KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Roy Williams ordered the stuffed artichoke to kick off his Thursday night dinner, same as always. The fastest way to Roy’s dadgum heart is through his dadgum stomach, and few know Williams’ dadgum stomach as well as Mike Garozzo does.
“Right now, (he’s) having the three-way spiedini: Shrimp, veal and chicken,” chuckled Garozzo, the Kansas City restaurateur and owner of Garozzo’s Ristorante, a civic staple for more than two decades. “So he’s touching all the bases.
“He’s great. I haven’t seen him for a couple years . . . yeah, he’s been just super with us. He’s as good a guy as he comes off, and he’s the real deal.”
Garozzo’s is one of Williams’ favorite Kansas City spots; Mike is one of Williams’ favorite Kansas City people, a relationship that’s almost as old as the restaurant itself. Between 1988-2003, when Williams coached at Kansas, steering the Jayhawks to four Final Fours along the way, the two became fast friends.
Williams coached at rustic Kemper Arena 54 times while with the Jayhawks, winning 42 of those contests. Whenever Williams was in the neighborhood, more often than not, he made a beeline for the veal at Garozzo’s. One, because it’s excellent. Two, because Roy loves his dadgum veal.
“I can’t tell you how many times, and all the guys he brought in here, (like) Bobby Knight,” Mike says of Williams, whose North Carolina Tar Heels (24-10) meet Villanova (20-13) Friday evening in a second-round NCAA tournament pairing. “I can’t tell you how many times. It was a lot.”
Garozzo has seen plenty of Williams over the past decade, sure, but here’s the thing: basketball fans in Kansas City haven’t. And, wouldn’t you know it, there’s Roy, coaching at Sprint Center for the first time, only a few weeks away from the 10th anniversary — April 2003 — of his decision to leave the Jayhawks and coach his alma mater. The jump that left Lawrence heartbroken.
Awkward? Yeah. Awkward. A little.
“It was a betrayal-type situation,” Tom Hentzen, a Jayhawk fan from Olathe, Kan., allowed as he watched Carolina’s open practice Thursday. “It was like your family dog left and went somewhere else.”
Other than that, hey, no hard feelings.
“It’s not immoral to love two institutions,” Williams said. “When I was (the) coach at Kansas, it was my favorite school. North Carolina was my second-favorite school. I happen to be coaching North Carolina now, and it’s my favorite school and Kansas is my second-favorite school.
“I realize some people were upset when I left. Hopefully, time is going to cure a lot of those problems.”
Hopefully. If Thursday’s practice session was any indication, that bad blood just might finally be water under the bridge. Williams received a warm welcome from an estimated crowd of 2,500 as he led his Heels onto the floor, and attempted to diffuse any tension by offering a friendly wave to the crowd.
“I hope there (are) no boos, because I can’t fathom how somebody would do that,” KU radio analyst Greg Gurley, who lettered for Williams between 1992-95, said as Carolina began warming up.
“It’s been 10 years. Both schools have (won) national championships since he left. They have two down there (with Williams). You talk about how well it worked out for both schools, and it never happens like this. Never.”
The Jayhawks replaced Williams with Self, and you know the rest. Kansas won that long-coveted national title in 2008, a milestone Roy never consummated in Lawrence, a crown made even sweeter because it involved a skull-bashing of Williams’ North Carolina bunch along the way.
Roy got the Tar Heels on stable, hallowed ground again. Self kept Kansas humming right along. Gurley’s right: In the long view, everybody won.
Plus, Self has beaten Williams in the NCAA tourney, head to head, by an average of 16 points over their past two meetings. That’s healed a lot of wounds, too. Kansas fans truly fell in love with Roy, and there’s no revenge for a lover scorned quite like living well.
“I was happy for Roy, I really was,” Garozzo recalled. “He got a chance to go home, and not many people get a chance to go home. He did a great job at KU, and everybody knows it, and that’s the problem — you get too good and they want you to stay forever. Let’s just say (Kansas fans), they’re very passionate.”
And, in some cases, forgiving. As he sat near the Sprint Center floor Thursday, Hentzen cradled a giant, canvassed photo — 2 feet by 3 feet — of Self and Williams shaking hands, a quick exchange before Kansas and North Carolina met in the national semifinals five years ago.
After Williams came out with the Tar Heel entourage, Hentzen lugged that bad boy to center court. With the help of a few reporters, the KU fan lifted it over the press seats so Williams could sign it.
“It makes you look kind of short, coach,” Hentzen said of the picture.
To that, Williams just smiled.
Then he left his John Hancock and went back to work.
“The last time Kansas played North Carolina, it was just shortly after he’d left — I don’t think they gave him a fair shot,” Hentzen said. “I thought they were a little hard on him. But it seems like they’ve warmed up to him now, to a degree.”
Time heals. Time and distance. Williams is Tobacco Road’s pet now. The Jayhawks have a new dog. And the same old bite.