One thing that makes college basketball so enjoyable, yet at the same time so challenging, is that each year the team is different. There are new players, and you may ask the student-athletes who return from the previous season to play new roles. Team chemistry changes, and the attitudes and relationships that ebb and flow from wins and losses always take on a new life.
The constant is a need for outstanding leadership. It's important to identify leaders, then nurture, guide, and encourage leadership on and off the court. Some years, the best leaders are your most gifted players. However, sometimes the most effective leaders may not be the best scorers or rebounders but players who set great examples by their work ethic, or by being vocal, or by carrying out less glamorous roles that coaches know are critical to a team's success.
I believe in three guiding leadership principles:
- Everyone on the team must focus on the same goal. It's my job to effectively communicate those goals to the team.
- Emphasize those goals every day.
- Understand that although everyone has a common goal, individuals also have goals, needs, and dreams that must be cared for.
The third point may be the most challenging to address and is where leadership may be most critical. We remind our players that the name on the front of the jersey (North Carolina) is more important than the one on the back (their own). Each of them comes from a different background, has different goals and dreams, and is blessed with unique skills. Finding a way to blend those is what leadership is all about.
I've coached great players like Paul Pierce, a Kansas Jayhawk from 1995 to 1998. He combined tremendous ability and work ethic and was one of the best players in the country, and teammates enthusiastically followed his lead. In 1997, Kansas was ranked No. 1 with guards Jacque Vaughan and Jerod Haase, who were great on the court, excelled academically, and made an impact in the community. Our players truly looked up to them because of the standards they set every day.
Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich provided fantastic leadership over my last few years at Kansas. People often think of them in the same sentence because they were so successful together, but they led in different ways. Collison came into my office after his sophomore season and talked about the way we practiced. As a result of his input, we started to practice fewer hours as each year went on, and in his next two seasons we reached the Final Four. My practices are still influenced by Nick's comments.
Hinrich poured his heart out every day, and his teammates had to feed off that emotion and play even harder just to keep up with him.
When I came to North Carolina, player leadership was missing. The team had gone through a rough time, losing 20 games two years earlier and missing out on the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons. They needed to learn to trust my leadership, and it was important for leaders to emerge from among the players. Jackie Manuel bought in first. He knew the only way he would play was to play defense, rebound, and hustle. The other players saw how it pleased us coaches, and they followed his
lead. All-Americans Sean May and Raymond Felton combined their talent with a strong vocal presence, and we won the national championship in 2005. Not bad for a team that people felt was too selfish to win.
In 2006, we lost our top seven scorers from that team but won 23 games and made it to the second round of the NCAAs, something most experts doubted we could accomplish. We had a great freshman, Tyler Hansbrough, but we also had senior David Noel, the best leader I have ever coached. David averaged 3 points the previous year, but he had experience, an even temperament, and the respect of his younger teammates.
Three years later, we again won the national championship. Hansbrough, a four-time All-American by then, led with his work ethic and passion to excel. We had Ty Lawson, the fastest and finest point guard in the country. Every time he was on the floor, his teammates believed we were going to win. We had seniors Bobby Frasor, Marcus Ginyard, and Danny Green, who led in so many ways. There's no question our players were gifted, but the leadership on the 2009 national championship team was as fine as on any team I've ever been around.
That's the great thing about college basketball. Every year is unique. I can't wait to see what is in store this year. I know one thing. We have great kids who can lead and allow themselves to be led. I tell them all the time: Be led by your dreams, not pushed by your problems. Go out and chase your dreams.
Roy Williams has spent more than 30 seasons as a basketball coach, the past 21 at the Universities of Kansas and North Carolina. He has led two teams to national championships.