- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

ATLANTA | Gary Williams, whistle firmly planted between his teeth, stood on the court at Georgia Dome for the first time in nearly seven years Wednesday.

The memories of the pinnacle of his career - the 2002 national championship - failed to envelop him during Maryland’s shootaround session as the Terrapins (18-12) prepared to meet N.C. State in the first round of the ACC tournament.

It was a small demonstration of perhaps Williams’ most valuable skill, an omnipresent ability to remain dialed in to one task regardless of external turbulence.

And in the last year, there has been no shortage of tumult. From offseason roster flux to diminished on-court expectations to a public brouhaha between Williams and athletic department officials, distractions flourished in College Park.

Yet regardless of mood - at times defiant and prickly, upbeat and feisty, determined and surly - and the figurative professional body blows he absorbed, Williams remained fixated on the larger priority of improving the Terps.

That he did, nearly reaching .500 in the conference when a far worse record would have come as a surprise to few.

“This year is no different,” Williams said in an e-mail exchange. “Part of your coaching job every year is to make sure the team stays focused on the job at hand, which is usually the upcoming game.”

Williams’ ability to compartmentalize, forged primarily in his initial seasons at Maryland, prevented him from concentrating on the griping from outside his program. The very real possibility of a fourth NIT trip in five seasons is unpleasant, but it is hardly the same sort of mess Williams faced when he took over at a school soon to be slapped with probation in 1989.

But his devotion to moving from one subject to another to another and refusing to permit anything else to interfere trickled down to his players as well.

“That’s how he is all the time,” forward Landon Milbourne said. “He’s always on his p’s and q’s, especially because he wants to win. He’s such a competitor, and he tries to do everything he can to get a win. The only thing he asks of us is to do the same thing.”

•••

Jimmy Patsos’ coaching career blossomed in 13 seasons working with Williams, a stretch dovetailing with the worst of the Terps’ probation years and the best moments in program history.

From the sweltering confines of Cole Field House to the glitzy new digs across campus at Comcast Center, Patsos observed Williams at work, trying in many ways to mimic his mentor.

He picked up strategy, a penchant for salesmanship and an astute understanding of the value of forging relationships.

But one thing he could never entirely duplicate was Williams’ gift for breaking down a multifaceted problem into individual pieces.

“When my man hits the practice floor, it is all basketball,” said Patsos, who just completed his fifth season as Loyola’s coach. “It doesn’t matter if someone missed a class. I think a lot of it came from Cole Field House. There were people running up and down the steps and running around the thing. It was chaos.”

Yet there is a calm in Williams in some of those moments, a contrast to his manic mannerisms on the sideline. It’s an approach a younger man would struggle to accept, and the 64-year-old Williams himself probably didn’t learn it until he arrived at Maryland two decades ago.

The prospect of looming sanctions prompted Williams to emphasize the fun aspects of the sport rather than remain anxious of what was to come.

In some respects, this winter was a similar time. But unlike a time of awaiting punishment in place of his predecessors, Williams was the one pilloried.

Long-simmering fan grumblings about recruiting became more pronounced. Maryland suffered its widest margin of defeat in more than 60 years and Williams the worst of his career. The Terps were dealt four losses of at least 20 points.

And still, Williams helped engineer an upset of then-No. 3 North Carolina last month, a victory the Terps parlayed into a place in NCAA tournament discussions they still hold.

“The past month has been pretty tough with him in the media,” forward Dave Neal said. “People have bashed him pretty hard. My mom has said if that was her, she wouldn’t know what to do with herself. I think that’s what separates Gary from most coaches in the country. He can block out pretty much everything he wants and just focus on basketball.”

It is a crucible in which Williams can thrive, steadily repeating the same things in an attempt to perfect them. Just before Maryland’s second meeting with Duke - a 78-67 loss that unfolded differently than a 41-point drubbing a month earlier - Patsos observed the Terps were running the same things as before, only better.

“It’s every day and consistent,” said Loyola assistant Matt Kovarik, who both played and coached under Williams. “He knows and he sticks with that offense and the defense and the pressure. Every single day you practice it and it never changes, whether you’re winning or losing. This is what we do, and we’re just going to get better and better and better at it every day, and eventually it’s going to pay off.”

•••

Williams’ compartmentalization reaches beyond his own regimented mind. It extends to players, who are often informed precisely what is needed from them to fill a place on the roster.

For much of his career, Neal would hear his job was to inbound the ball, set screens and make smart passes in the offense. Before he was injured, forward Jerome Burney was informed of similar things this season.

“All Coach Williams would say [to Burney] was, ‘Jerome, I want you to go in there and rebound and block shots,’ ” Neal said. “When you saw Jerome this year, his role was pretty much to rebound and block shots.”

Those who tend to follow Williams’ directions - and remain within their own abilities - have tended to thrive with the Terps. And that principle has manifested itself this season, with Milbourne, Neal and Adrian Bowie clearly among the players who have spent far more time showing what they can do rather than exposing their deficiencies.

More importantly, Maryland heeded Williams’ pleas to keep moving forward, and the willingness to adopt the attitude ensured that a team with little room for error avoided a precipitous slide even though it finished with a losing conference record.

“It is a skill for all seasons,” Williams said. “If you’re having a great season, you have to make sure the players understand they must continue to work hard. If we’re struggling, you must put a tough loss behind you and work toward getting better so you can win the next game.

It’s not about proving others wrong or responding to the natural - and unnatural - fluctuations within a season. Instead, hewing to a basic philosophy is the priority when trying to maximize production.

“Everybody’s talking about Maryland this and Maryland that,” guard Cliff Tucker said. “When we come to practice, we just block all that out and just worry about us and know as long as we have each other’s back we’ll be fine.”

If a visit to Georgia Dome yields two victories like the last time, Williams and the Terps will be just that.

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