SALLY JENKINS: Maryland, Coach Gary Williams Should Stay Together

By Sally Jenkins
Sunday, February 15, 2009

Gary Williams entered Comcast Center with that habitually forward-leaning walk, slightly hunched but aggressive, like he was fighting a strong headwind. Lining the court were the big donors, the ones with the expensive sideline seats and the heavy sugar in their pockets, and beyond them were the Maryland students, but you could hardly tell them apart, because they were all clad in the same thing: red shirts with big black lettering that said, "We {heart} Our Coach." Williams paused for a moment, as the vision of all those valentines registered. Then he turned to the stands and shot a fist in the air. The game hadn't even started, but maybe the real battle was won.

Williams is not going to be so easy to get rid of, judging by the support he enjoyed both in the stands and on the floor yesterday afternoon, as his Terrapins upset Virginia Tech, 83-73. Nor should he be.

You want to see a different coach at Maryland, maybe someone with a younger recruiting outlook and more upright posture, someone who isn't so clenched with tension and pulsating with various furies? Try and find one. You might find an easier person to get along with, sure. But you won't find a better coach, as Williams demonstrated, summoning his team's most complete performance of the season at a moment when he was under some of the worst duress of his career.

His team is a workmanlike, undersize unit that faces an uphill climb in the Atlantic Coast Conference and is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. He doesn't get along with his own athletic department bosses, with whom he quarreled openly last month. And this week he was subject to a three-part series in The Post examining why his program has struggled more since winning the 2002 national title than any champion in the past 18 years. Williams's critics charged that he either can't or won't recruit the talent he needs to be more competitive.

So what did Williams do? He coached his team up, that's what. He set that already off-kilter jaw, decided he was furious at the insulting suggestion that his current players aren't good enough and persuaded them to answer with their most convincing win.

"There was a lot of emotion in the locker room before the game," Williams noted.

Virginia Tech came in with a 6-3 conference mark and some real credibility, having knocked off Wake Forest, then ranked No. 1, on the Demon Deacons' home floor. The Terps were just fighting to be a .500 team in ACC play. But they never trailed.

"I just really like coaching these guys," Williams said pointedly afterward.

The Terrapins were everything a well-coached team should be. All five players on the floor rebounded the ball tirelessly, and they fought the bigger Hokies to a statistical draw, with 31 apiece. They defended the Hokies' top three scorers -- Malcolm Delaney, A.D. Vassallo, and Jeff Allen, who came into the game averaging a combined 52 points -- holding them to 44. Offensively they attacked the rim and got to the foul line, where they made 24 of 26, including 20 in a row. All across the court, the Terps repeatedly made what Williams called "effort plays."

They held off a late charge by the Hokies, despite the fact that Greivis Vasquez was on the bench in foul trouble. The defining play of the game was Landon Milbourne's flying left-handed slam with 5 minutes 19 seconds to go, which came just as the Hokies were threatening to find their range from the three-point arc. Instead Milbourne gave the Terps a 64-54 lead.

Among those applauding the performance from a courtside seat was Baltimore Ravens Coach John Harbaugh, wearing one of those shirts made and distributed free by donors. Harbaugh came to the game as a show of support for a fellow coach, sympathizing with the fact that Williams was "under fire a little bit," he said.

"I just saw the shirt and I wanted to put it on to make a statement," Harbaugh said. "When you got a great coach who does things the right way, and that's what Gary does, you'd expect Maryland to be very happy with that."

How long one upset victory will relieve the pressure on Williams is uncertain. The Terps are looking at a schedule that will make 20 wins all but inconceivable. As Williams left Comcast Center, he looked as bowed as ever. He was going home to stare at tape to get ready for a road game against Clemson, followed by a looming two-game homestand with Carolina and Duke. The task is arduous. But as The Washington Post's Tony Kornheiser, an old friend of Williams's said, "Three more stories next week, and maybe they'll beat Carolina."

Twenty years ago, Williams took over a program that was in the gutter, and served out somebody else's NCAA probation sentence. He worked, recruited and taught his heart out, until he got the program right-side up again, and then he brought the school its first NCAA championship in a long history. He has taught all players equally, from the unheralded local product to the superstar recruit, and he seems to have done things largely the right way.

A few years ago, Williams told ESPN, "Satisfaction in your job to me isn't just getting some list and saying, 'Okay, that guy is rated top in the country. Okay, we have to recruit him to be a good coaching staff.' . . . Why not be a coach instead of a used car salesman?"

What does Maryland owe him for that? It owes him a few years of grace. It owes him time and patience, on the back end of his career, to build another contender.

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