The best man for the job

The most luckless, star-crossed college basketball team of the 1980s solved its problems for the rest of the century yesterday. Maryland hired Gary Williams to replace Bob Wade. Cole Field House is no longer a Haunted House.

We don’t often see the perfect man get the perfect job. But it happened this time. The intense, slim, graying-but- boyish Williams — a success story as coach at American University, Boston College and Ohio State — came home to his alma mater at age 44 to help straighten out the program that gave a college scholarship to a skinny, little guard who scored 3.1 points a game.

Sometimes, payback really is sweet.

“This is a happy day at Maryland. We have just hired the best men’s coach anywhere in the country,” said Athletic Director Lew Perkins, getting a little carried away.

The misfortune that has dogged the Maryland team for a half-dozen years should finally be at an end. We’re not talking about a Final Four trip every year. We’re just talking about an honorable, quality basketball program that Maryland can be proud, rather than ashamed, of.

Nobody deserves it more. Maryland has had it all, that’s for sure. Disappointing won-lost records — considering the talent on hand. Len Bias’s death from cocaine. Academic embarrassments. Flunkouts and transfers. An ongoing NCAA investigation of recruiting violations. And the forced resignations of two controversial coaches.

Everything about Williams fits the bill. That’s not to say he’s Dean Smith, John Thompson or Bob Knight. Simply that he is an ideal man for Maryland at this moment.

He’s an alum. That’s important at a time when Maryland feels beleaguered and hopes that its sons and daughters will not forget their school. “It’s great to be here, great to see some old friends and make some new ones. This certainly is a big day,” said Williams, pulling off his gray business suit jacket, loosening his tie and pulling on a Maryland jersey.

“I never thought I’d have the chance to coach at Maryland. But that hope was always back there somewhere, because of the way I felt about the university.”

To millions of State U. graduates, those words must resonate. Maryland is red brick and simple green quads — a generic gigantic school. It’s surrounded by the fast-food, gas-and-go bustle of Route 1. Nothing special, you might say. Except to Williams, because it’s his.

Williams also played at Maryland. However, he left before controversial Charles G. Driesell arrived. No baggage there. “I was an extremely high scorer,” he says.

From his years at American, he knows the rich Washington high school scene. “We’ll be a factor in recruiting in this area,” Williamsvowed.

More importantly Williams has already proved he can win in the two toughest conferences in the country (outside the ACC) — the Big East, where he was 76-45, and the Big Ten, where he was 59-41. If he fails at Maryland, no one can say, as many did of Wade, that he just can’t coach at this level. Williams has proven he can. Now Maryland must prove it will support its new coach enough to let him succeed again.

Williams’s prestige, and the $400,000 salary-plus-perks that go with it, is such that no bitter feelings will accompany his hiring. He was the top star interviewing for the job. True, it would have been nice if Morgan Wootten, from De Matha High, could have had this job 10 years ago. But that’s history.

As added spice, Williams’s teams love to press and fast break, turning up the pace of games to nervous-wreck speed. In partWilliams says he stole some ideas from watching Thompson’s teams.

If Maryland can’t have a winning team with Williams within a couple of years, then there’s a jinx at work and the school might as well turn Cole Field House into a handball court.

“There’s no reason we can’t be competitive with anyone in the country,” said Williams, setting the same high standards that Maryland always imposes on itself where basketball is concerned. “We’re in a great location in that corridor of talent from Washington to New York. We play in the ACC against great schools. We’re on TV a lot. Put that together with the academics I’ve always stressed. It’s a good package.”

To hear Williams’s enthusiasm, you could almost forget Maryland’s suffering for the past four years. “I think we can be a great program. The potential for that is there . . . I look at the future and see the kind of things Maryland deserves,” gushed Williams. “I don’t anticipate going to another job. It’s about time I established some roots.”

Part of the charm of Williams’s arrival is that this is not a man returning to coach UCLA or Kentucky. This is just a three-points-a-game guard coming back home to Maryland, a school that’s never won an NCAA title or been to the Final Four. This is no dynasty. Just a nice alma mater with untapped promise.

That’s the way all romantic revivals start. With memories of an idealized past which, often, never really existed. Williams got basketball in his blood back in the ‘70s when he was beginning his coaching career and, at Maryland, Len Elmore, Tom McMillen and John Lucas stood for much that was best in college basketball. That was early Lefty, the best Lefty. McMillen was a Rhodes Scholar, Elmore got a law degree from Harvard and, for a while, until his admitted involvement with cocaine, Lucas looked like he might go further than any of them.

Many don’t remember that Maryland. Then, Terrapins basketball did not stand for Len Bias’s death or Driesell’s howling exodus or Wade’s bitter departure.

But Gary Williams remembers.

“I will remind them,” he says of that rich past. “But we must look ahead too . . . Right now I could say a lot of things. But I won’t. I have to do them.”

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist.
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