Just as he would when departing nearly 22 years later, Gary Williams had tears in his eyes as he became Maryland’s basketball coach June 13, 1989.
Williams‘ farewell last week took place before thousands of applauding fans at Comcast Center, where his Terrapins moved after winning the NCAA championship in 2002. On the day he became Maryland’s seventh basketball coach, the venue was much less impressive — a dingy third-floor auxiliary gym at old Cole Field House.
Williams‘ notorious dry wit was missing that afternoon. Several times he appeared emotional at the daunting task of restoring respectability to a program at his alma mater that had fallen on hard times under the stewardship of Bob Wade.
“I never thought I would have an opportunity to come back to Maryland,” said Williams who played for Bud Millikan’s teams in the late 1960s before constructing a 207-128 coaching resume over four seasons at American University, four at Boston College and three at Ohio State. “You go away and coach and think how great it would be if you could come back. But as you go along and the years go by, you don’t think you’ll ever get a chance.”
The hiring came just 32 days after Wade, a high school coach who appeared over his head at Maryland, was forced to resign amid an NCAA investigation that resulted in penalties that made Williams‘ first seasons more difficult.
The selection of Williams was no slam dunk. A search committee headed by university vice president Irwin Goldstein and including former player Len Elmore interviewed five candidates. After two withdrew, Williams was the obvious remaining choice. He signed a five-year deal worth about $400,000 a year.
“One of the things that really impressed the committee was coach Williams‘ dedication to the students’ education,” Goldstein said. “The way his intensity comes through is in a deep commitment to those interests and concerns.”
Meanwhile, Elmore, who starred on Lefty Driesell’s first powerhouse teams at Maryland, seemed to be damning Williams with faint praise.
“We found a number of qualified and, quite frankly, superior candidates,” Elmore said of the six-man committee. “Gary Williams is an excellent coach but not much better than some of the others, if at all. But Gary Williams is the coach, and I will back him 100 percent.”
Athletic director Lew Perkins and other Maryland officials flew to Columbus, Ohio, to confer with Williams two days earlier, then brought him to College Park. The late-night negotiations required four hours to complete. The next day, the coach met with university president William Kirwan.
“It’s been a long 48 hours,” Williams said at the news conference. “There were a lot of emotions going through my head, but then I was OK.”
So, ultimately, were the Terps. Partly because of NCAA sanctions from the Wade probe that barred Maryland from live TV for one year and postseason play for two, Williams‘ record was only 61-57 after his first four seasons. But then came 11 consecutive NCAA tournament berths that included two Final Four appearances and the national championship. When Williams stepped down, his 461 victories at Maryland were 103 more than Driesell bagged from 1969-86.
All told, Williams was Head Honcho of Hoops in Terptown for 21 years, 10 months and 25 days, thereby proving he was no liar on the day of his ascension.
“This to me is a career decision,” he said back then. “It’s about time I established some roots. This is an opportunity to do it.”
And certainly he did. In the long and checkered history of Maryland athletics, the Garyland era ranks very high.