A Basketball Hoop Changed UNC Coach's Life

The next time you see Roy Williams prowling the sidelines in a dapper Alexander Julian suit at University of North Carolina games, you might remember what a dime his mother left on their kitchen table once meant to him. Williams, the winningest active college basketball coach, has written the story of his life with Tim Crothers. Host Scott Simon talks to Williams about his book, Hard Work: A Life On and Off The Court.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Next time you see Roy Williams, the winningest active college basketball coach, prowling the sidelines in a dapper Alexander Julian suit at University of North Carolina games, you might remember what a dime his mother left on their kitchen table once meant to him. Mr. Williams, who has gone to the NCAA finals with both the North Carolina Tar Heels and the University of Kansas, has written the story of his life. Co-authored by Tim Crothers, their book is called Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court. Coach Williams joins us from the studios of WUNC(ph) in Chapel Hill. Coach, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ROY WILLIAMS (Basketball Coach): Well, thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: And tell us the story of that dime, if you could.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Okay, its - when I was in the seventh grade, I think it was, every day at the end of school my buddies and I would start walking home and we would always stop at Ed's Service Station. And my sister was in high school and so the high school bus would come by Ed's Station on the way to the elementary school where I just left.

And then my sister would come walking home as well, and - but she made a statement one day in front of my mom about seeing me sitting at Ed's Service Station every day when she came by there. And my mother said, what do you guys do? And I said, well, we just go and sit there for 10 or 15 minutes and relax and then we start on home. Everybody gets a Coca-Cola. And she said, well, what do you get? I said, I just have some water, mom. It's okay. I've got no problems with that.

The next day I got up, my sister had already left for school, my mom had already left for work, and there was a dime on the kitchen table. And it was there for the rest of time. It was just one of the things that was important to my mom, was for me to be able to do things that other kids did, and it was very significant to me at that time. And as I've grown older, it's been even more significant to me because it was a little bit of a struggle for us.

SIMON: Yeah. Boy, you had a tough childhood. Father drank. He beat your mother. A basketball hoop was - changed your life.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, it gave me an escape, you know, and that was extremely important to me at that time. I could go run away and play on the dirt court. My mother and father were still together. And it became a love of mine. And, you know, my dad was, he was still my father. And you know, the one worry I have with the book is that people would just read that chapter, which was fairly tough, and not read the end part, because

SIMON: Well, you had to threaten him with a bottle once to keep away from your mother.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, you know, and it's not something I'm proud of, by any means, but the whole book has some things I'm not really proud of. And yet I figured if I was going to do the book, I was going to tell everything. My high school coach one time told me, said if you tell the truth you don't have to remember what you said, and I think that's a pretty simple thing to go by. But we had some tough times.

SIMON: Coach, what motivates people?

Mr. WILLIAMS: You know, I dont know. And it's one thing that Ive thought about: why was my childhood like it was? I've wondered that a great deal, and it's just what it is. I think that you do have a certain part in your core that wants you to do things in a certain way. I'm one of those guys that think that kids get a chance to make their own decisions. I'm not one of those guys that think just because of something happened to you as a kid it points you in a direction that you cannot turn away from.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You always have an opportunity to make the right decision. And as grown-ups now, every time that you can do something to a kid that can - helpful to him and lend him a helping hand, you have no idea how important that is.

SIMON: Well, we'll add, by the way, you earn a hefty salary there at North Carolina. You've contributed, I guess, a couple hundred thousand dollars to what you call the Carolina Covenant, which helps low-income students attend the university there.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, it's a program

SIMON: Whether they can play basketball or not.

Mr. WILLIAMS: That's right. And the ones that we give this to cannot, 'cause if they're good enough to play basketball, we can give them a basketball scholarship.

SIMON: Got to ask you, Coach, of course you played junior varsity basketball at UNC, concluded your future was in coaching, not playing, went on to coach University of Kansas. Forty-nine states in this country, they'll be saying, hey, Roy Williams, I want to hear that. In Kansas this morning they're saying, Roy Williams?

'Cause they had the idea that you guys had an agreement, that - I'm not talking in the legal sense - that you'd gotten them to the finals and, you know, and they moved heaven and Earth to keep you, and then a couple of years after deciding to stay you go off to University of North Carolina anyway, to become the coach there. You reveal some of your reasoning in this book that you didn't at the time.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, I think I made, again, I've made a lot of mistakes. The biggest mistake I made at Kansas was after saying no to North Carolina the first time, I said if we have another press conference like this, it's going to be because I'm retiring or I'm dying. And I said it in jest but I also said it being truthful, 'cause that's exactly what I believed at that time.

And my situation changed at Kansas. We changed in the administration, some other things changed, which made it feel like that was not the place that was where Roy Williams was supposed to be. And since that, time has healed a lot of wounds and were even - I have better relationships with even some of those people that disagreed and couldn't handle the decision. But it was hard. And our chancellor here at North Carolina, James Moeser, said something that I really thought was me. He said, well, it's not immoral to love two institutions, and I really did.

But there were some things going on. My sister and my father were in really bad shape health-wise, and I didn't want to be the rich little brother in Kansas sending a check or anything like that. And that was a small part of it - I'm not saying that was the biggest part, but there were so many factors involved.

And the people in Kansas now, for the majority, have struck an agreement and understood it a little bit more. And there are still some that don't and, you know, that does hurt, but at the same time we've got to move on.

SIMON: How do you end every team huddle?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Hard work. We say we get our hands together, put our hands in there and I say, one, two, three, and then everybody says hard work. And it's something that came to me 30 years ago or something like that now, when I was coach of the JV team here. And I want to walk out on the court knowing that my team, and I want them to know that their buddies understand that we've got to work. I don't care how gifted we are, 'cause theres other teams that are very gifted as well, but we have to be willing to focus and make the sacrifices and to leave the sweat out there.

I always tell my teams, don't come back in the locker room and say I wish I had, that I wish I had done this or I wish I had done that is - is no good, and I don't think it's any good in life either. So it's a little bit of a play that I try to get them to take on.

SIMON: Coach Roy Williams' new book, so conveniently titled "Hard Work." His co-author is Tim Crothers. "Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court." Thank you, Coach.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you very much for your time.

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