Where are they now: Richard Williams

Before he begins to chat, Richard Williams asks the caller to hold so that he might close his office door.

Within seconds, Williams is back on the line.

"It's a small office," he says, laughing.

The truth is that neither the size of the office nor the grandeur of the program ever really mattered to Williams. Although he has danced on college basketball's biggest stage, taking Mississippi State to the 1996 Final Four, his real love affair always has been with the game -- not the fame -- of basketball.

So while others try to figure out why Williams would give up retirement for an assistant's gig alongside John Brady at Arkansas State, the move makes perfect sense to Williams.

"I never got into this to make money or coach at some high level," Williams said. "My love is teaching basketball. That's what I like to do."

If he could have kept it that simple, if the pressures hadn't eroded his joy into a job, Williams might never have walked away. Instead of a Where Are They Now, his destination might be still well-known.

Instead, in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of college athletics, Williams, 66, is a footnote. No one before or since has taken Mississippi State to the Final Four -- the Bulldogs haven't even made it to the NCAA's second weekend -- but 15 years is a lifetime in sports, and MSU's run, along with Williams, has slid into the two-dimensional pages of history.

"I remember I told him, 'Do you know what you've just done? You've taken Mississippi State from Starkville, Miss., to the Final Four,'" recalled Brady, Williams' longtime friend and current boss. "If Mississippi State can do it, by God, anyone can do it. I don't think he ever got enough credit for that, but I also think it never defined him."

Brady and Williams long have spoken the same language. They have been friends for more than 40 years. The game has embraced and rejected them both, placing the pair on an eerily similar road to glory and humility.

Ten years after Williams took Mississippi State to the Final Four, it was Brady's turn with LSU.

But like Williams, Brady found that staying on top was difficult. He was fired two years after his 2006 Final Four run, the same time between Williams' national semifinal and departure.

Now Brady is down the hall, trying to coax Arkansas State to another West division crown in the Sun Belt and maybe this time an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, a place the Red Wolves have been only once (1999) in their history.

But neither coach has much time for what was or what might have been.

If not entirely philosophical, their vision now at least is completely unfiltered.

"I'm 57, not 37, so I'm not chasing the carrot anymore," Brady said. "I used to wake up every morning and feel like I had to run to get something. I was never sure what it was, but it was something.

"People ask me now if this is leading me back, but leading me back where? Some guys in this business, they go to one Sweet 16, and they create this sex appeal about themselves. Richard and I never did that. We weren't anybody's juniors or best friends. We came up through the ranks because we loved the game."

Indeed, the well-plotted trajectory toward the brass ring that guides this generation of coaches was never part of Williams' itinerary. Life was different when he entered the profession. The ladder climb didn't start middle-rung, with graduate assistant jobs right out of college, but rather at the bottom, in the far recesses and quiet mustiness of high school gyms.

Williams was a math teacher by trade but a basketball coach at heart, giddily taking his first job at Natchez High School in south Mississippi.

"I was the assistant cross-country coach, the assistant baseball coach and the volunteer seventh-grade basketball coach," he said. "And I was in heaven."

He might have stayed there, happily carving out a life and a career among the underappreciated high school lifers, if not for Brady.

Brady and Williams have spent the better part of a lifetime helping each other. They first crossed paths in Mississippi -- Williams was by then the varsity head coach at Natchez, and Brady a wily point guard at nearby McComb.

Once he stopped scheming to stop Brady, Williams found a rarity in the cutthroat profession of college basketball -- a true friend. It was Brady, already on staff at Mississippi State, who persuaded his head coach, Bob Boyd, to bring on Williams as a part-time assistant back when that was still part of the lexicon.

But two years after he was hired, Williams found himself unexpectedly fast-tracked. After failing to recreate his USC successes in Starkville, Boyd resigned. On his way out the door, he suggested Williams, the eldest of his three assistants, for the job. Mississippi State heeded his advice.

Just like that, the former math teacher was a head coach in the SEC. Brady was his top assistant.

Five years in, he had the Bullies as conference champions. A decade in, he was at the Meadowlands alongside John Calipari (then at UMass), Rick Pitino (Kentucky) and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), a star-studded Final Four if there ever was one.

The national spotlight, though, wasn't Williams' favorite place to be. He squirmed under the attention and chafed at the media scrutiny.

"People used to say I didn't look like I was having fun, and my answer used to be, 'When you go to the dentist, is he acting like he's enjoying it?'" Williams said. "That was my job. I enjoyed it, but I also was very intense about it. I think if I've changed at all, it's in my perception of the media. I realize that very few people are out to get a coach. Their job is to report the news. I'll never be the type of person to enjoy the attention, but I understand it."

Lacking that understanding then, though, Williams' discomfort only grew as the scrutiny turned from laudatory to critical. Three players left early from that Final Four team, two under less than ideal circumstances. Dontae' Jones declared early for the NBA, but only after questions arose about his transcript. Point guard Marcus Bullard, meanwhile, was arrested and jailed for violating an earlier parole after he hit someone over the head with a gun.

It was all too much for Williams. After two seasons of dismal results and under some pressure because of the off-the-court issues, he announced his retirement in 1998 after 12 seasons at State. He and his wife, Diane, moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where Diane designed her dream home.

"I always read how coaches say no one puts more pressure on them than they do," Williams said. "And that's true to an extent. But I will say, when you have success the outside pressure becomes enormous. Even at Mississippi State, when you go to one Final Four, the fans think you can go every year. They think it's easy. And we weren't very good, and I just reached the point. … I was dealing with some other issues, and it was time to walk away."

The plan was to be done for good.

Except after a lifetime of doing what he loved, Williams quickly realized he didn't love doing much else. He doesn't fish. He doesn't play golf. He doesn't hunt.

He coaches basketball.

Retirement quickly segued into boredom, and the itchy Williams started grabbing whatever hoops work he could find. He helped out at St. Stanislaus, a nearby prep school. He coached the Memphis Houn'Dawgs of the ABA and the Jackson Rage of the WBA. He landed some television work. He even coached for a time at his alma mater, Pearl High School.

His bride of now 40 years understood what was going on, so eventually the dream house was sold -- mercifully six months before Hurricane Katrina destroyed it -- and home became Madison, Miss., just north of Jackson.

When college jobs started coming along -- first at UAB, then Louisiana Tech -- Diane offered her blessing.

The jobs were nice but not quite right. Williams was back in the game but only on the periphery. As the director of basketball operations, Williams wasn't allowed to work with the players. No practices, no individual workouts.

"I didn't like that very much," he said.

Just as Williams faced another crossroads, there was Brady again, offering a lifeline. In need of a new assistant, Brady asked Williams whether he'd be interested.

Unsure, Williams initially agreed to only a six-month contract.

"But I loved it," Williams said. "I was back on the floor."

Now he has an apartment in Jonesboro, Ark., and makes the four-hour commute home on the weekends in the offseason.

During the season, Diane drives in for the home games.

"I've got a pretty nice setup going," Williams said, laughing.

The natural question, then, is this the end or another beginning? Will Williams write his final chapter here alongside Brady (who just inked a contract extension), or will he venture out on his own again and become a head coach?

Williams said he turned down Division I offers right after he left Mississippi State and two more since.

He's 66 years old now, no spring chicken, and he knows it would take a daring athletic director to hire him. But then he's quick to point out that Jim Calhoun just won a national championship at age 68.

"I tried to anticipate your questions before, and I knew this would be one of them, so I spent two days trying to come up with an answer," Williams said. "I know it's a cliché, but if the right situation comes along. … I didn't come to Jonesboro, Ark., to plot my way back. So would I do it again? Maybe. I could see myself coaching again, but there's no grand plan."

The office door may be shut, but for Richard Williams, the basketball door is always open.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.