Betrayal, or just business?

In 2000 Roy Williams said he couldn't abandon his players to leave Kansas for North Carolina. Now he can, and some players feel betrayed.


King Kaufman
April 17, 2003 12:54AM (UTC)

Poor Wayne Simien.

The sophomore forward feels betrayed after his coach, Roy Williams, announced this week that he was leaving Kansas to take the job at his alma mater, North Carolina. Simien, who is good enough to be an NBA lottery pick someday if he stays healthy, dislocated his shoulder in January, missed six weeks, then tried to come back and play hurt. He lasted four games before the injury ended his season. He underwent surgery two weeks ago.

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After Williams told his players about his decision Monday, they emerged from the meeting and mostly refused to talk to the press. Simien talked.

"I gave my right arm for him," the Kansas City Star quotes Simien as saying, near tears as he ripped the sling off his damaged shoulder. "I literally gave my right arm for that man."

I feel bad for Wayne Simien. He didn't understand that this is a business. He was led to believe it's all about the team, the school, the Rock Chalk Jayhawk -- K.U.! He grew up in Leavenworth, a big Jayhawks fan, and playing in the Allen Fieldhouse was surely a childhood dream come true. For two years he's given it all for coach Williams and the Crimson and Blue, left nothing out there on the floor, sacrificed himself, played hurt.

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Bamboozled.

High-level college basketball is about all that go-team stuff only for the fans, and maybe the kid at the end of the bench. For everybody else, for the star players and the coaches and the athletic department and the gabbers and typists out here in medialand, it's a business. Dick Vitale loves those kids, baby! But he doesn't work for free, and neither do I.

Only the players do, unless they're breaking the rules.

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Three years ago the North Carolina job came open and the smart money was on Williams to go to Chapel Hill. Williams went to school at UNC and so did his kids. He has family in the area. He's a protégé of Dean Smith, the legendary retired Tar Heels coach, who tried to talk him into taking the job, arguably the most prestigious in college basketball now that UCLA is in decline, more prestigious even than the job at Kansas, where Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp went to school, where Phog Allen coached, where Dr. James Naismith, who only invented the game, was once the athletic director.

Williams surprised everybody. "I'm staying!" he famously said at a news conference cheered by more than 16,000 fans at the fieldhouse.

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"The decision here I've made came after the toughest seven days of my life," Williams said that day. "I couldn't trade my players. That became more important than my dream of being at North Carolina." He went on: "I did what Coach Smith taught me to do. I made the decision based on the most important thing, my players. I could not leave them."

One of two things has happened in the past three years. Either it's somehow become possible for Williams to leave his players, or the real reason he didn't take the North Carolina job in 2000 has ceased to exist. I suspect it's the latter, don't you?

Because the other explanation didn't make sense three years ago and it doesn't make sense now. If a college coach can't leave his players, he can never change jobs. There are always some players, and usually most, who are going to be back next year.

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Williams made his decision three years ago for his own reasons, because the conditions at North Carolina weren't quite what he wanted, the offer wasn't quite good enough, he was happy at Kansas, felt there was unfinished business in Lawrence, whatever. He was entitled to his reasons for staying then just as he's entitled to his reasons for leaving now. It's ridiculous to say, as some Kansas boosters and students have been saying, that Williams' departure is a betrayal of the university, a sign of disloyalty. Williams spent 15 years at Kansas. Is he not allowed to move on, to advance his career? I doubt that many of his critics would accept such a limitation in their own lives.

The problem comes when Williams, or any other coach, advertises himself as basing his decisions not on self-interest, which is rational and reasonable, but on the interests of his players, because it's just not true. It's snake oil, a load of goods sold to the best available players so they'll come to this school and not go to that other one down the road.

How many times does a coach who has promised his recruits that he'll be there throughout their careers have to jump at the first hot job offer before these kids stop believing it?

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Just a year ago Dennis Franchione begged his junior and senior football players to stay at Alabama despite the school's two-year NCAA probation, which prohibits the team from going to a bowl. He preached loyalty and family and trust in persuading them not to transfer, which because of the sanction they could have done without having to sit out a year. He told them he'd be there for the rest of his career. They stayed, knowing they'd never play in a bowl game. The team went 10-3. Franchione bolted for a fat contract at Texas A&M in December.

Big-time college athletics is not just big-time business, it's a sick system that has to change. The players who are responsible for putting the butts in the seats and creating the revenue, though often treated like pashas as long as their eligibility holds out, live under a draconian set of rules that prevent them from benefiting financially from the profits they create, a restriction that doesn't apply to anyone else involved in the enterprise.

That's why so many leave early for the pros. They're not just greedy, they're pragmatic. Why play for free when you can get paid? Sometimes it's a player's best option to play college ball for a while to improve his game before going pro, but that doesn't make it a good option. It's still his sweat creating someone else's payday.

As more and more college athletes realize that, big-time college sports will have to fix the problem or face collapse.

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I feel bad for Wayne Simien not because his beloved coach moved on to greener pastures. I feel bad for him because he's a professional who was conned into thinking he's an amateur.


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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