By Mike Wise
Monday, March 16, 2009
When Gary Williams's worth and future were questioned at Maryland this season, Todd Bozeman could not get his head around the criticism.
"I thought it was unjust and unfair, you know, treating a coach who is going to be in the Hall of Fame like he'd never won a national championship or anything," the Morgan State coach said. "I mean, come on, that's Gary Williams we're talkin' about."
In turn, after Bozeman led the Bears to their first appearance in the NCAA tournament on Saturday night -- really, after Jason Kidd's exiled Cal coach personally returned to the tourney after a 13-year hiatus -- Williams paid respect to the man who resurrected the 4-26 program he inherited in 2006.
"I think Todd has looked at his situation and has done the best possible job that he can do there, in terms of what he's created at Morgan State," Williams said yesterday, moments after Maryland earned a No. 10 seed in the West Region. "Like when I went into American U., we didn't have a gym. But that didn't mean we couldn't be a good basketball team.
"I don't think everybody realizes that every job is different. Every job has certain advantages. Some schools have great advantages. Some schools don't have those same advantages. So you have to figure out a way to do it, and I think Todd's done a great job of figuring out a way to do it at Morgan State."
At some point this week in Kansas City, Mo., where their respective teams were sent for the tournament's first round, Williams and Bozeman will run into each other in a hotel lobby or at the arena and most likely share a word of encouragement.
On the surface, there is not a lot of obvious commonality.
Williams is 64, white and a self-described lifer, who in the two decades he has coached in College Park can boast of never having his program tarnished by the same kind of NCAA violations that brought down Bob Wade before him. Embattled for much of this season, he has endured some of the most intense scrutiny the past two months. Anti-Gary sentiment ran amok this year until he got his kids to somehow reach another plateau -- to reel off impressive wins, to implausibly knock off North Carolina and Wake Forest -- and complete perhaps the best coaching job of his career.
Bozeman is 45 and black and was once a new-school prince in the profession, leading Kidd and the Golden Bears to a historic upset of Bobby Hurley and Duke in the second round of the 1993 tournament. But his inability to slow down and play the game right led to the NCAA sanctioning him for eight years. For paying a Cal recruit's parents $30,000 in the mid-1990s, Bozeman was essentially sent to coaching purgatory. Any school wanting to hire him had to appeal to the NCAA infractions committee, to "show cause or reason" why he should be hired. The moment that penalty was handed down, most people in the game felt Todd Bozeman was done.
"Back then, not a lot of people could see this day," Bozeman said, less than an hour before Morgan State was awarded the No. 15 seed in the South Region. "I could count on one hand the people who believed I could get back to the tournament."
Forty miles south, in College Park, Williams was asked about the redemptive qualities of the tournament. The pugnacious part of Gary, the part that comes out when he doesn't agree with the line of questioning, shot back, "What we've done this decade probably has been matched by only a few teams, so there's nothing about redemption here at Maryland."
Mammoth state university, national title banner. Small, historically African American school, a newbie in the tournament. On the surface, the commonality is indeed hard to find.
But beneath the things used to compartmentalize and polarize the two men and their programs, Williams and Bozeman have an undeniable connection as they head to Kansas City this week: For different reasons, they're survivors, still plying their trade, using the game and the kids they coach to fight and ultimately win their battles for them.
It was, coincidentally, Bozeman's Morgan State team that rocked Maryland's world at Comcast Center on Jan. 7 -- a game that became a signature victory for the Bears under Bozeman and a troublesome loss for Williams's seemingly out-of-it Terrapins.
Morgan State went on to more wins, until their coach wept openly after the Bears beat Norfolk State in the MEAC tournament championship game Saturday night in Winston-Salem, N.C., for the automatic bid. On the six-hour ride home to North Baltimore, Bozeman reflected on the 10 years when no one would hire him, on the 13 years the tournament went on without him.
His brother surprised him after the game, telling Bozeman, "Man, Pop's proud of you." Ira Bozeman died of lung cancer four years ago January, months before his son got back in the game.
Crazy, no? Next to the words "Key Losses" in Maryland's NCAA tournament portfolio the past two months has been Morgan State, as if losing to one of the privileged 65 teams to have their name called on Selection Sunday is somehow a crime.
"My guys had to see that all year," Bozeman said. "It's a process, like a diamond. It starts out as a piece of carbon, you compress it, grind it and polish it and it becomes something. Sometimes you got to get smacked in the face before you realize what you've got."
The same thing can be said about coaches who refuse to give up their livelihood, either because the game and the kids won't let them or they can still hear the sweet sound of the tournament calling the name of their school.