“He’s been our father,” sophomore guard Greivis Vasquez says. “He’s been the type of guy that’s always been in our corner. I give him a lot of credit. We’re losing, but it’s not time to blame anybody. It’s not time to blame the coach.”
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Studying him, though, is another story. It’s just a matter of serendipity which trait in his complex personality will shine through on a given day.
Win a game at North Carolina in stunning fashion? Williams rushes his team to the bus and then on to the airport, the Triangle’s freezing drizzle on a January night suddenly his latest treacherous foe.
Lose in a vital late-season trip to Virginia and play wretched defense, only to have a veteran reporter briefly delay the postgame press conference by fumbling to turn on his tape recorder? Williams eases the tension, sagely quipping, “Shouldn’t have cut class when they had that course.”
The setting counts, too. The best chance for a run-of-the-mill fan — the type without massive money to pour into booster clubs and road trips and premium seating — to observe Williams in action is at his weekly radio show.
Five days after the upset of then No. 1 North Carolina, Williams strides into a Columbia, Md., sports bar and takes a seat in the back of the restaurant. Supporters approach, ask for autographs and pose for photos, and Williams summons a smile with far greater ease than at any time on a sideline.
As broadcaster Johnny Holliday asks about the victory, Williams leans back, cranes his neck and leers at a television. Duke, the Terps’ next opponent and thus of paramount interest, is busy dispatching Virginia Tech. During a break, Williams munches on some french fries, something far easier to digest than meeting the up-tempo Blue Devils.
Only the naive would say he’s entirely at ease, even as he repeats the same insights and jokes he shared with reporters a few days earlier. To observe the coaching Krakatoa in a frenzy just once is to intuit how quickly the man’s potential energy while hunched on his toes can turn kinetic.
Occasionally, he sets himself up. During a media gathering in early January, he referenced a Forbes magazine article ranking the most valuable college basketball programs. Maryland was 17th on the list.
It offered another portal into seeing what is his. Would Roy Williams or Mike Krzyzewski or Rick Pitino — coaches who have a national title to their names and whose teams all rank in the top five of Forbes’ list — go to the trouble of copying the top 20 on team letterhead and distributing it to reporters?
Who knows? But Gary Williams gladly shared why he would when prodded later in the session.
“Because some people don’t talk about that sometimes, and that’s a big part of college athletics, being able to pay bills for 27 sports,” Williams said. “I do take a lot of pride in it because it doesn’t happen in many metropolitan schools.
“If you look around the country besides UCLA and here at Maryland — New York, Chicago, Dallas, Miami — for basketball in terms of revenue, it’s hard to do when you’re in a pro town.”
He doesn’t want anyone to forget. When a reporter visited the basketball office a week later, Williams offered him a copy of the article.