Maryland Coach Gary Williams says ACC needs to work on its public relations

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 11:10 PM

Maryland Coach Gary Williams is the first to admit winning silences all skeptics. But at the moment, Williams differs with prevailing sentiment regarding the ACC, arguing the league is better than the national rankings suggest and getting stronger as the season unfolds.

Moreover, Williams faults the ACC itself - from top officials to its dozen head coaches - for the short shrift it's getting in the polls and from pundits, arguing everyone associated with the league needs to sell its product with the same savvy Madison Avenue sells toothpaste.

"Some leagues do a better job of accentuating the positives and aren't afraid to throw stuff out there," Williams said Saturday. "The ACC has won five of the last 10 national championships, so don't tell me that we're a weak league. I believe [ACC teams won the NCAA championship] the last two years, the last time I checked. I believe [Maryland] beat the [last two] national champions, the last time I checked. But everybody's afraid to say that around here, for some reason."

Asked if he felt the ACC's reticence to brag about itself could hurt the league when the field for the 68-team NCAA tournament is set in March, Williams said: "You never know. You hope whatever teams earn their way there, get in. I think [members of the NCAA selection committee] do a pretty good job about it - not listening to a lot of the things that are out there. But you never know. It's just like any other marketing. The world has changed."

Second only to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski in seniority among the ACC coaches, Williams has a long history of promoting the conference and its players. This season, he has particular reason to tout its competitive balance. Heading into Sunday's game at Georgia Tech (10-9, 3-3), Maryland (13-7, 3-3) is locked in a three-way tie for sixth in the ACC standings with the Yellow Jackets and Virginia Tech. Eight of the ACC's 12 teams are at .500 or better in conference play, and only one team - Wake Forest at 8-13 - has a losing overall record.

But the ACC, regarded for decades as the nation's preeminent college basketball power, is still seen as having fallen on hard times this season, with just two teams in the most recent Associated Press top 25: Duke (19-1) at No. 3, Florida State (15-6) at No. 22.

The Big East leads all conferences with seven top 25 teams. The Big Ten has six, the Big 12 has four, the SEC three. The Mountain West is tied with the ACC with two teams. And the Pacific-10 has one.

While national rankings don't determine which teams get NCAA tournament spots, they're part of the increasingly raucous public debate about college basketball. As such, the rankings help form perceptions about the relative strength of conferences and, in turn, how many member schools warrant NCAA tournament consideration.

College football coaches (Mack Brown of Texas, chief among them) aren't shy about lobbying for spots in the most prestigious bowl games. Nor are their media relations staffs when it comes to promoting Heisman Trophy candidates.

But when it comes to swaying public opinion about college basketball, the ACC - at least in Williams's view - has let rival leagues seize the national microphone.

"The Big East holds their [preseason] meeting in New York City every year, and the first thing you hear [is that] they should have nine teams in the NCAA tournament," Williams said. "They just say that, and you haven't played a game yet."

The solution, he argues, is for the ACC to become more proactive in touting its best teams and players. Everyone else in this media-saturated era is doing just that - from college basketball bloggers to Tweeters to sports-talk radio callers.

Williams said he would put the ACC's top three teams - by his count, that's Duke, North Carolina and Florida State - up against the top three teams of just about any conference in the country. So why not, Williams suggested, simply proclaim the ACC is the best league in the country at every opportunity.

"What does it cost you to say that?" Williams said. "Nothing. Somebody can say you're nuts, but other than that? I'm not embarrassed. Just say it. . . .

"What happened when the ACC was so dominant, the other leagues just kind of gathered together and went after it. So you have to say what's good about your league. I think we have some really good teams right now."

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