- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2002

ATLANTA As of 8:30 a.m. yesterday, about nine hours after he and the Maryland Terrapins had cut down the nets at the Georgia Dome to celebrate the program's first national title, Gary Williams had already thought about when his team would practice next.

Such is the ritual of a college basketball coach, but for now, there is no practice. Williams and the Terps can simply revel in the sweet glory of victory they are alone at the top as the NCAA tournament champions.

"There's that withdrawal thing I've thought three times about practice today," Williams said yesterday from Atlanta before the team flew back to College Park for a huge reception at Cole Field House. "But I don't have to do that today it's a great feeling.

"I don't really feel anything right now. I'm a little numb. You have to go through everything you have to go through for the next couple days and then you get a chance to think about things … right now, everything's so fast that it's hard to really get a feeling about how you feel."

This weekend in Atlanta, several billboards around the Georgia Dome proclaimed the area "Garyland" a moniker first popularized in College Park during the early '90s and Williams legitimized that claim.

"He wanted it more than anybody," point guard Steve Blake said. "You could see it in his eyes. You could see it in the way he spoke, but he definitely wanted this national championship."

The Terps' title stands as the high point for the university and Williams' 24-year coaching career, which has included successful stints at American University, Boston College, Ohio State and now his alma mater.

Williams, 57, inherited a struggling Maryland program in 1989. It was still feeling the aftereffects of Len Bias' cocaine induced death in 1986 and was headed for probation for violations committed by Williams' predecessor, Bob Wade. Attendance at Cole Field House had dwindled from the capacity crowds during the Lefty Driesell years. In only five seasons, Williams rebuilt the program, its fan support and got the Terps back to the NCAA tournament.

However, on Monday night Williams elevated the program to previously unattained heights.

Yesterday, tears welled in the eyes of the usually stoic Williams as he talked about playing at Cole and the great years he enjoyed there, first as a player from 1964 to '67 and then as a coach. This season, Cole's last as the Terps' homecourt, Maryland honored the grand arena by finishing with an unblemished home record. Williams wants to continue to honor the old building. He said he hopes to raise championship banners in two arenas later this year the new Comcast Center, which the Terps will open in the fall, and Cole.

"Cole's a unique place. Great seating, the way it's built in terms of sightlines and things like that. The way that ceiling is the noise just goes around and comes back down again," said Williams, seemingly not quite ready to let the 47-year-old arena go just yet. "It's a great homecourt."

Williams was born and raised in South Jersey, but since first coming to College Park in 1964, he has remained true to the school. Whether his Maryland teams win or lose, Williams has and will remain a staunch defender of the program. He rebukes with tenacity any slights he perceives from media or fans; perhaps that was never more evident than after the Terps were booed following an upset loss to ACC bottom-dweller Florida State last season.

Williams rallied the Terps after that game, which marked their fifth loss in six games, to win 10 of 11 and reach the Final Four. After losing a 22-point lead, the largest ever in a national semifinal, and the game to Duke, Williams and the seniors rebounded to enjoy the best regular season in program history and guided the Terps back to the Final Four. Since that Florida State loss, Maryland is 42-6.

The relationship Williams shared with the senior class of Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, Byron Mouton and Earl Badu was something to behold. To this point, in Williams' 13 years at Maryland, Dixon and Baxter stand as the hallmark recruits. They were relatively unheralded coming out of high school, and Williams embraced them, nurtured them and matured with them over the course of four years. The finished product was two very polished college players and the highest-scoring tandem in program history.

"I take a lot of pride in this team in that they all had to work to get recognition," Williams said. "They didn't come in as high school All-Americans. They came in as good, solid high school players, including Juan Dixon, and they've become some of the better players in the country, and it's been great as a coach to watch that happen."

In Dixon, Williams found not only a brilliant scorer and valiant leader but also a player on whom he could rely to be his coach on the floor. They have a unique relationship. Williams brought Dixon along slowly as a freshman, then turned him loose for his next three seasons, and the reed-thin gunner responded by becoming the program's all-time leading scorer and arguably its best ever.

"The program came a long ways," Dixon said. "They were in a lot of trouble, I guess in the late '80s. Coach came in, he did a great job, and we're one of the better programs in the country now. That's a credit to [Williams]."

With Williams taking the Terps to their first Final Four last season, much was made of the perception that he had mellowed and taken a less intense approach. Williams seemed to dispel that by being sweaty, red-faced and animated on the sideline. However, Williams has said he has looked at things in a different light since his only child, Kristin, gave birth to his first grandchild, Geoffrey, more than two years ago.

His grandson was a welcome addition, but Williams suffered a loss this season his father, William, passed away in February. Williams said yesterday his father, who served in World War II as a teen-ager, chided a young Gary for spending so much time playing basketball. William thought his son should have been working instead.

"My dad was never a big basketball fan. He grew up in a different time," Williams said. "… I understand where he came from. I think he had a chance to watch a lot of games and he got more interested as time went on as he got older."

A national championship is certainly a new sensation for all involved at Maryland but much more so for Williams. The national championship is his second tournament title in coaching. He led Woodrow Wilson High of Camden, N.J., to the Group4 state title in 1970.

Williams joked that now would be as good a time as any to retire from coaching, as Marquette coach Al McGuire did after winning the 1977 NCAA championship. He quickly dismissed that possibility; after all, who would become the mayor of Garyland?

"I hope I can coach a long time, because I've never done anything else," Williams said. "This is what I like to do."


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