- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

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.

“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.

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There is little question of Williams’ single-mindedness. Not when he’s perspiring through his shirt during a game, not when he’s sparring with the media, not when he’s poring over a little extra film and excavating another play, another defense, another weakness to exploit.

And not when he talks about what others refer to as Garyland, a catch-all euphemism others use for the program (and ultimately, by extension, himself) Williams defends with ferocity. The subtopic — recruiting, coaching turnover, the use of certain players — doesn’t matter.

“It’s personal,” Williams says. “I judge it differently obviously because I’m the closest one to the program. So I know what we could have done better at, and I know what we’ve done really good at and maybe overachieved at. I’d rather just keep it at that without getting into specifics.”

But no matter how mercurial Williams’ whims, his support for his players remains steadfast in nearly every scenario. And that was at the core of his drive through the mountains.

Maryland’s season at that point became a building exercise, an attempt to create some reason for hope. It meant infusing some belief in a team riddled with doubt and maintaining a relatively steady hand that belied his volatile reputation.

“That means a lot,” guard Cliff Tucker says. “After losing back-to-back to American and Ohio, a lot of coaches would probably have no faith in us, but coach stayed with us. He told us he would stick with us. He told us we would be really good.”

For a while, the Terps were. Not long ago they were 17-9 and seemingly well on their way to an NCAA tournament berth. But in a startling twist to a regular season even Williams admits was “uneven,” Maryland dropped four of five.

It’s a slide capable of bringing out the worst in anyone but not Williams. Not when there are still games to be won, players to improve and even a chance to fire a volley at those who doubt the Terps can climb out of their latest chasm.

“One thing coach always says at practice is he’s never going to quit. He’s never going to let us go,” senior forward Bambale Osby says. “He’s going to fight as long as he’s the coach here, and we’re going to play like the teams that played here in the past. … He gets mad. He gets frustrated. He gets upset even though loves it. It’s his life. At the end of the day, he knows what he wants.”

Since his first day back in College Park in 1989, he knew. Williams understood there was much work to be done that quickly cascaded into even more because of NCAA sanctions brought on because of his predecessor, but the underlying impulse was to build a basketball colossus — with all of the trappings that come with it, for good and for bad.

No long drive ever was needed to create clarity in that regard.

In other words, he wanted what is now his.

“This is my team,” Williams says. “I went to school here. I played here. I came here in ‘89 when it wasn’t a good situation. We had to work four or five years, and they were four or five years of my prime coaching time. I want people to remember that. That’s just me.”