With Hall of Fame in sight, Gary Williams looks back on a standout coaching career

On the afternoon he was elected to the National College Basketball Hall of Fame, a snowy day in late March, Gary Williams arrived for lunch to find his cellphone full of congratulatory messages. Former players. Old coaches. Current colleagues. Everyone wanted to reach out.

“It’s blowing up,” Williams said. “A good thing, I suppose.”

Almost three years have passed since Williams retired from coaching, worn by the rigors of college basketball. He misses practice, the daily thrill of teaching players. He doesn’t miss the long buildup to games, the nervous second-guessing that goes along with planning. He is still missed at Comcast Center, where the court was dedicated in his name, the same name chanted whenever he makes a rare appearance and pumps his fist for old time’s sake.

Gar-ee. Gar-ee. Gar-ee.

On Monday in Dallas, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will announce its class of 2014, and Williams is expected to be among the names called, according to a person familiar with the situation. The honor, combined with the National College Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in November, would wrap a bow around his coaching career, one that lasted 44 years, spanned five colleges and included 17 NCAA tournament bids and one national title in 2002.

The men's NCAA tournament is down to the Final Four. From a freshmen-starting-five to a first-time Final Four coach, here's a rundown of the madness so far. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

In retirement, Williams reads more books, on topics other than basketball. He travels more to Columbus, Ohio, to see his daughter and three grandchildren, a 14-year-old musician and twins, age 10. Several times each week, when the weather is nice, he golfs and enjoys the pace of hitting alone.

But Williams has also kept himself immersed in basketball, his true love since grade school. Apart from his duties as an ambassador for the Maryland athletic department, he has not thought about becoming an administrator, yet wouldn’t rule out a return to the sideline. “I’ll never say never,” he said.

He appears regularly on Comcast SportsNet and ESPN 980. He watched the NCAA tournament from his couch and found himself scrutinizing certain plays, thinking about what he would do in certain situations, if he were still yelling himself hoarse on the sideline.

“He’s not going to lose touch with that,” said Billy Hahn, Williams’s assistant for 12 years who’s now on Bob Huggins’s coaching staff at West Virginia. “That’s part of him.”

Williams is part of Maryland, too, woven into the memories of fans who lived through the team’s glory days. Inside the restaurant, a quaint suburban Maryland spot frequented by Williams, an older man leaned across the aisle and interrupted the interview.

“Is that you?” he asked. “From the University of Maryland?”

Williams turned. He nodded. Fans have begun approaching him more often, he’s noticed, more willing to chitchat a retired coach than an active one.

“Good to see you,” the man said.

“Good to be here,” Williams replied.

‘The right direction’

Among the well-wishers blowing up Williams’s phone was Derek Brown, the former starting point guard at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, N.J. They met in the late 1960s. Williams was fresh out of college, a former team captain at Maryland who turned to coaching after graduation. Camden was rough, but Williams relished teaching his players, first guiding the JV team and then the varsity. In 1970, the Mighty Tigers, led by Brown, went 27-0 and won the state title.

“You guys got it all started,” Williams would later tell Brown, who followed his mentor’s path and now coaches women’s basketball at Coppin State.

In the time that followed, Williams climbed the ladder, working under Tom Davis as an assistant at Lafayette and Boston College before earning his first head coaching job at American in 1978. From there, he went back to Boston College, spent three seasons at Ohio State and then, on June 13, 1989, returned to his alma mater, where he inherited a program that was still reeling from the death of Len Bias in 1986 and the NCAA violations committed by coach Bob Wade in the late 1980s.

In the words of a 1995 Washington Post article, Maryland basketball was “on the brink of death.”

Rebuilding a program that was decimated by NCAA sanctions — Maryland faced a two-year NCAA tournament ban and a one-year television ban upon his arrival — was hard enough, but Williams still says his toughest coaching challenge happened years before. When he accepted a coaching job at Lafayette in 1972, it came with a catch: The college couldn’t afford to pay a full-time basketball assistant and a head soccer coach. Williams needed to do both.

At first, he turned it down, terrified of coaching a sport he knew little about. The school offered again. He declined again. Then Davis called and told Williams he would be stupid to pass up the chance, so Williams relented. He was 25 years old, educated in soccer only through books and conversations with other coaches. On the day of the first practice, Williams approached the group of players. “Look, I don’t know much about soccer,” he told them. “But I think I can coach.”

The team ultimately had a winning season, one of many Williams would enjoy throughout his career, regardless of the sport. Today, he judges himself not on victories and defeats but on whether his career followed the proper path.

“I started as a JV coach and ended up nominated for the Naismith Hall of Fame,” he said. “I’d say that’s the right direction.”

‘He was a genius’

Long ago, Williams learned not to judge others, because it bothered him when outsiders questioned his coaching decisions. For this reason he has, in retirement, tried to stay away from the program he helped build, even if many fans still pine for his presence. On March 9, at the final ACC home game in Maryland history, Williams sat courtside and received a standing ovation. That felt nice, he said, but he hates sitting two rows behind the Terps’ bench on game days, casting a shadow over his successor, Mark Turgeon. When friends ask him to talk about Maryland’s current team, he rarely answers or otherwise responds in generalities.

“That’s not my job,” he said.

The job he did hold was done better than most, particularly given the grim situation that greeted him in 1989. He retired with 668 wins, 461 of them at Maryland. He reached 11 consecutive NCAA tournaments, after the Terps had made nine prior to his arrival. In 2001, he reached the Final Four. The following season, Maryland won the national title.

A resume worthy of induction? His friends and peers believe so.

“Absolutely,” said Dave Dickerson, a former assistant who’s now at Ohio State.

“The record speaks for itself,” said Mike Lonergan, another former assistant who’s now the head coach at George Washington.

“I hope that he gets that honor, because it’s deserved,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I just hope he gets it.”

“Now that you’re away from it and reflect back on everything,” Hahn said, “he was a genius.”

Williams thinks about the vote, but it doesn’t burden him. He seems happy in this role, balancing basketball with personal time, free from the stresses of coaching. He compares the Hall of Fame to a basketball game. Either you win or you don’t. Simple as that. But to just be nominated, to be considered worthy of induction out of all the basketball stars across the globe? Now that makes Williams wonder: “Wow. Where’d that come from?”

After lunch, en route to a radio interview, he stepped outside into a light snowfall. Now 69 years old, on the cusp of perhaps the greatest honor of his career, he opened an umbrella and crossed the street. Nearby, a group of businessmen wearing suits noticed him and started to trail. As Williams entered a parking garage, they peered around the corner and whispered, wondering whether that was really, truly him.

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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