To understand the hold Gary Williams has on Maryland basketball fans – and why so many of them turned out at Comcast Center on Friday to pay him homage – you have to go back to the beginning. You have to go back to 1989.
As Dr. Wallace Loh, the school’s president, put it at the farewell festivities, “Intercollegiate athletics is the front porch of the university, the most visible part.” And when Williams arrived that year in the wake of the Bob Wade scandal – and not far removed from Len Bias’ tragic drug-related death – Maryland didn’t have a whole lot of curb appeal. Indeed, the hoops program was up on blocks in the front yard, soon to be hit with an NCAA penalty that would ban it from television and postseason play for two years.
It was the absolute nadir of Terps basketball – and Williams was the first responder. He’d taken the job at Ohio State just three years earlier figuring it would be his last; but his alma mater was bleeding, and there was no way he wasn’t going to answer the call. So he stoically took his lumps for four seasons, rebuilt the program recruit by recruit, and over the next decade led Maryland to seven Sweet 16s, two Final Fours and its first national title.
“Gary has made it great to be a Terp,” athletic director Kevin Anderson said. More than that, though, Gary took the shame and the pain away – the shame of NCAA sanctions, which made Maryland just like every other outlaw school, and the pain of Bias’ fatal cocaine binge. He put in a new front porch, painted it a glistening white, added some shrubs and flowers, and before long, his alma mater was the envy of the ACC neighborhood.
You build up quite a bit of capital when you complete a rescue mission like that – enough, in Gary’s case, to weather the leaner years that followed. And let’s face it, the last eight seasons haven’t been nearly as joyous, save for a surprise ACC tournament title in 2004 and an almost-as-unexpected ACC regular season co-championship in 2010.
Had it not been for Williams‘ earlier exterior work, had he not put Maryland on the cover of Better Basketball Programs and Gardens, he probably wouldn’t have been able to leave on his own terms. His exit might not have been as messy as Wade’s departure – or as sad as Lefty Driesell’s – but he sure wouldn’t have had the court at Comcast named after him (which the AD proposed and the president announced Friday he’d approved – to much applause).
Still, Gary’s was a bittersweet ending. After all, he’d given Maryland fans a glimpse of heaven – the Terps on equal footing with Duke and North Carolina – and then the clouds rolled back in and blocked the view. Four of his last seven teams (including his final one) didn’t make the NCAA tournament, and none got past the second round.
When one of his rare big men, Jordan Williams, announced his intention earlier this week to turn pro – prematurely, in the minds of many – well, it became as good a time as any for Gary to call it a career. Who needed another season of Gary-doesn’t-want-to-do-what’s-necessary-anymore stories – doesn’t want to kowtow to AAU coaches, doesn’t want to grovel for talent? He’d won his 668 games, his national title, his coach of the year awards and all the rest; the trophies, polished to a sparkle, were arrayed in front of him Friday, just below the podium. Why not, at the age 66 (and with a lovely new wife, Dana), slip into an emeritus role at Maryland – raise funds, give advice, basically just be a living legend?
“I feel like I still could coach,” he said. “But at the same time, you realize there are other things out there. I started coaching at 23. This gives me a chance while I’m still relatively healthy to do some things.”
A few times, his emotions got the better of him. His voice would catch, his eyes would mist over, and this renowned rider of referees and Crouching Tiger in front of the Maryland bench would need a moment to compose himself. One such time was when he thought back to his basketball beginnings as a 5-year-old in Collingswood, N.J. Here it was six decades later, and the game – this glorious game – still had him in its grip.
But not so much that he couldn’t walk away when it made sense to – before, that is, somebody gave him a push. “I see coaches that … they just stayed too long,” he said. “If you leave a little early, it’s better than leaving late.”
Others may wonder, but Williams has no doubt that Maryland will find a suitable successor, one who will continue what he and Driesell began and – who knows? – maybe dress up the front porch with a swing or some new indoor/outdoor furniture. It’s too great a university, the loyal alum said. Too great a fan base. Too great an area (especially for recruiting). Too great a conference.
We’ll see. It’s a bit late in the coach-hunting season, and buyouts are a particularly tricky business in these economic times. Plus, there might be some really good candidates out there thinking, “I don’t want to be the guy who replaces Gary Williams. I want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaces Gary Williams.” If you saw the scene at Comcast on Friday – part pep rally, part love-in – you could certainly understand that sentiment.
The three best things you can say about any basketball coach are that (a.) he was a winner, (b.) his teams played The Right Way (i.e. doggedly, intelligently and unselfishly) and (c.) he played by the rules. Gary, of course, hit the trifecta, which is why he’s going to the Hall of Fame someday. He was there for his old school in its time of need. Now he can look forward – and deservedly so – to bringing down his blood pressure and his golf handicap.