Officially, it's a final Final Four

Published Saturday, March 31, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

By Mark Purdy
Mercury News Staff Columnist

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- ``This is it,'' said the basketball man.

That would be Carroll Williams, of course. He sat at courtside Friday, the ceiling of the Metrodome far above him. Williams watched the Maryland players wrap up their practice session.

Final Four weekend, you know. For a basketball man, it is just about the finest thing on earth.

And in the Bay Area, there aren't many basketball men with the resume of Williams. After an all-star playing career at San Jose State and a legendary coaching run at Santa Clara, he became the Broncos' athletic director and joined the NCAA tournament men's selection committee in 1997. He's concluding his five-year term after Monday's championship game. Though he still does some fundraising for Santa Clara, at 67 he's officially retired from the athletic department.

In other words, this weekend is the last time he'll have any official duties at a basketball game. At least he'll have a good seat. Committee members, who pick the tournament field and seed the teams, have reserved spots at the scorer's table.

``I always get a chill when they play the national anthem just before the tipoff,'' Williams said. ``I remember in 1997, my first year on the committee, I was sitting right next to Dean Smith, who was coaching in the Final Four for the last time. After the anthem, he turned to me and said, `Carroll, isn't this the greatest?' I thought, if Dean Smith feels that way after all the times he's been there, it really is something.''

And the basketball man, Carroll Williams, has played a significant role in making the tournament -- and the sport -- what it is today.

``He's an icon in Bay Area basketball and has been for 50 years,'' said his close friend and former fellow Santa Clara assistant coach, Andy Locatelli. ``Heck, every coach in America knows who he is. And even Bobby Knight likes him. They've gone fishing together.''

All true. It has been quite a ride for Williams. His first ride to the Final Four, for example. Williams remembers that very well. It was in 1965. The tournament was held in Portland. He was an assistant coach at Santa Clara. Williams and Coach Dick Garibaldi decided to pool their resources and head up to Oregon.

``We took my family station wagon, a Plymouth,'' Williams said. ``We brought along three junior college coaches to help pay expenses. Five guys in the wagon. It was a long drive. We talked basketball the whole way. Then we had them put roll-away beds in the rooms.''

That was the year UCLA beat Michigan in the title game, and future senator Bill Bradley scored 58 points in the (defunct) third-place game for Princeton.

``It was a great thrill for me just to be there,'' Williams said.

In his eyes, you can see he hasn't lost that young man's love for the game. It began when Williams' father moved from Stockton to San Jose and opened the Green Frog Super grocery store on The Alameda. Williams attended Lincoln High School and became a basketball star. That's where he met his wife, Susan. He was a senior. She was a sophomore. She saw him play basketball. It was the beginning of a five-decades-plus relationship.

``I think on our first date, we went over to Hoover Junior High to shoot some hoops,'' he said. ``She would have been a good player if they'd had girls basketball back then.''

As it was, Susan Williams became the South Bay's most savvy basketball wife and mom. She watched as Carroll set records at SJSU, then played AAU ball -- Green Frog Super sponsored a team -- and a semi-pro interlude in Seattle. He returned to San Jose and became the first coach at Blackford High, then signed on with the Santa Clara staff. He was promoted to head coach in 1970-71 and won 344 games in 22 years.

Stories? Heavens, yes, he has stories. He has one or more about every coach at this Final Four. For example, you know the first time Williams saw Mike Krzyzewski? That was in the Cable Car Classic one year. Krzyzewski was playing for Army. His coach was Knight.

``I remember an Army colonel sat next to Bob on the bench and the colonel's job was to make sure Bob didn't go too far in yelling at the referees,'' Williams said. ``So what Bob would do is `accidentally' step on the colonel's shoes, which of course were spit-shined.''

Lute Olson? Williams coached against him when Olson was at Long Beach State. Tom Izzo? Knows him from when he was Jud Heathcote's assistant. Gary Williams? A pal from coaching conventions.

``I stole as much as I could from everybody,'' Williams said, laughing.

Actually, he ``stole'' and incorporated the good stuff he learned into unique strategy. One season at Santa Clara, he had a smallish, inexperienced team and a murderous schedule. So he and the coaching staff devised an offense that was simple in concept, ran the clock and produced inside shots. Forbidding his players to take anything except layups, Williams' team nearly beat UCLA and upset Memphis State.

``It was ugly and none of us really liked it, but it gave our kids a chance to win,'' Williams said.

As the team gained experience, Williams allowed the offense to be more flexible and it became known as ``The Flex.'' Other coaches in similar situations asked him to write a book on it, so he did. The offense is his strategic legacy. Gonzaga has used portions of it the past few seasons while surprising people in the NCAA tournament. And Maryland will run some offensive sets today that were borrowed from Williams' Flex.

``I think what really attracted me to basketball was the creativity,'' Williams said. ``I see it as kind of a chess match where you have to make so many instant decisions. And I was really drawn to the team aspect of the game, the reliance you have on your teammates. It's something I tried to bring to the teams I coached.''

Funny, too, how basketball has been a factor in the most important moments of his personal life -- from that first date with his wife, to his children's games he attended, and to what happened last March in Salt Lake City.

Williams was there to officially monitor NCAA first- and second-round games at the University of Utah. The arena is built into the ground, and requires a long climb from the floor. Williams found himself having to stop and catch his breath.

``That had never happened before,'' Williams said. ``I had been there many times and I used to be able to climb those stairs all the way to the top with no problem. But now, I had to stop two or three times. I thought it was just old age.''

He had a doctor's visit scheduled and mentioned the shortness of breath. It sparked a set of tests that revealed a dangerous heart condition. His doctor allowed him to attend the Final Four in Indianapolis, but shortly thereafter, Williams had triple bypass surgery. He's doing fine today, is eating better, and is enjoying his hobbies of golf and fishing more than ever -- although this basketball season, he took his committee duties seriously and watched more games than ever, in person and on television.

``I'm glad my wife bought into it,'' he said.

At Santa Clara these days, his title is assistant to the president. He reports to the development director, but is available as an adviser to the athletic department if someone wants to utilize him -- which they would be smart to do. He calls serving on the basketball committee ``one of the most exciting professional things I've done.'' He was chairman of the site selection committee, so you can give him a lot of credit for bringing the 2002 West Regional to San Jose next spring.

``It's a good site and they did a great job the first time it was there,'' Williams said, referring to 1997. ``It deserves to be in the regular rotation.''

And as for this year's Final Four group, he isn't making a pick.

``This is the first time I haven't said, `This team is going to win it,''' Williams said. ``All four of these are good teams, but each one has an Achilles' heel that can be exploited. I'm just going to sit back and enjoy it.''

He does have some duties, though. Mainly, Williams puts out fires with other committee members.

``For instance, we saw they had a sign on the referees' dressing room door, and we had them remove it,'' Williams said. ``No one really needs to know where that is except the officials, and they already know.''

He glanced at Maryland's practice, which was just winding up.

``This is the gravy train for me,'' Williams said with a chuckle.

Consider this a salute, then, to pour on top of the gravy. After the anthem today, after the chills subside, the basketball man will take his spot at the scorer's table. The best seat in the house. Right where he belongs.

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