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Kansas' Williams scores one for fidelity

They say loyalty only goes so far. In this case, it takes three tiny steps up a ladder.

This is where Roy Williams stops and surveys all he has wrought. His Kansas players dancing below him. His wife and daughter holding each other in the second row. His choker reputation fading in the lights of the scoreboard.

From where Williams stands on the ladder, clipping a piece of net from the rim, he is able to see loyalty is worth more than the world understands.

A couple summers ago, Williams could have left Kansas. Actually, was expected to leave Kansas. His alma mater, North Carolina, had come calling. At the same time, Williams was getting grief from Kansas fans about his shortcomings in the NCAA Tournament.

All he had to do was sign on the dotted line. Instead, Williams chose to leave his signature on Kansas.

"We had a conversation after he had been offered the North Carolina job," said Oregon coach Ernie Kent, whose team lost 104-86 to Kansas in the Midwest Region championship Sunday. "He said he couldn't take it because he felt it would be hypocritical to his players to leave them.

"He told me, "Ernie, people just don't understand.' That said enough to me. Here's a guy who loves his players. Genuinely loves his players."

Who better to share a trip to the Final Four with than your loved ones? Before the game had ended, Williams walked the length of his bench and embraced each player. After the final whistle, with players dancing joyously, Williams hugged a strength coach. Then he hugged the guy who fills the water cups. And the gal who hands out towels.

"Basically, what he has built here is one huge family," said Neil Dougherty, a Kansas assistant for seven seasons. "When the North Carolina thing came up, he had former players telling him, "Coach, I always imagined my son would play for you at Kansas.' That sums up Roy Williams.

"There are other coaches who know enough basketball to coach at this level, but Coach Williams is the centerpiece of something larger here."

You want to talk about loyalty? When Williams got the job at Kansas in 1989, the sneaker companies weren't exactly throwing endorsement money at him. A Converse rep was the only one to offer a decent deal.

After two Final Four appearances in five years, Williams was getting more lucrative offers from other shoe manufacturers. He refused them all. It wasn't until his contact at Converse left for another job that Williams signed with Nike. And then only after stipulating every Kansas athlete, not just the basketball players, would be outfitted by Nike.

"He might be a little corny," Kansas center Jeff Carey said. "But he really treats us all like we're part of a family."

As a family, Kansas players take it personally when Williams is roasted for their shortcomings. The Jayhawks, despite being one of the nation's premier programs, had not reached a Final Four since 1993. This despite being No. 1 seeds in '95, '97 and '98. Thus, Williams' reputation as an underachiever.

"I think it's a bunch of c---," said Drew Gooden, the region's most outstanding player.

He has a winning percentage of .808. The only coaches who have done better, Clair Bee and Adolph Rupp, predate ESPN. Heck, they predate television.

Of course, the past 13 years, Williams has lost his season finale. It is a streak that threatens to define him. Maybe more so than the 388 victories, a record for a coach in his first 14 seasons, he has collected along the way.

Yet we take for granted the difficulty in winning a national championship. We fail to realize the combination of talent and timing that must be aligned.

Mike Krzyzewski was in his 16th year as coach before winning his first. John Wooden went 18 years and Dean Smith took 21.

"There's no doubt in my mind I want to win," Williams said. "But as the years go on, I've made the decision, the realization, that my relationship with these kids is a heck of a lot more important."

Would you rather have Rick Pitino? He has a national title. He also has a limo at the curb waiting to take him to his next job interview.

Would you rather have Bob Knight? He has three national titles. He also had no respect for Indiana University's reputation and image.

Williams may not be as driven to win as some others, but he is far more committed to building something worth holding on to.

Is he corny? Of course. And he knows it. He embarrasses himself by crying when the Jayhawks lose. He embarrassed himself Sunday by rushing to midcourt where his players were bouncing up and down like in a mosh pit.

One jump and he felt his hamstring gripe.

"I got my rear end out of there," Williams said. "I'm 51 going on 100."

You have to love a coach who is willing to poke fun of his image.

You have to love a coach willing to be himself.

You have to love Roy Williams.

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