Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams returned to his alma mater in June 1989, tasked with cleaning up a program still operating under the cloud of Len Bias‘ cocaine-induced death three years earlier and facing a pounding from an NCAA investigation stemming from violations committed under the watch of predecessor Bob Wade.
Willams, who retired Thursday after a 22-year stint in College Park, leaves a program less than a decade removed from a national championship and in possession of one of the largest on-campus arenas in the country.
“Definitely being a part of the ACC, you look at that being a good job,” said former Maryland star Walt Williams, whose decision to remain with the Terps during the program’s probation period in the early 1990s often was cited by Gary Williams as a critical moment of his tenure. “I think with the career he took, it makes it top-20 worthy or something like that.”
Looming is a difficult question for Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson: How does he replace a legend? The Chicago Tribune reported Thursday one possibility — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey — is working on a contract extension with the school. Brey attended prep power DeMatha and graduated from George Washington University.
During Williams‘ tenure, Maryland won its lone national championship (2002) and also made its first Final Four appearance (2001). He made 14 NCAA tournament appearances, turning a program that spent most of the late 1980s and early 1990s as an ACC bottom-feeder into a consistent conference contender.
At times, the Terps challenged even Tobacco Road powers Duke and North Carolina for ACC hegemony. At one point in the early 2000s, Maryland defeated Duke in nine of 19 meetings, while the Terps and North Carolina split their last 30 meetings dating back to 1996.
Of equal significance was Maryland’s ability to secure funding for a new arena. After the 2002 season, the Terps moved out of Cole Field House and into Comcast Center, a 17,950-seat facility without Cole’s vintage feel that nonetheless quickly secured a reputation for being as inhospitable to visitors as its predecessor.
“Gary really built it,” said Rick Furlough, a longtime member of the Fastbreakers, a booster club supporting Maryland’s basketball program. “We had a waiting list out the door to get tickets into Cole. With the program Gary built, that’s where they got the fundraising where they could build Comcast.”
Williams‘ successor also will take over an advantageous recruiting territory. Williams frequently was criticized over the past decade of his tenure for failing to fully exploit the hotbed in his backyard. He frequently replied his teams often outperformed schools that secured recruits considered of better quality by analysts.
Ultimately, Williams left the program in far better position than he found it. The once-omnipresent connection with Bias‘ death dissipated over the years and largely was gone after Maryland’s national title run, and Williams‘ last 18 teams all won at least seven games in ACC play.
His successor might not inherit an ideal situation initially; forward Jordan Williams declared Wednesday he would remain in the NBA draft, depriving Maryland of its best player for next season. However, the coach’s fiery sideline presence and ability to maximize talent helped lift the Terps far closer to elite status than when he arrived.
“Definitely, I think it came as a shock to me,” said Walt Williams, who served in recent years on the school’s radio broadcast crew. “His last game, he was the same as when he first got there. He never lost a step. That’s one thing you always remember. He always believed he ws going to win, regardless of who the opponent was. He was the ultimate competitor.”
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Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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