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.