How LSU basketball, Lester Earl exposed the other side of former Carolina coach Roy Williams | Marcase

John Marcase
Special to The Town Talk

About the only thing Roy Williams didn’t do in announcing his surprise retirement as  North Carolina men's basketball coach was cuss on national television.

That was the final memory of Williams as Kansas’ coach following the Jayhawks’ loss to Syracuse in the 2003 National Championship game in the Louisiana Superdome.

In his CBS postgame interview, Williams was asked about the coaching vacancy at his beloved North Carolina.

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“I don’t give a (expletive) about North Carolina right now,” said Williams.

Williams may also have said, “dadgum,” “shoot,” and “golly gee.” A week later, Williams was North Carolina’s coach.

No one in college basketball coaching history nurtured a more down to earth, aw shucks kind of guy image than Williams. It played well to advertisers, his fan base and national media members, who fawned over Williams.

It was also in many ways fake.

Don’t get me wrong. Williams will go down in history as one of the game’s greatest coaches as he should. When you win 900 games in your career, three national titles and appear in nine Final Fours, your place in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame is deserved.

But so is the criticism that is easy to discover if you have paid any attention to the seedy underbelly of major college basketball.

The other side of Williams was first exposed thanks to Lester Earl, who in 1996 was one of the nation’s top recruits out of Baton Rouge’s Glen Oaks High School. Every major college power was after him. So was Dale Brown and his then floundering LSU program. He was a must-have signee for Brown and the Tigers.

FILE - In this March 29, 1986, file photo, LSU coach Dale Brown yells to his team from the sideline during a national semifinal at the Final Four of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament at Reunion Arena in Dallas. The former LSU coach knows a thing or two about leading an underdog deep into the bracket. Back in 1986, he led LSU, the first No. 11 seed team to reach the Final Four. (AP Photo/David Longstreath, File)

Earl’s recruiting was a saga in of itself for he was known for no-showing on his recruiting visits. On one occasion, he stood up Rick Pitino and Kentucky only to sit behind the Cincinnati bench that same weekend when the Bearcats played at Tulane.

Earl wound up signing with LSU under what was jokingly referred to as the “Family and Friends Plan,” which was AT&T’s big marketing push back in the day before smart phones. Not only did Earl sign with LSU, but so did his brother, Louis, and several of his high school teammates.

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Lester Earl didn’t last a half season in LSU, transferring to Kansas. His departure 11 games into the 1996-97 season played a major role in Brown’s midseason announcement of his retirement following the conclusion of the season.

After Earl arrived at Kansas, he accused LSU of providing $6,600 in payments to secure his services. Earl was never punished because he provided testimony to the NCAA, which eventually placed LSU on probation in 1998.

That led to the surreal scene during the 1999 NCAA Tournament’s second round in New Orleans when LSU fans traveled to the Superdome to root for Kentucky and against Earl and Kansas. Every time Earl touched the ball, LSU fans jingled their car keys. Kentucky wound up winning in overtime.

It was never clear what Williams’ role in the Earl saga was, but he was willing to accept a recruit who admitted to the NCAA that he had broken its rules

A year after that NCAA Tournament game, AAU coach Myron Piggie pleaded guilty in a Kansas City federal court for mail and wire fraud. He was accused of obtaining money from boosters, Nike and sports agents and funneling that money to his players, one of whom played for Williams at Kansas. It was essentially a precursor to the current scandal involving college basketball and Adidas in which the programs at Kansas, LSU, Arizona, Louisville and more are under NCAA investigation.

When Williams said he was shocked by the October 2017 arrest of 10 men involved with college basketball, including assistant coaches, and had never known Nike of ever helping him get a player, Piggie called him out.

“Well, that’s (expletive),” Piggie told Yahoo Sports. “I mean, come on. Roy’s got amnesia.”

There was also the matter of the two decades long academic fraud scandal at North Carolina. It began long before Williams returned home to North Carolina, but at least the 2005 national championship team has been implicated in the scandal. Former point guard Rashad McCants has made claims that he took phony classes and tutors did his school work.

Roy Williams, who retired Thursday, won three national championships and compiled a 903-264 career record across 33 seasons at Kansas and North Carolina. Williams went 418-101 in his 15 seasons with the Jayhawks (1989-2003).

The NCAA eventually decided North Carolina was guilty, but since it involved more than athletes, there was no punishment it could provide.

North Carolina had begun to decline in recent years under Williams. The Tar Heels would have missed the 2020 NCAA Tournament, finishing 14-19. This season's team lost by 23 points to Wisconsin in the first round.

According to USA Today’s Dan Wolken, Williams did not like the direction college basketball was heading with open transfer and the high likelihood players soon will be legally compensated. Wolken also reported the final breaking point came when former five-star freshman recruit Walker Kessler announced he was transferring.

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The irony is not lost on me, nor Brown nor anyone else who has followed college basketball for decades.

John Marcase is a former assistant managing editor and sports editor of The Town Talk. He writes a weekly column.