Through all the turmoil at Maryland, Gary Williams has outlasted them all

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 12:05 AM

There was a press conference in College Park last week in which no one was hired or fired. In front of reporters, microphones and cameras, a coach calmly talked about his sport and a game his team convincingly won.

No job-security questions. No tears. No university officials awkwardly explaining anything. No drama.

Just Gary.

"I like how we came out and played," Gary Williams said after his team pounded Colgate for win No. 659. "We got after it."

The Maryland men's basketball coach takes a big kid named Jordan Williams and yet another bunch of unranked scrappers into Cameron Indoor Arena on Sunday, another how-in-the-hell-can-he-beat-Duke team.

Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils are No. 1 and fresh off a national title. They haven't lost since last March in College Park, to another Terrapins team they were favored to beat. Which is why Coach K is fond of saying, "If it's a Gary Williams-coached team, all bets are off; they'll be ready."

It took a while, but normalcy is slowly returning to Maryland. On Sunday, there will be no stench over Ralph Friedgen's firing or the fact that the university and athletic department have undergone a dramatic upheaval the past year.

Ralph is out. Debbie Yow, the former athletic director, left for North Carolina State. C.D. Mote Jr., the school president during Williams's highest and lowest moments over the past decade, is gone, too.

Even the football coach-in-waiting and well-regarded recruiter, James Franklin, up and left College Park for Vanderbilt because he could see the tide turning.

All the people who could either upstage or fire Gary Williams, a lock for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, have either been run off or left before the kitchen got too hot.

But they didn't get Gary. They never get Gary.

"He's survived everything," says Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the former Maryland governor and one of Williams's confidantes. "In politics, sports and life, I've never met anyone like him. I've never seen anything like Gary and his bunker."

It's almost absurd now to think Gary Williams's job was in jeopardy almost two years ago, before he miraculously found a way to get Greivis Vasquez and a collection of role players back to the NCAA tournament amid public clashes with his school's administrators.

"You don't lose faith in friends," said Steve Bisciotti, the Baltimore Ravens' majority owner and another of Williams's confidantes, who refused to buy into the notion that Gary's grasp on the program was fading. "Because of that friendship, I don't know if I can be objective as a Maryland grad could.

"I do know there are about 20 coaches who have tried to position their programs with Duke and North Carolina and none of them over the years has been able to sniff third in the ACC, to be that third team that's in the hunt. Gary Williams has. Regardless of the numbers, that's an accomplishment."

Beyond the national title in 2002 and back-to-back Final Four appearances, it's impossible to ignore the numbers.

The Terps are a somewhat respectable 157-7 in nonconference regular season home games under Williams. That's seven losses to non-ACC schools in College Park in 22 seasons.

He has won 20 or more games in 11 of the past 14 seasons and has taken Maryland to the NCAA tournament in 14 of the past 17 years.

All along, Williams has gladly played the outsider role to the hilt. He has somehow masterfully portrayed his big-time program as the working-class family barely getting by, refusing food stamps as they gaze longingly at the apple-cheeked, smiling children in the bay windows of their Tobacco Road mansions.

The underdog ethos is not merely a part of Garyland; that psychological bunker is everything.

Because if you believe known and unknown forces of the universe are conspiring against you - that you're not paranoid thinking that, you're just perceptive - then your kids will believe that. And then your friends and most ardent boosters will believe that.

That bunker becomes so fortified, so fervent, so frothing with emotion, that even the most talented, well-funded opponents are in for trouble on any February night in College Park.

And Goliath goes down.

No other current coach has more victories over a No. 1 team than Gary Williams's seven. Four of the last seven times Maryland has faced a No. 1 team, the Terrapins pulled off the upset; Duke went down twice.

North Carolina (though not ranked No. 1 at the time) also tumbled hard in 2009, a victory Williams absolutely needed to make the tournament and quell the insanity at home.

"There was a Miami game, a home game that year - that's the most tense it's been in a long time," Ehrlich recalled. "I thought it was important to be there for him that night. Gary was really emotional. There was the record. There were all the things going on at Maryland. Then The Post did a series of articles on the program. To this day, I didn't think he came off bad at all in them; he came across as a guy who wouldn't cheat. Either way, all of it was coming down on him."

What everyone jumping ship forgot was Gary still had his kids. He always had the kids. And they played for him and won.

"I don't exactly know why, looking back, but a furor was caused," Williams acknowledged as he stood outside his locker room on Tuesday night.

Not speaking about his own situation specifically, he added, "Some of it, I think, was the changing landscape in college basketball.

"It's pretty inexpensive, relatively, to get a program going. Some of the smaller schools would get kids to stay four or five years. By the time those kids were seniors, they start to beat the young kids at big schools. Butler is a good example. And the people in charge at those big schools are saying, 'Why the hell didn't you beat that team?' Well, see, it's a little more complicated than that."

Asked if feels cheated he didn't get to enjoy his 600th career victory the previous year, Williams said: "That's right, I didn't enjoy it. But, hey, I believe in what I did and what I was doing. Bottom line, I still take pride in coaching."

After doctors corrected a ruptured disk in his neck before the start of last season, Williams, who turns 66 in March, said he has not had any health problems and wants to continue coaching.

Told his detractors have all but disappeared, he managed a half smile through his thinly pursed lips.

"Let's keep it that way, okay."

Ehrlich said most outsiders still don't genuinely know Maryland's coach.

"You see the gyrations and the screaming, but you don't see him working with the kids he coaches, or taking my 8-year-old around Comcast, showing him drills," he said. "When I think of Gary, I think of two things: loyalty and teacher. And survivor, because he did survive everything."

He outlasted them all. Every one. Enemies real, perceived or concocted by a man who needs someone not to believe in him so he can bring out the best in himself and his players.

But now it's time to crawl out of that bunker and savor what's left of a Hall of Fame career.

They're all gone, Gary. It's over.

You won.

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