Roy Williams has returned to Kansas many times during the last 11 years. He still has friends here, relationships forged over 15 seasons of coaching basketball. He’s returned to play a few rounds of golf, he’s come back to remember and bury old friends and colleagues, and he even returned to Kansas City for an NCAA Tournament.
But more than a decade after Williams hopped a plane for North Carolina in the spring of 2003, he’s never once stepped foot back in Allen Fieldhouse.
“I haven’t actually been in Allen Fieldhouse,” Williams says, “since the last practice before we went to the Final Four in 2003.”
This revelation came on Tuesday afternoon, just six days before Williams plans to re-visit his old office and home gym once more. On Monday evening, Williams will step back inside Allen Fieldhouse to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the old barn. The Kansas family is gathering to commemorate six decades of basketball in the Phog, and Williams will be a guest of honor, along with Ted Owens, Larry Brown and Bill Self — the only other living men to have coached the Jayhawks inside Allen Fieldhouse.
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“I’ve said this, and I really believe this from the bottom of my soul,” Williams said this week. “I think it’s the greatest home-court advantage in college basketball and maybe in any sport, whatsoever.”
For Williams, who has spent the past 11 seasons at North Carolina, the event will mark his first public return to KU since attending the men’s basketball banquet in April 2003, just shortly after his final KU team lost in the NCAA title game and he left town for his alma mater.
On that banquet night in Lawrence, as the wounds of his departure still festered, Williams’ appearance included a disgruntled Kansas fan yelling out: “Traitor!” It was, in simple terms, a symbol of the emotional split.
But more than a decade later, many of those bitter feelings are now gone. Williams has won two NCAA titles at North Carolina, in 2005 and 2009, while Self arrived from Illinois and led the Jayhawks to the school’s third NCAA title in 2008 — a run that included a cathartic victory over Williams and North Carolina in the Final Four.
The two programs met again in the Elite Eight in 2012 and round of 32 in 2013, with Kansas winning both games. Now Self and Williams each have preseason top-10 teams to worry about, while Brown is building a program in his third season at SMU.
Comfortable and secure in his 12th season at Kansas, Self believes it was past time for Williams to return — and for Kansas to embrace his 15-year tenure.
“What a way to come back publicly, to all cheers in a noncompetitive situation, at a place that means an awful lot to you,” Self said. “I think it will be great for all the coaches, but I think it will be extra special for him.”
Monday night’s festivities— the brainchild of Self and his wife, Cindy — weren’t shaped with Williams’ return in mind, of course. Earlier this year, Self and his wife were driving to Oklahoma, thinking up ways to raise money for their Assists Foundation. A few weeks later, Self was calling Brown and Williams to see whether they could slide an anniversary event into their practice schedules. A few days later, Owens was aboard, too.
Now Williams and Brown are coming back to Kansas. The evening will feature television analyst Jay Bilas as the official host and moderator, and each coach will reflect back on his time at Kansas.
On Tuesday afternoon, Williams started to reminisce a few days early. He remembers the big games, he says — the comeback against UCLA, the day Jacque Vaughn beat Indiana, the senior day in 2003 when Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton shuffled down the sideline to pay respects to Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison.
“I think that was our last home game there, too,” Williams says.
In his early days at Kansas, Williams became enamored with Allen Fieldhouse’s seemingly mystical powers. He remembers this piece of cotton that hung ramshackle from the rafters. It looked homemade and included the now iconic words: “Pay Heed, All Who Enter: Beware of the Phog”.
“I think we got some better material,” Williams says, “but I still remember when the original one was up there.”
But mostly, Williams remembers the atmosphere, the sellout crowds of 16,300 and the deafening noise for the big games. In 15 seasons, Williams’ teams finished 201-17 at Allen Fieldhouse, winning games at unbelievable 92 percent clip. Among KU coaches to coach at least 100 games in Allen Fieldhouse, it was the best winning percentage in school history. Well, it was, of course, until Self won 95 percent of his home games in the last 11 seasons.
“There is some mystique up there,” Williams says. “We’re not Irish by any means, but if you could say that, there’d be leprechauns on every rim helping the other team’s shots bounce away.
Moments later, he adds this:
“It’s the kind of thing that gave me cold chills every time.”
Tickets still available
The way Bill Self sees it, Kansas lucked out with the schedule. Monday’s anniversary event — officially named “Celebrating 60 years” — will fall on a potential off-day during the World Series. If the Royals and Giants are still playing, game five will be on Sunday in San Francisco while game six will be in Kansas City on Tuesday night.
As of Tuesday, tickets were still available for the event. The prices for the event range from a 10-seat table on Naismith Court for $5,000 — a package that includes food, beer and wine, one chair autographed by all four coaches, one autographed team basketball and a commemorative piece of Allen Fieldhouse floor for all table guests — to individual seats inside Allen Fieldhouse ranging from $25 to $60. According to KU, “students may purchase a maximum of two tickets at $15 each located in a designated section.” To buy tickets, call the KU ticket office at 800-344-2957 or 785-864-3141 or go to KUathletics.com.