Maryland’s Gary Williams leaves coaching having done it his way

Correction: An earlier version of this column misspelled the name of former Maryland player Tom McMillen. This version has been corrected.

Mike Wise
Columnist May 5, 2011

No one said “great for Gary” yesterday. No one began a tribute to Gary Williams on the eve of his retirement as Maryland’s men’s basketball coach with, “It’s about time the man got some peace and serenity. Good for him.”

All anyone said was, “Sad day for Maryland.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“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.

Enter a former Terp point guard from the 1960s, who started more because of his tenacity than talent, who got his players to buy into his own lifelong mantra: They think they’re better than you.

The longevity and the numbers will soon be part of Gary’s enshrinement in Springfield, but the best stat of all: Since McDonald’s started a high school all-American team, just one coach has won a college national championship without one on his roster.

It was Gary, who would rather go down swinging with the heart of Juan Dixon for four years than cater to Carmelo Anthony’s needs for six months.

One of the paradoxes of the criticism surrounding his inability to recruit the blue-chip stars of today is that the players of that ilk Gary actually did sign — Danny Miller, Travis Garrison and Mike Jones among them — never delivered on real promise at Maryland.

Just last weekend, former local prep star Wally Judge, a member of the prestigious AAU program DC Assault who played two years at Kansas State, visited College Park.

At some point, while making his pitch, Gary might have thought, “Kids should be clamoring to come here; I shouldn’t be having to beg for him to sign with Maryland.”

The benefit of that logic was, no team in college basketball ever embodied their coach more: even the skilled players were scrappers, fighters, who played so hard because they looked over and saw their coach in a soaked suit, sweating as much as them.

For everyone who ever conformed to their boss or profession — whose professional ethics superseded real-life ethics to save their job — Gary was that iconoclast to live through vicariously. Unsparing and uncompromising, he was not going to change and become someone else. Authentic to the end, he leaves his profession, for better or worse, having done it his way.

Even now, at a prideful and combative 66, Gary doesn’t live as much as he ticks.

“Am I a little crazy sometimes? Probably,” he told me in his office in 2007. “But who isn’t? I’ll tell you this: I wish as many people loved this game the way I loved this game, that’s what I wish.”

It’s not possible.

When Williams pumped his fist on a February or March night in College Park and Duke or North Carolina was about to go down — and the students holding newspapers in the stands would go into a frenzy as their coach acknowledged them — there was no better place to be in college basketball.

Hell, there was no place better to be in sports.

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