Gary Williams, like so many other coaches, kept an eye on others in his profession for a variety of reasons.
Maybe he wanted to borrow an inbound set or figure out a better way to set up a press.
But in all the good things he observed, he also figured out something important he didn’t want to do.
“I’ve seen coaches where they just stayed too long,” Williams said. “So, if you leave a little early, it’s better than leaving late. It really is.”
And so the Maryland basketball coach extensively discussed his retirement Friday at Comcast Center, capping a 22-year career at his alma mater and a 33-year run as a head coach at four schools that was highlighted by a national title in 2002.
The decision was equal parts surprising in its mere occurrence and unsurprising in its abruptness.
Athletic director Kevin Anderson said Williams came to him April 29 to inform him of his intent to retire. Anderson and Williams, along with their respective wives, had dinner the next night, and Anderson asked him to reconsider.
Williams re-affirmed his choice Monday and made a formal announcement Thursday.
“Why now? It’s just a gut feeling, really more than anything else,” Williams said. “It’s a time in my life where I have an opportunity to do some things.”
But not without a farewell flourish.
Williams will remain at Maryland as an assistant athletic director and special assistant to Anderson. Williams described his likely work as something akin to a consultant, and insisted he would not be a daily presence in College Park.
Still, reminders of his accomplishments will be obvious, including the 9-year-old Comcast Center. Campus president Wallace Loh said he would recommend to the university system’s board of regents that the arena court be named in Williams’ honor.
“Today we say goodbye to an iconic coach, but we are not saying goodbye to Gary Williams,” Loh said.
Williams choked up several times during an hour-long press conference opened to the public, including when he entered the arena, waved a right hand known so often for emphatic fist pumps and eventually took a seat on the dais.
Much of Maryland’s roster from last season attended, as did Williams’ entire staff, former players Walt Williams, Tony Massenburg and Eric Hayes, former assistant coach Billy Hahn and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank.
“Forty-some years is a long time to coach,” said Dino Gregory, a senior on Williams’ final team. “I’m happy he got to leave on his own terms and do this the way he wanted to do it.”
Few besides Williams and Anderson knew of the decision. Williams took a picture with Maryland’s seniors set to graduate later this month early Thursday afternoon. Swingman Cliff Tucker returned to his room to take a nap, only to wake up to a flood of text messages with the news.
Returning players assembled quickly at Comcast Center for a 4 p.m. meeting Thursday to learn the surprising news.
“It was a shock in the beginning, but in the end we were all happy for him and we understand,” forward Hauk Palsson said.
Williams leaves with a 668-380 career record, including 461-252 at Maryland. He also had stints at American, Boston College and Ohio State.
His departure comes in the same week as Jordan Williams’ decision to leave Maryland with two years of eligibility remaining to pursue a career in the NBA. Gary Williams said the forward’s departure had “no effect” in his retirement.
Williams also said he would not play a prominent role in choosing his successor.
“That’s not my job, to pick the next coach,” Williams said. “That’s for the people who will be here. They are very capable of doing that and we’ll be in very good shape because of that.”
It will make for a dramatically different look.
For more than two decades, Williams was entrenched in College Park and eventually became the most visible personification of the school.
“For him not to be here now, it’s just weird, because his name has become synonymous with the university,” said Massenburg, a member of Williams’ first team at Maryland. He’s the symbol. When you say the University of Maryland, you think of Gary. For us not to have that is a tremendous loss, but at the same time we respect his decision.”
Despite the emotional nature of his departure, Williams seemed mostly at easy with his choice. He unleashed his dry wit just as frequently as tears welled up Friday, drawing laughs and cheers from fans in attendance throughout.
And perhaps most importantly for him, he made it clear he wouldn’t linger – just as he promised so many times in recent years.
“I’ve been fortunate to coach as long as I have,” Williams said. “You can’t predict the future. I don’t know how long I have to be able to do other things, or if I was still coaching how long that would last. You can’t say, well, this is the exact time. I know I coached as hard as I ever had this past year, so it’s good leaving knowing I’ve done that.”