- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

In the sunny spring of 2002, Gary Williams’ basketball program at Maryland achieved the sport’s Holy Grail, a national championship. Four short years later, the same program and coach seem to be careening downward.

Monday’s announcement that senior guard and co-captain Chris McCray will be academically ineligible for the rest of the season was the latest in a series of blows for the Terrapins. McCray and fellow senior Travis Garrison have been arrested for misdemeanors in the past year, and his permanent loss makes it likely that Maryland will miss the NCAA tournament for a second straight year.

As Williams addressed a panting media horde yesterday morning at Comcast Center, a large picture of McCray hung on a wall to his left. The photo did not fall to the floor during Williams’ 20-minute press conference, but such a development might have been appropriate. If Williams’ program is not yet in danger of crashing, it obviously needs shoring up on academic fronts — something the coach admitted.

“This is the first time in 28 years as a head coach I’ve lost a player halfway through the season,” Williams said. “It’s something I personally take responsibility for. … It’s something we certainly will continue to look at and see if there are ways we can improve what we do.”

The departure of leading scorer McCray comes with Williams on the verge of becoming the winningest Maryland coach ever. He is one behind the eminent Charles Grice Driesell, who snorted and stomped his way through 348 victories at Terptown from 1969 through 1986. Wins tonight at Georgia Tech and Saturday at Temple would put Gary alone at the top. But right now it would be a hollow honor.

Whenever coaches are confronted with issues they don’t want to discuss, they clutch to their breast the hallowed excuse of the next game. That’s what Williams did yesterday. Rather unnecessarily, he said McCray will be missed but “it isn’t up to one guy to make up for Chris — we have to do it as a team.” And, he insisted, his players “have a job to do, and our job is to get them ready.”

No kidding?

But seriously, folks, the matter goes far beyond Maryland’s basketball team, its next game and whether the season now collapses about the Terps’ collective ears. The greater issue seems to be where ultimate academic responsibility lies.

Usually, an assistant coach is designated as the academic bad guy, snarling at players (as my friend Rick puts it), “If you don’t show up in class, I’ll see you tomorrow at 5 a.m., and you’ll run until you puke.” In Maryland’s case, perhaps this role has gone unfilled. Former Terp Keith Booth is in only his second year on Williams’ staff, while Rob Moxley and Michael Adams are newcomers.

In the end, however, the player himself must recognize that getting a degree is the principal reason he is in school. For some, this is a given. For other, less mature individuals, shooting the basketball, rebounding and possibly playing good defense are the be-all and end-all of college existence. Hitting the books, or even giving them a light tap once in a while, is strictly secondary — until the sky falls, as it did this week for McCray.

Let’s face it — not everyone is cut out to be a college student. Academic skills usually have no relation to physical skills — especially for blue-chip jocks who often are indulged and misled by worshipful coaches interested in the former only as far as it contributes to the latter.

As quoted by The Washington Post, McCray’s mother, Shirleeta, seemed to be blaming the coaching staff for her son’s problems. “They should have made sure his grades and things were straight for him to be eligible,” she said. “I’m not only going to fault Chris. I’m going to blame everyone up there.”

Knock, knock — anybody home? In August, Chris McCray was arrested and charged with misdemeanor counts of refusing to leave the scene of a fight and fleeing police after an incident in College Park. In October, he was with Garrison when the latter was arrested and charged with grabbing and hitting a woman at a bar. Nearly everybody connected with the basketball program knew weeks ago that McCray’s playing career was in danger, but his mom said she just found out last week. Huh?

Again, an athlete bears final responsibility for doing the right thing, as Spike Lee might put it. All the help in the world isn’t going to make a difference if he doesn’t give a rodent’s rump.

“I wasn’t perfect myself,” said Len Elmore, a star center on Driesell’s strong teams of the early 1970s. “As a freshman, I was motivated [academically] just because I wanted to play basketball. By the time I was a senior, I recognized how immature I had been, and I was primarily motivated to get my degree.”

He did much more than that, subsequently graduating from Harvard Law School and becoming an attorney, a sports agent and an ESPN basketball analyst. Of McCray, Elmore notes, “Nobody knew better than Chris what his academic status was. He had a responsibility to his team, his teammates and himself.”

Sadly, so sadly, he let everyone down. It would be easy to say it wasn’t his fault — that others should have eased his path — but that’s not the way the world works. Sooner or later, each of us bears responsibility for his own actions, or inaction.

When athletes are placed upon pedestals and allowed to feel they are special people, only catastrophe can result. If Gary Williams must re-evaluate and change his methods, so must we understand that good athletes deserve our admiration and respect only when they demonstrate they are good people, too.

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