For years, Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams swatted away questions about how he would depart his profession, insisting he would not cheat the game while indicating he would not be rushed into a decision.
Unconventional timing was almost assured with such an outlook. Thursday, a coach known for his penchant for surprise results produced one last stunning outcome in a potentially Hall of Fame career less than two months after he walked off the sideline for the final time.
Williams announced his retirement after 22 seasons at his alma mater. Maryland scheduled a 1 p.m. press conference Friday at Comcast Center to elaborate on the decision.
A source familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said assistant coach Robert Ehsan will serve as the Terrapins’ acting head coach while athletic director Kevin Anderson conducts a search for Williams’ successor.
“It’s the right time,” Williams said in a statement released by the school. “My entire career has been an unbelievable blessing. I am fiercely proud of the program we have built here. I couldn’t have asked any more from my players, my assistant coaches, the great Maryland fans and this great university. Together, we did something very special here.”
Wiliams, whose career also included stops at American, Boston College and Ohio State, concludes his career with a 668-380 record. He was 461-252 at Maryland, making 14 NCAA tournament appearances and seven trips to the regional semifinals. His last team went 19-14 and missed the postseason for the first time since 1993.
The timing comes as a bit of surprise, which in its own way is unsurprising. Williams often said he admired the advice of former North Carolina coach Dean Smith to wait until well after a season was over to make a final conclusion. Smith himself retired just before practice began in the 1997-98 season.
Williams’ decision also dovetails with two other significant developments. He announced his retirement a day after forward Jordan Williams declared he would sign with an agent and remain in the NBA Draft. Williams averaged a double-double as a sophomore, and his departure was a serious blow to Maryland’s chances of returning to the NCAA tournament in 2012.
The 66-year-old Gary Williams was also married last month.
Not to be forgotten is Williams’ contentious relationship with former boss Debbie Yow, who was Maryland’s athletic director from 1994 to 2010. Yow left College Park for N.C. State in June.
Williams ranked fifth among active coaches in victories. He is Maryland’s career coaching leader in victories, and ranks third behind Smith and Mike Krzyzewski in career wins at an ACC school and career wins in ACC games (209).
“Gary has been an iconic figure in the ACC,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said in a statement released by the conference. “ His resurrection of the Maryland program to national championship status was huge, not only for the University of Maryland, but the Atlantic Coast Conference as well. His long term consistent success is what I admire the most about Gary. His accomplishments are of Hall of Fame caliber.”
In College Park, students —- most of whom weren’t born when Williams arrived more than two decades ago —- were shocked at the departure of the sideline fixture.
“I was really surprised, that was my first reaction,” senior Nick Bonomo said. “I definitely didn’t see it coming. I can’t say I’m too happy about it. I’ve never seen a coach for Maryland besides Gary Williams.”
Added freshman Amalie Trentzsch: “He’s been here for so long that it’s heartbreaking to see him go.”
Williams’ retirement is the latest domino in a massive personnel transformation of Maryland, a school noted for its stability if not its harmony for nearly a decade. Maryland had the same president, athletic director, football coach, men’s basketball coach, women’s basketball coach and men’s lacrosse coach from April 2002 —- the month Williams won the school’s national title —- to last May.
Yet in the last year, only the basketball coaches remained in place and former football head coach-in-waiting James Franklin departed for Vanderbilt. As was so often the case, Williams was a major stable presence.
Williams, a 1968 Maryland graduate, returned to his alma mater in June 1989 after the Terps’ program unraveled over a three-year period. Star forward Len Bias’ death from a cocaine overdose in June 1986 eventually led to the ouster of Lefty Driesell. He was replaced by Bob Wade, the architect of a Baltimore high school dynasty who ran afoul of NCAA regulations.
Williams agreed to take over in College Park despite knowing an NCAA investigation was ongoing. However, he didn’t anticipate penalties that included postseason and television bans being handed down as his first season came to a close.
The totality of the rebuilding project accentuated both the impressive and puzzling characteristics of Williams’ personality. Proud and contentious, resolute and defensive, charismatic and volcanic, the New Jersey native came to see the program as an extension of himself. Many at the school felt the same way, dubbing Cole Field House and later Comcast Center “Garyland.”
“This is my team,” Williams said in January 2008 interview. “I went to school here. I played here. I came here in ‘89 when it wasn’t a good situation. We had to work four or five years, and they were four or five years of my prime coaching time. I want people to remember that. That’s just me.”
The sanctions in the early 1990s extended a dark time in the program’s history, and the Terps did not reach the NCAA tournament in any of his first four seasons. However, a young team keyed by the additions of freshmen Joe Smith and Keith Booth opened the 1993-94 season with an overtime of upset of Georgetown at the old USAir Arena and eventually reached the Sweet 16.
It was the first of 11 straight NCAA appearances for the Terps, who made four trips to the round of 16 in a six-year stretch between 1994 and 1999. But greater success was elusive for Williams, whose inability to make a deeper postseason push was questioned as the 1990s wound to a close.
It finally arrived with an unheralded group that included a scrawny shooting guard from Baltimore (Juan Dixon), a burly big man from the Washington area (Lonny Baxter), a savvy point guard from Florida (Steve Blake), a transfer from Tulane committed to playing defense (Byron Mouton) and an unpolished yet athletic forward from North Carolina (Chris Wilcox).
Together, that group helped Maryland reach the Final Four for the first time in 2001, then composed the starting lineup for much of a 32-4 season the next year that culminated with a defeat of Indiana in the national title game in Atlanta.
The championship coincided with the final year at Cole Field House, a venerable building Williams’ teams often packed. The demand for tickets to see an elite team and the high cost necessary to renovate Cole, which was constructed in the mid-1950s, helped fuel the need for Maryland to build Comcast Center.
The national title was high tide for Williams, who returned to the round of 16 for the final time in 2003. His 2004 team won an improbable ACC tournament title as a No. 6 seed —- the only one in Williams’ tenure —- and three of the next four seasons ended in the NIT.
Williams’ latter seasons in College Park brought scrutiny as Maryland drifted away from its peak. He was criticized for lackluster recruiting in the years after winning a national title and often bristled when his efforts to attract top talent were questioned. While Maryland won at least 19 games in each of his last 15 seasons, the Terps were also 67-61 in ACC play in his last eight years. The Terps were 87-41 in conference in the eight seasons before that.
However, Williams made two last tournament appearances in 2009 and 2010, reaching the second round both times behind guard Greivis Vasquez, before a 17-year postseason streak —- and, it turns out, his career —- ended came to a close.
* Freelance correspondent Ethan Rothstein contributed to this report.
—- Patrick Stevens