- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

There are times when the eruptions seem inevitable, when a questionable call or a careless turnover springs Maryland coach Gary Williams to his feet. There are times he will start to yell and run up and down the sideline before abruptly stopping in his tracks.
"I can definitely tell when he catches himself," Maryland center Mike Mardesich said. "There will be times when even I want to explode on somebody. He'll start to get his face a little more red, and you can see the veins popping up in his head. But he just takes a deep breath and moves on."
Williams has been relatively calm and unanimated on the bench while the Terps have miraculously turned their once-dying season around. He still has the occasional outburst and a select word for officials, but the coach known for his hot temper has cooled down while Maryland is sizzling its way into the postseason.
The Terps jumped five spots to 11th in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll after winning five straight in impressive fashion, culminating with Saturday's 35-point thrashing of then-No. 7 Virginia. Yesterday, the group began preparing to face No. 22 Wake Forest in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament Friday in Atlanta. Maryland (20-9, 10-6 ACC) clinched third place in the league by routing the Cavaliers in what Virginia coach Pete Gillen wryly called "National Execution Day" in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Williams spent much of the afternoon on the bench laughing and smiling and players say the fun-loving attitude has carried over into practice. The man famous for sweating through his suits and constant energy is now slowing down, staying cool, and soothing others.
"It's definitely been a change in attitude," said LaRon Cephas, a senior captain in his fifth season in Williams' program. "I think he has made some changes within himself. When we were in a slump, I was really surprised by how he handled himself. He was very calm and didn't yell a lot. I think that was one of the things that gave us our spirit back. Of course, no one likes to be yelled at. It makes you shaky and nervous. One of the things I really admire about him is the way he kept his composure."
Said Mardesich: "He's tried to nurture [players] rather than destroy them."
The transformation appears to have come at the season's nadir a home loss to Florida State on Valentine's Day. After the horrific loss to the Seminoles, Williams lingered alone on the court for several minutes before finally making his way to the locker room. The coach stood with a glazed look in his eyes before finally going to see his team.
Williams wondered if his team would win another game this season after that unimaginable defeat.
"I thought that, but I wasn't going to tell them that," he said. "I looked ahead and saw a difficult schedule. Players needed support during that time. We knew we weren't playing well. I told them it wasn't over despite what they read and saw."
The coach, who turned 56 on Sunday, admits he "had to blow smoke at himself" to convince him of that. Maryland had lost five of six at that point, caught in a tailspin that began when it blew a 10-point lead in the final 54 seconds of regulation in a loss to Duke on Jan. 27.
"I'm disappointed in myself," Williams said after the Florida State game. "I think at this point I have to look at myself."
Instead of blasting players for shoddy play the next day, he stroked bruised egos and didn't berate them with profanity-laden lectures or punish them with conditioning. The coach went out of his way to make practice fun and before their next game against Wake Forest the team played the schoolyard game of horse during practice in hopes of making basketball fun again.
The casual approach made the team loose and led to rousing 16-point blowout at nationally ranked Wake Forest, a victory that began the current streak.
"After Florida State, he didn't scream or yell or make us practice for four hours," Cephas said. "His delivery had been at a high volume for so long [over the season]. He's talking just as much, but it's a different pitch and different tone."
The coach also let his two most seasoned players deliver the message that he had struggled to deliver. Cephas and Mardesich, both fifth-year seniors, became watchdogs on and off the court.
If they felt a teammate didn't have the proper attitude or wasn't working hard enough, they would pull him aside. The duo set the tone in the locker room and on the practice court, and despite their back-up roles, filled the team's leadership vacuum.
"There were always one or two guys who acted like they didn't really want to be there," said Mardesich, who fumed as his final season was going to waste. "There were a lot of times where having somebody other than Coach saying something the players can relate to a little more might have helped. It's a long season and sometimes it is easy to ignore the coaching staff because they say so much over the course of the season."
Williams is quick to credit Mardesich and Cephas for "saving the season." But for his own change of approach and decibel level, he sees that as an exaggeration. The coach contends his behavior is not radically different.
"It's overrated," he said. "That's the thing everybody is jumping on [to explain the team's turnaround]. So OK… . It's just the tip of the iceberg."
It may just be the tip of the iceberg, but it also seems to have turned Maryland's version of a Titanic season around and free of polar caps.
One of the most noticeable differences in Williams came while the Terps were fighting back before upsetting then No. 2 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium last week. Williams stayed poised while the Blue Devils erased a nine-point Maryland lead and trailed by seven at halftime. Yet, even though the coach later admitted he felt his team was in serious danger in the hostile environment, he never showed a sign of panic.
"At halftime and during that [first half] stretch, he was tremendously positive and stressing to us just do the things that got us here, the things that had us playing well before," Mardesich said.
Williams said he didn't need to get anybody's attention because the team was playing at the intensity he wanted.
The second half was more of the same as Maryland rallied back and eventually wore out Duke for a 91-80 win. The coach was animated, but picked his spots to protest calls and generally kept himself in check. It was the type of composure that had been rare from Williams, but seems to be contagious with his players.
"When it all comes down to it in a high-pressure situation in a huge game, it makes a difference if the guy on the sidelines is keeping his cool or losing his cool," Mardesich said. "Players are a reflection of their coach. If you look over to the sideline, and your coach is leading the way, it gives you a lot of confidence."
And the Terps are playing with a world of that right now.

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