As he made the walk Monday night from his locker room to the playing floor of the Georgia Dome, Gary Williams’s mind was filled with thoughts about what was going to take place, focusing very clearly on the basketball game he was about to coach.
“I’ve always been good about staying in the moment,” he said Wednesday afternoon, his voice surprisingly energetic after his first good night of sleep — four hours — in a while. “I’ve always been able to take the approach that the game I was coaching that night was the most important one of my life, whether I was the JV coach at Woodrow Wilson High School or the coach at Maryland. But this was one game I didn’t want to blow; I didn’t want to choke because it was the game I had coached all my life to coach in, and I didn’t know if there would be another chance to coach in it. I didn’t want someday to have to look at my players and think I let them down in the game they had worked so hard to get to.”
Yet, even after waiting 35 years to get to this moment, he made himself pause long enough to look around the building as he entered the sea of noise and color and ragged emotions that is part of every championship night.
“I did a 360,” he said. “I looked all around me and I thought back to those nights at Fort Myer when I would walk onto the floor and hope there were 200 people in the building and that the heat would stay on for the entire game. I remembered something Al McGuire once said, that when you walk onto the floor you should always look up into the corners because if those seats are filled you know it’s a big game. Well, I looked into the corners and not only were they filled, they were a long, long way away.
“I remember when they introduced the teams, thinking that I was nervous, but then it occurred to me that I’ve never coached a game in 35 years in which I wasn’t nervous. That made me feel okay. I reminded myself to coach the game, not the situation. Then, when I looked at our guys, just like all year long, I could feel their resolve.”
That resolve, that toughness is what made Maryland the national champion. If there ever was a player who mirrored the toughness on which Williams has always prided himself, it is Juan Dixon. That isn’t to say that fellow seniors Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton aren’t tough and aren’t leaders, but there was never any doubt in anyone’s mind as to who Maryland’s floor leader was.
“The two biggest shots of the tournament for us was the three Juan hit when Indiana went ahead [44-42] that put us back in front and the three that tied the game against Connecticut,” Williams said. “As important as the shot against Indiana was, the one against Connecticut was more important. That game was near the end, and Connecticut was playing very well. If he doesn’t hit that shot and they come down and score to go up five or six, it’s very possible we lose. Of all the shots and all the moments in this whole thing, that’s the one I’ll remember the most.”
The best things about winning a national championship are moments and memories. Monday night was filled with them forWilliams. When Indiana backed off in the final 30 seconds, acknowledging that the game was over, Williams found himself looking into the stands, first at daughter Kristen and grandson David, and then at others who had been part of the journey: John Smith, his high school coach, who made it to Atlanta shortly after bypass surgery; Stan Pawlak, his high school teammate who went on to star at Pennsylvania, and longtime friends such as Jack Schrom and Don McCartney. He also thought about Tom Davis, who gave him his chance to become a college coach.
“I turned the job down twice,” Williams said remembering when Davis, then the coach at Lafayette, asked him to be his assistant 30 years ago. “He said I had to coach soccer, too, as part of the job and I didn’t want to coach soccer. All I knew was basketball, and I was happy being a high school basketball coach. He finally got mad at me and said, ‘Gary, you may not get another chance to get into college coaching if you turn this down.’ I realized he was right because I didn’t know a soul in the college game other than him. So, I took it.”
He went from Lafayette to Boston College when Davis got the job there and then to American in 1978, his first head coaching job. Those were the Fort Myer years. “I look back at that now and the kids I coached and realize how lucky I was to be there,” he said. “We had very good teams, very competitive teams, and if nothing else, I can spend the rest of my life telling stories about playing in the Fort.”
The story of his odyssey from AU to Boston College to Ohio State to Maryland and the rebuilding there is a familiar one. Now, with the championship won, with all the questions about winning The Big One behind him, Williams wonders what will come next.
“I still don’t think I’ve quite figured it out,” he said. “I mean, I’m still waiting for it to really hit me. I haven’t stopped moving, it seems like, since we won Monday, doing one thing or another. I haven’t been alone, had a chance to sort of take a deep breath and enjoy what we accomplished. It’s as if I still have work to do right now, and the time to really sit back and enjoy it will come later.”
Even so, Williams is starting to savor everything that is going on in his life at the moment. He sat up until the early hours of the morning Tuesday with Kristen — “surrounded by 4,000 of my best friends,” he said — reveling in the feeling of complete satisfaction that he hadn’t felt at the end of a season since 1971, when he won the New Jersey state championship at Wilson.
“You know when you have success in coaching, you’re going to be in tournament play at the end of a season,” he said. “That means, almost every year you coach, your last game is going to be a loss. At the end of the game Monday, I wasn’t quite sure what to do next because it had been so long since I won a game at the end of the season, and there was nothing else left to do. My instincts were telling me there must be another game to prepare for, something else I needed to work on even though what was going on around me was telling me different.
“Now though, I’m just looking at my desk and thinking, ‘How am I going to call all these people back?’ I don’t feel like I’m any different today than I was a couple days ago, but there’s no doubt that my life is different.”
Different can be good. Since the birth of his grandson 2 1/2 years ago, Williams has been determined to enjoy that presence in his life as often as possible. Looking back at his early coaching days,Williams often said he wished he could have another chance as a father to spend more time at home with Kristen.
“You don’t get do-overs,” he said. “But spending time with David has been a great thing for me, and I’m planning to chase him as long as my knees hold up.” He paused. “Did you watch him running around the court Monday night? He’s got some quicks.”
The instinct to think like a coach never leaves, at least not for long.Williams knows it won’t be long before he is bombarded by questions about next year and the future. He’s okay with that. But he wants very much to have the chance sometime soon to step back and appreciate what has just taken place.
“Tom Davis was a great basketball coach,” he said. “He was successful in the Big East, the Pac-10 and the Big 10. But he never made the Final Four. Some people will say that means he wasn’t a great coach. I don’t agree. There’s so much luck involved in the whole thing. If Juan doesn’t hit the shot against Connecticut and we lose, am I a failure as a coach? What if one of our key guys steps off a curb Sunday and sprains an ankle. You think about all those things and then, when it’s finally over and you’ve won, you understand what’s gone into it, that it’s a very hard thing to do.”
He paused again as if the notion of what he and his team had accomplished was sinking in a little bit more as he spoke. “I’d like to think we’ll have the chance to do this again,” he said. “But we may not, who knows? What I do know is, when the chance was there, right in front of us, we got the job done. I can feel good about that for a long time.”
A very long time. Forever.