outside the mainstream.
Williams, a Dean Smith assistant from 1978-88, was brought home in 2003 to resuscitate a program that had sputtered following Smith's 1997 retirement. The UNC alumnae found upon his return that growth had made Chapel Hill and the ACC increasingly unrecognizable. The Dean Dome, lacking luxury boxes and permanent ads, was considered a bit of a relic. Chains owned most every major paper in the state. Making the highlights on ESPN's SportsCenter was a goal to which youngsters aspired. Web experts trafficked in instant revelations, true or otherwise, and sites sprang up almost overnight dedicated to firing one coach or another.
And the Tar Heels were no longer the team to beat, even in their own neighborhood.
"The success that Duke had had elevated them to a different level than anybody around the country," Williams says without rancor. "North Carolina was still extremely well respected but was fighting to hold on. I really believe that. Heaven knows, the national championship last year has put us back to that level."
Then, as if knocking on wood or throwing spilt salt over his shoulder, he added, "If we go 0-27 this year we'll be holding on again next year."
Not likely. Williams knows he bought breathing room by directing UNC to the NCAA title last year and by bringing in an excellent group of freshmen to replace his lost stars, with a top recruiting class waiting in the wings for 2006-07. But he knows, too, the grace period is transitory as he embarks on a major rebuilding effort while, right down the road, Duke competes for the 2006 national championship.
"It remains to be seen what it's like five years from now," Williams said. "We may be saying, 'Well, North Carolina's lost five years in a row.' Something like that. If that happens, you won't be talking to me, that's for sure."
The media, if no one else, will see to that.