Showdown Ahead Puts Kansas Fans at Fever Pitch

Coach Roy Williams defected from the University of Kansas Jayhawks five years ago. Now, leading the North Carolina Tar Heels, he faces his former school in a Final Four showdown.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

Four number one seeds square off tonight in the NCAA basketball tournament, the last round before Monday night's championship. UCLA takes on Memphis, then comes North Carolina versus Kansas. The rivalry between those two schools heated up five years ago, when Kansas coach, Roy Williams, defected to North Carolina.

From San Antonio, Greg Echlin reports.

GREG ECHLIN: Coach Roy Williams traces his roots to North Carolina. That's where he grew up and learned to coach under the legendary Dean Smith. Williams became the head coach at the University of Kansas in 1988 and was heralded for his team's success on the court.

Then eight years ago, North Carolina came calling. Thousands of fans gathered at the football stadium to hear what Williams decided. They watched it on the big stadium screen when he said this.

Mr. ROY WILLIAMS (Basketball Coach, University of North Carolina): I'm staying.

(Soundbite of applause)

ECHLIN: Inside the stadium, a question-and-answer session followed. The fans outside were celebrating but hanging on every word, especially when Williams was asked if that would be the last news conference on his job status.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I said it'd be the last one I have until they fire me, you know, or I retire, one of those, because there's more job change. I can't stand but one, and this was enough.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: Your total's going to be $17.11.

ECHLIN: At the Joe-College T-shirt shop in downtown Lawrence, where sales have been brisk, owner Larry Sinks points to a celebration the other night by Kansas fans to illustrate the bitterness that remains.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LARRY SINKS (Owner, Joe-College): There was a lot of people holding signs up and painting their body with messages for Roy.

ECHLIN: And they weren't thank-you messages for his success in 15 years at Kansas. Williams guided the Jayhawks to the Final Four four times, but in 2005, he won his first national championship with the Tar Heels. Kansas fans like Jennifer Brewer(ph) still have emotional ties to Roy Williams at KU, and this week, those emotions are exacerbated by the impending head-to-head match-up.

Ms. JENNIFER BREWER (University of Kansas Jayhawk Fan): He's a great coach, and then he went to North Carolina - bittersweet, yes and no. Now that we're playing him, yeah a little bit mad, I guess.

ECHLIN: Paige Hofer(ph) and her family of four planned their trip to San Antonio early with the hopes that the Jayhawks would make it to the Final Four, but when they were matched against North Carolina in the semi-finals, she made no secret about her feelings.

Ms. PAIGE HOFER (University of Kansas Jayhawk Fan): We're ready. We want to take down Roy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ECHLIN: This is the Jayhawks' first Final Four appearance under current coach, Bill Self. He's optimistic that the Jayhawks can beat North Carolina and make it to Monday's championship game. With the success that the Jayhawks and the Tar Heels enjoyed this year, Self always felt that a head-to-head meeting was inevitable.

Mr. BILL SELF (Basketball Coach, University of Kansas): From my standpoint, I knew it was going to happen. It couldn't help but happen.

ECHLIN: Many Jayhawk fans still feeling jilted by Roy Williams have a bitter taste, that is until the day when the Jayhawks beat the Tar heels in the Final Four, and Kansas fans hope today is that day.

For NPR News, I'm Greg Echlin in San Antonio.

STAMBERG: This is NPR News.

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