There is no known prescription for coaches who watch their teams lose three days before Christmas to a crosstown rival for the first time in 80 years.
Nor is there a go-to antidote for withstanding the scalding probing of a program a half-dozen years removed from a national championship that’s suddenly losing home games to perceived nonconference nobodies on a weekly basis.
So Gary Williams drove. From his Potomac home to Columbus, Ohio. Back and forth, a holiday visit with his daughter and grandkids wedged between the bookend trips over the Appalachians.
“It was great. It was six hours by myself,” Williams says. “Before I got in the car, I tried to tell myself, ‘No radio, no CDs. I’m going to concentrate on the team.’ You just try to figure out how we can play better. It wasn’t about how many games to win. It was about playing better.”
And so the Terrapins did — for a while, anyway. Like the terrain Williams covered in his 12-hour yuletide roundtrip, there was an extended rise hinting at the possibilities of even better things on the horizon.
But there also was the tail end of the journey, hurtling down a gradient at times so steep even the most deft driver is susceptible to danger before the road levels off.
As a coach, Williams is among the most capable. His national title in 2002 is the most sparkling gem on his CV, and — apologies if this is the 43rd rehashing of this line — he has won 603 games, been to two Final Fours, won an ACC tournament in 2004, etc., etc.
At his most defensive, Williams can rattle off those achievements in bullet-point fashion, a clipped, staccato recitation paired with a steady jaw and an upward, withering glare. The intent, beyond simply brushing back immediate opposition, is clearly to protect what is his.
Make no mistake, Maryland is his program. The 19 seasons are his. The national title is his. The 18-13 team in need of a deep run — if not a title — at this week’s ACC tournament to avoid being relegated to the NIT for the third time in four years is his.
And the flak is his.
“When the program is criticized, I don’t think you’re doing a good job unless you’re sensitive to the criticism,” Williams said in January. “Some of the criticism is good. It’s justified. Some of it’s not justified.
“Nobody knows the inner workings of a school. Nobody knows the admissions. Nobody knows how schools operate. They see the games, but they don’t see practices. They don’t see the day-to-day stuff that goes on at a school.”
The games, particularly in recent weeks, do not please many Maryland fans. The most delusional of the bunch — the ones who believe they are living in a basketball version of Groundhog Day and wake up each morning thinking it is 2002 — will never be sated.
A slightly more rational bunch are irked that the team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament last March was the spring tide of the last four years, especially since the Terps advanced to the second weekend seven times between 1994 and 2003.
It also can be argued Williams, whose contract is guaranteed through the 2011-12 season, made do this year better than anyone could have guessed in December when the Terps were 6-6.