By Mike Wise
Saturday, March 21, 2009
KANSAS CITY, Mo .
Sixteen teams won first-round games Thursday, so 16 sets of fans and boosters should have been feeling pretty happy and content, right?
But here's a loud, proud request from a Gary Williams booster Thursday, in front of easily 100 courtside fans after the Terrapins' win over Cal: "I got your column tomorrow."
"Fire Debbie Yow."
Williams has somehow siphoned every last drop of passion from this once-woebegone team and has the Terps tucking a stone into their slingshot for Saturday's game against Memphis, a Final Four favorite. Yet some of the Terps' biggest fans just can't let go of their venom toward the athletic director who they religiously believe wanted their coach out.
It's the elephant in the room as Gary and his point guard proxy, Greivis Vasquez, get ready to do battle with John Calipari's Memphis Tigers.
The focus should be on Saturday's study in coaching contrasts: Calipari, the maligned game coach who annually assembles an NBA-like roster, against Williams, one of basketball's great game coaches who enters with, well, Vasquez and a bunch of kids borrowed from the NAIA tournament across town. Instead, some vindictive souls don't want to merely celebrate Maryland's incredible run to the tournament; they want to humiliate.
You're either anti-Debbie or anti-Gary in this passion play. Pick one, for goodness sake, because you can't be both.
And to you people, scarred for whatever reason, I say: Enough already.
This has been going on for 15 years. Williams and Yow are like a separated couple living on different floors of the same house, yet co-owning a winning lottery ticket. Whatever happens Saturday or next year, neither Gary Williams nor Debbie Yow is going anywhere soon.
They're here. They both live in fear. Get used to it.
You can focus on petty grievances over the years, many of which have somehow morphed into festering sores.
If you're one of Gary's guys, for example, you can be consumed with animus about Debbie waiting a full day or more to congratulate her coach about getting into the tournament against all odds. You can wonder why she was front and center with Brenda Frese the moment the Maryland women's team received its NCAA bid and nowhere to be found when the Terps men somehow were chosen as the 10th seed in the West Region.
And if you're one of Debbie's people, you can walk on eggshells the rest of your career, consumed by the fact that no one invited you into the men's lounge and you probably weren't welcome anyway, worried about what's going to offend Gary, what's going to make it seem like you're a bandwagon jumper and how many millions you might actually lose from people who proclaim to be genuine Maryland boosters but really have Gary's back and no one else's.
But while both sides are at it, they're missing a wonderful tale, the one about a basketball team brought back from the dead (or, worse, the NIT) by a brawler of a coach and his assistants who got a band of unheralded players to galvanize over a perilous two-month stretch when they just as easily could have fractured.
The Terrapins essentially created their own NCAA tournament the moment they were crushed by 41 points at Duke on Jan. 24.
Another elephant in the room: This newspaper's three-part series about what has happened to the program since the 2002 national title has had a role in this season's drama. To date, not one fact in any of those articles has been disputed. But on message boards and sometimes in person, the smart reporters who wrote those stories have been accused of being out to get the head coach -- because in the Maryland athletic community, you must be on one side or the other.
It's entirely possible, somewhere in a place no one wants to go, that the anti-Gary sentiment at one point had grown so strong that Yow began to consider making the walk to President C.D. Mote's office the way she once did when former football coach Ron Vanderlinden couldn't get the Terps to the postseason.
But before that's written in stone, know this: Debbie Yow's job would get harder, not easier, if she ever fired Gary Williams. If the ending ever was bad and bloody, the coach she hires better sign the next LeBron James to a letter-of-intent, go to the Final Four within two years or both. Because nothing less will do after what Gary has done here in 20 years.
No, the best ending for Debbie Yow is shockingly enough the best ending for Gary Williams: For the coach to leave when he wants, preferably after rebuilding Maryland into a top 25 program, and celebrated as the beloved, fiery icon he has been all these years.
Before the Cal game, Yow uncharacteristically walked up to the bench, where Williams stood by himself three minutes before the starters were announced. She tapped him on the shoulder.
"Good luck today," she said. "I think we can do this."
"Thanks," he said, acknowledging her but also turning away, perhaps surprised by the gesture.
"He's done an amazing job coaching this year, especially after the Duke loss," Yow said Friday, of course wishing I called about another topic. "That was the low point, as far I'm concerned. And our recruiting is going so well. And he seems fired up and ready to go for several more years, which is good for Maryland."
She added: "The key to longevity is having the same ultimate goals, which Gary and I have. That's why he's here and that's why I'm here."
Asked to respond, Williams understandably said he's focused on his team and wanted to talk only about a second-round tournament game no one outside his own locker room believed possible.
However it transpired, whatever ugliness had to happen to get them here, these Terrapins are one astonishing upset from the round of 16, the first time they would have advanced that far since 2003.
For those taking sides, Saturday might be a good time to line up together, for Maryland and against Memphis.
Because turning what should be a joyful run into fuel to stoke lingering resentments is the same as drinking a cup of poison and waiting for the other person to get sick.