He did. By the time Williams stunned his profession and Maryland by retiring a year ago, his teams had knocked off more No. 1-ranked teams — seven — than any active big-college coach.
The monster he created came back to bite him several times in recent years. Once he showed Maryland could compete with Duke and North Carolina, his critics wanted to know why an NCAA tournament berth wasn’t an annual occurrence. Why were so many talented high school players leaving the District, Maryland and Virginia for other colleges, they asked.
His supporters pointed to nary a single NCAA violation in 22 years, to a greasy AAU culture that he was too proud to embrace.
I always thought it was simpler than that. Whether it was Dixon or Greivis Vasquez or some other talented but overlooked soul with an abundance of heart, Williams really only wanted to recruit one type of player: Gary Williams, the hard-luck kid who couldn’t catch a break, whose father and mother never saw him play or coach at Maryland, who found solace and another family the only way a survivor like him knew how:
Through the game, and the teams he coached to play it with such passion.
What his detractors don’t know is that he needed them; he needed them not to believe. It fueled him. Early on in College Park, they became part of his drive.
“You got to a point, those first couple years at Maryland, where you almost wanted to get it done to prove to people they were wrong,” Williams said. “I wanted to change the campus attitude, wanted to show them that basketball could be a good thing for our image.”
His daughter Kristin and his three grandchildren will be in attendance Wednesday night, including the grandson who was a mere 2 when Williams held the child in his arms 10 years ago and wept after cutting down the nets.
He’s let go of any hurt he felt as a kid, realizing his father — a World War II veteran, a submarine chaser in the Philippines — was “a product of the times,” that his mother was “dealing with her issues, just like other people are dealing with theirs.” He’s done some forgiving because he knows people have forgiven him for not being a perfect husband or a perfect father.
Williams is no longer the defiant man who would stride onto the court with the gait of an aging gunfighter, pumping his fist toward the student section, crouching near the bench as he perspired through his sopping-wet dress shirt.
He’s gone. Having slain every real or imagined Goliath in his path, Williams is at peace now — five decades after the majesty of Cole Field House lured him to College Park.
“I was thinking the other day, I started playing basketball when I was 8 years old — that’s 58 years with this game,” he said. “It’s been my go-to thing, the one thing I could focus on and control. No matter how bad things always got, I always dived right back into my team. That’s the one place I always knew I was safe.”
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise