They stood together in a corner of the media room at Allen Fieldhouse, cameras popping and smiles flashing. This was a staged moment, of course, the last four men to coach basketball at Kansas gathering for a photo-op before a charity event.
But as Bill Self, Roy Williams and Larry Brown waited for Ted Owens on Monday evening — where was he anyway? — the idle conversation turned to their former players. What else were they going to talk about?
For the last 50 years, only four men have guided the Kansas basketball program. Now they were together at Allen Fieldhouse for the first time, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the venerable building at a charity event on Monday night.
“There’s something hanging around in there that’s really unique,” Williams said, “that no one else has.”
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Williams always knew this, of course. He spent 15 seasons here, leading Kansas to four Final Fours and two appearances in the NCAA title game. But when he left for North Carolina in 2003, he never came back to this building.
Something always got in the way. He came back to campus to help his daughter graduate college, and he came back to see old friends. But each time back, he never took the time to set foot in Allen Fieldhouse. Maybe it didn’t feel right. Maybe the timing was off. Maybe the emotions — especially for someone like Williams — were too much.
“People put your picture over the commode, that’s not the best feeling in the world,” Williams said, recalling some of the bitter feelings that clouded his departure. “There were some people mad at me,” he continued, “and they were hurt, and I was hurt.”
The stories of Williams’ exit have been told — and retold — many times. But Monday night, he recalled the first time he had a chance to leave KU for North Carolina — after the 1999-2000 season. That time, Williams elected to stay.
“I told Nick Collison I would be here for his career,” Williams said. “And I know that sounds corny and all that. But that’s me.”
Three years later, Williams left.
“Time heals wounds,” Williams said. “It really does. And you can’t change somebody’s opinion. But in time, people understand things. The last two years I was here, I loved it when I was on the court with my players. But that’s about the only time it was really that kind of fun.”
After receiving an invite from Self last summer — a charity event with Brown and Owens — the time was finally right for Williams to return to Allen. So on Monday morning, Williams woke up early at the Oread Hotel — a place just off campus that didn’t even exist 10 years ago — and he went for a walk. He explored campus, saw some old sights and then had North Carolina assistant C.B. McGrath, one of his former players at KU, drop him off in front of the fieldhouse.
“To be honest,” Williams said, “I wish nobody else had been in there. I would have just stood in there and looked around and it would have been a neat experience.”
Monday’s event was not supposed to be solely about Williams — though his first public return to the Kansas basketball program did make for a memorable moment. For Williams — still sorting through the aftermath of a North Carolina academic scandal that began before his arrival in Chapel Hill — the night perhaps served as a nice escape. He soaked in some loud cheers, reminisced about his 15 years at Kansas and, as Self put it, “paid homage to the building” on Naismith Drive.
“I got up at 4 a.m. this morning, and just thought about what it might feel like and what I might say,” Williams said. “For 15 years, I gave my heart, my body and soul, and I loved it. I wish we had won one more game on a Monday night on a couple occasions. There’s no question right there.”
Brown and Owens were happy to return as well. Both men have become familiar faces in Lawrence during the Self’s tenure. And for Brown, now in his third season as the head coach at Southern Methodist, those five seasons at Kansas left lasting memories. He coached Danny Manning, won an NCAA title, became part of the Jayhawk lore.
“If you looked up in the dictionary what a fieldhouse is, they’d probably say Allen,” Brown said. “It’s just probably exactly what you would imagine every college arena should be like.
“After all these years, nothing has really changed. It’s all about the basketball court and the people that were in it.”