“Real sad day,” said Walt Williams, who starred on Gary’s first team in College Park. “I looked at him on the sideline this year, up close. He displayed the same kind of intensity he displayed when I played for him 20 years ago.”
Dick Vitale, already emotional from having delivered a eulogy at a funeral, started crying over the phone late Thursday afternoon when he heard Gary was retiring.
“I got to call him,” Dickie V. said. “I got to call him. The guy poured his heart out. I’m totally stunned. He has incredible passion for the game. He left everything on the floor. He coached every possession like it was his last.”
“Yep, sad day,” said Chris Knoche, who has called Maryland games on the radio for 11 years. Knoche and Gary go way back, to when Knoche played for him at American. “People have no idea how hard that job is, how one man turned Maryland into one of the top 10 or 15 jobs in the country largely by the force of his personality.
“Imagine him without basketball.”
That’s the hard part; no one can. It’s said you never get over your first crush. Basketball is Gary’s.
Even as the recruiting wars became filthier and boosters more courageous behind the message-board pseudonyms, Gary was never happier than when he was in a gymnasium where he could teach his kids.
He is still infatuated in many ways — talking often this season about coaching beyond his current contract, which was set to expire in 2013. That makes his announcement that much more surprising.
As a confidant of the coach said Thursday, insisting on anonymity so he could speak freely about the fluid situation, “Now that he’s retiring basically to a role of fundraiser, there’s a great unknown where you go with this.”
The great unknown — what Gary will now be for his alma mater, who the next Maryland coach will be — is grist for another day. Today is not for eyeing what’s next; today is for looking back to 1989, to see how far Maryland has come under the most important coach in school history.
When I asked Gary a year ago whether Greivis Vasquez and the grit and resilience of his 2008-09 team helped saved his job by improbably getting to the NCAA tournament after being all but counted out in early February, he laughed and said, “The guy who first saved my job was Walt Williams. He didn’t have to stay at Maryland after everything that happened before I got there. But he did. And I’ll never be able to thank him enough.”
Recounted often is how Gary Williams took his alma mater, reeling from tragedy and NCAA probation, to the national title in 2002. What people forget is, he left a very good job at Ohio State to do it, gambling on his future in what many perceived as not a lateral move but an actual step down the coaching ladder.
Lefty Driesell’s storied program of John Lucas, Buck Williams, Tom McMillen, Len Elmore and Adrian Branch was reduced to rubble after Len Bias, one of the greatest players in the history of college basketball, died in a cocaine overdose on campus less than two days after he was drafted into the NBA. Maryland was floundering after Lefty resigned, and Bob Wade tried to cheat his way back.