Elusive Title Assured For 1 NCAA Coach

Roy Williams (left) and Jim Boeheim. College basketball coaches of University of Kansas and Syracuse University.
A 3-foot putt or the biggest basketball game of their lives. Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim have made it this far by treating them almost as one and the same.

These golf buddies-turned-coaching rivals are on the verge of breaking through and winning the national championship that has eluded both over a combined 42 years of coaching.

But they know that win or lose Monday night, life will go on, another chapter will unfold and another chance to compete won't be far off — for these two, probably this summer on the golf course.

"Is it more important to me? Yes. Is it more important to you? Yes," Boeheim said, referring to the title game. "But you coach it the same way."

That's not to play down the importance of the game and what a victory will do for the winner. Williams and Boeheim would agree with the obvious — that winning the NCAA basketball title is the pinnacle of the sport.

"When you coach at this level, that's what you want to do," Boeheim said.

But will they coach differently? Put more pressure on themselves? Buy into the well-circulated notion that they need a championship to validate careers that have been nothing less than stellar?

"Sure, the game is tremendously important," Boeheim said. "The problem I have, though, is the thought that all of the sudden, you're a good player or a good coach because you win this game. That's foolishness."

Williams agrees.

Both coaches have the resumes to back their confidence.

This season, the 52-year-old Williams reached the 400-victory plateau, and he did it faster than all but three men — Adolph Rupp, Clair Bee and Jerry Tarkanian. Williams has guided the Jayhawks to their fourth Final Four and their second championship game in his 15 years at Kansas.

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. He is a coach in much more than an Xs and Os sense. In the style of his old boss and mentor, Dean Smith, Williams is a mentor, too. He considers his players family.

Three years ago, he had a handshake agreement to take the job at his alma mater, North Carolina. But he changed his mind when he went to the gym and ran into three of his former players, including Greg Gurley, all of whom had children.

"Greg said, 'How does it feel to have your grandchildren in the gym with you?"' Williams said. "That was something that really hit me pretty hard at the time."

Undoubtedly, Williams will cry when it's over Monday night — not just because of the winning or losing, but because it's the last college game for Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison.

"I would hate to think that my son played for somebody who didn't care," Williams said. "I do deeply care."

With a 652-226 record in 27 seasons at Syracuse, Boeheim ranks second in winning percentage among all active coaches. He took the Orangemen to 10 straight NCAA tournaments from 1983-92, the fourth-longest streak ever.

Twice, he has taken the Orangemen to the final, only to come up short — in 1987, at the Superdome, they lost 74-73 to Indiana on Keith Smart's basket with 4 seconds left.

"I had a tremendous experience for five days, 39 minutes and 56 seconds there," Boeheim said. "I want to try to get those other 4 seconds in this time."

The 58-year-old coach isn't as touchy-feely as his counterpart, but that shouldn't diminish his real emotions.

"He is always trying to push me, and he goes about it in a funny way sometimes," Syracuse sophomore forward Hakim Warrick said. "It has helped me. I know he's just trying to get the best out of me."

By almost any account, Boeheim has done one of his best coaching jobs this season. It's not that he doesn't have talent — quite the contrary. It's just that the talent is young. Freshman of the year Carmelo Anthony, classmate Gerry McNamara and Warrick account for 63 percent of Syracuse's offense.

Boeheim has nurtured them and used his tricky 2-3 zone defense more than he normally would. It's his way of masking inexperienced players' defensive shortcomings, and the system has worked.

"At this point in the year, we're not freshmen anymore," McNamara said.

Still, Kansas is the more seasoned team. Collison and Hinrich are two top-notch seniors who get significant playing time, something of a rarity in this era of early departures.

While Boeheim calls almost every play for Syracuse, Williams takes pride in not being much of a micromanager; he likes his players to run and push and play man-to-man.

"My personality is I want to be a little more aggressive," Williams said. "If you feel comfortable doing something, it's easier to do."

That, both Williams and Boeheim agree, is part of their coaching handbook: Do what you're most comfortable with. Have a good time. Keep things in perspective.

"I think we've pretty well handled the fact that we've been here and lost, still been able to get up, smile and go on the next day," Williams said. "But perhaps it makes you a little more hungry, to try to see what it's like on the other side."