ST. LOUIS — On Friday, basketball fans with grudges against North Carolina coach Roy Williams populated the Edward Jones Dome.
It took one trip into the North Carolina State rooting section to find them.
Jason Santiago, Johnathan Kwong and Daniel McIlmoyle met in Asheville, N.C., and drove 13 hours to cheer for the Wolfpack and against the Tar Heels. Santiago wore a shirt and button expressing his ABC (Anybody But Carolina) passion.
Their team lost to Kansas. North Carolina survived against Ohio. A bad evening for the group of N.C. State alums, who say they like and respect Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski more than Williams for a long list of reasons that inflame Wolfpack fans.
“We despise him,” McIlmoyle said.
Williams will be better regarded today when he faces his former employers at KU, if a sampling of Jayhawks fans at the Dome on Friday is representative. Most of the hurt and hard feelings generated by Williams’ departure from Kansas to North Carolina in 2003 have faded.
If your Jayhawk experience begins with current coach Bill Self, a brief recap:
Williams came to Kansas in 1989 after spending 10 seasons at Carolina as an assistant. He won big, charmed most folks with his folksy manner and declined to take over the Tar Heels once, raising hopes he would stay at KU forever. But he returned to Chapel Hill amid tears and angry words.
“He gave us 15 great years of basketball, but he went home,” said Joe Morris, a KU alum from Leawood. “He was, and I think still is, loyal to Kansas. Now, instead of Kansas No. 1 and North Carolina No. 2, it’s North Carolina No. 1 and Kansas No. 2.”
Williams’ return to Chapel Hill didn’t bother Alan Markowitz, from Leawood, as much as it did other KU fans.
“I really don’t think there should be any hard feelings,” Markowitz said. “There is no such thing as indentured servitude in this county. The guy did a great job. He’s entitled to go where he wanted to go, and he wanted to go back home.”
In the second level of the Dome, Amanda Gentry and Travarez Parker, best friends who live in Edwardsville, Ill., were sitting next to each other. Gentry wore a Tar Heels sweatshirt; Parker had on KU colors. He is a longtime Jayhawk fan who remembers the pain of Williams’ exit and admits it lingers. Gentry is a newcomer to college basketball, so she understands the passion but isn’t invested in the transaction from nine years ago.
“Roy Williams basically built us to what we are now,” Parker said. “I was peeved (when Williams left). Some things got thrown, I’m not going to lie. What made it so bad is that he kept saying he would never leave.”
Williams helps his popularity in Kansas by regularly talking about his affection for the university. In 2008, he wore a Jayhawk sticker at the Final Four. Morris, the Leawood fan, wrote a letter telling Williams he appreciated the gesture.
“I thought that was real class act,” Morris said.
That 2008 Final Four provided a turning point for KU fans and their relationship with Williams. The Jayhawks embarrassed North Carolina 84-66 in the Final Four before beating Memphis to win the NCAA title. It’s easy for KU fans to show they can be gracious winners.
“I really did enjoy getting some semblance of revenge in the Final Four in 2008,” said Ryan Maloney, a Wichitan. “I think everyone enjoyed that.
“He left, and it was sort of a big deal then. Now that we have a great coach that is just as good as he is, it really doesn’t matter.”
Parker’s hard feelings begin to soften when KU built a 28-point first-half lead over the Tar Heels in San Antonio five seasons ago in that Final Four. Two nights later, Kansas won its first title since 1988 and Williams no longer loomed over Lawrence.
“It’s easier now that we won the national championship, and we beat them on the way,” he said. “A national championship healed that wound a lot.”
Nine seasons later, Kansas and North Carolina meet for a trip to the Final Four. The programs are linked by history and success. Self has his national title; Williams won it all in 2005 and 2009.
The coaching change, viewed as earth-shaking at the time, didn’t change either program’s position atop college basketball.
“I think it’s worked out great,” said Susan Morris, Joe’s wife. “He’s where he needs to be. It’s like going back to family.
“And how can you argue with the fact we’ve got Bill Self for a coach? I’m fine with that.”