- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

The chase to become the top Terps coach could end today in Philadelphia.

Maryland coach Gary Williams is tied with Lefty Driesell atop the school’s career victories list with 348, needing a win today when the No. 18 Terrapins (14-4) meet Temple (10-7) at the Liacouras Center to secure the record. The milestone could be cause for some celebration or at the very least some nostalgia, but Williams has downplayed the mark in recent weeks.

Maybe it’s because Williams has more pressing concerns. He lost his leading scorer (Chris McCray) to academic ineligibility earlier this week, has faced other off-court distractions this season and is more worried about guiding this team into the NCAA tournament. Memories of past wins — even the national title four seasons ago that catapulted Williams to the top of his profession — can’t be savored now.

Whether Williams is in the midst of a career anticlimax — it would be difficult for anyone to match an NCAA crown with anything other than another national championship — or even an extended denouement, he has endured arguably his roughest stretch since his first four seasons at Maryland.

The Terrapins missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993 last spring after a season of friction between Williams and John Gilchrist. The point guard subsequently turned pro, but other problems have surfaced.

McCray and Travis Garrison, both seniors, have been arrested on misdemeanor charges since August, and Williams suspended Garrison for a Jan.15 game for his transgressions. Earlier this week, McCray was declared academically ineligible for the rest of the season.

In a larger sense, the off-court woes — rarely a problem for nearly all of Williams’ tenure — coincide with a decline in the program’s fortunes. Some if it stems from the reality no one will go 32-4 and win a national title every season (as the Terps did in 2002) and few will produce consecutive Final Four berths, facts some deluded fans might never accept.

However, Maryland has slid from 21-10 (NCAA regional semifinals) to 20-12 (NCAA second round) to 19-13 (NIT) in the last three seasons. Williams and the Terps (4-2 ACC) are seemingly on their way to reversing that trend this season, though outside distractions have obscured the improved play from last season.

“There’s been a lot of talk about all this off-the-court stuff, but being as where we’re at, second place in the ACC, we’re in the top 20, I think you have to keep some things in perspective,” forward Nik Caner-Medley said. “On the court, we’ve done some good things.”

Perhaps it is appropriate the Terps produced two of their best performances this season upon losing a veteran player. Maryland fended off Wake Forest without Garrison and won 86-74 at Georgia Tech in its first game minus McCray.

The Terps displayed plenty of tenacity and feistiness in both victories, reflecting traits long ascribed to their volatile coach. Williams himself has seemed even more emotional than usual during this wild week, which has included taking responsibility for McCray’s situation Tuesday and his team’s first road win of the season a day later.

Williams’ on-court demeanor was even more animated than usual Wednesday in Atlanta.

Reserve point guard Sterling Ledbetter threw a pass out of bounds in the second half, prompting Williams to charge several steps onto the floor to loudly voice his displeasure.

In the final minutes he scampered to close to the baseline and jawed with a Georgia Tech fan who he believed inappropriately taunted D.J. Strawberry while the junior was at the foul line. Williams said “I protect my players” when questioned later about the incident.

The run to Driesell’s record has evoked memories of the two strong-willed coaches who have been the enduring faces of the program for nearly four decades.

Driesell, a folksy showman with a Southern drawl, quickly built Maryland into a power, combining his savvy and recruiting prowess to lead the Terps to the precipice of greatness. His teams lost in regional finals in 1973 and 1975, but before long settled into a usual spot in the middle of the ACC pack. Eventually, academic and other off-court problems ensnared the Terps, and Driesell departed months after star Len Bias’ drug-induced death in June 1986.

The fallout of increased institutional antipathy and NCAA violations committed under Driesell’s successor, Bob Wade, ultimately fell on Williams, who was hired in June 1989. The Terps scuffled along under the weight of probation and its lingering effects for four years.

“When I came, things weren’t in good shape,” Williams said recently. “But knowing that Lefty had it before meant a lot to me. That meant you could do it because it had already been done. It wasn’t ‘I hope we can get this thing going.’ Well, Lefty had had it going, so we could get it going.”

From a coach’s standpoint, revitalizing a program isn’t always as impressive as maintaining one and establishing staying power among the nation’s best. Williams has done it for more than a decade, earning 11 straight NCAA berths, two Final Four trips and a national championship before last season’s hiccup.

As Williams stands a win away from completing a march 17 seasons in the making, it is those accomplishments that will likely be remembered when the coach intends to reflect on his career — after retiring.

“For Gary to come along in this day and time and be able to surpass that is really amazing because there’s so much pressure on coaches,” said former Clemson coach Cliff Ellis, who coached against both Driesell and Williams and now serves as a television analyst. “Not that there hadn’t been in the past, but coaches can’t usually stay 17 years because there’d be some kind of disgruntlement or something will come into play.”

“Gary has paved his way, and for him to chase Lefty is an accomplishment within itself.”

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