"With a field house, AU's a very good job. You could compete in recruiting for anyone in the East because of where the campus is. It's an exciting place to go to school and to coach." --Gary Williams, a few hours after he resigned
Again, the American University basketball program is at a crossroads. For the third time in 13 years, a bright, young, personable head coach hired by Athletic Director Bob Frailey has resigned to take a better job.
"I'm sure that when Tom Young (who then took Rutgers to the final four) left, there were people who said they couldn't replace him," Gary Williams said, a few hours after being hired by Boston College.
"I'm sure that when Jim Lynam (who then guided St. Joseph's to a victory over a No. 1-ranked De Paul team in the NCAA tournament) left, they said he couldn't be replaced. Now that I'm leaving, I'm sure there'll be some people who say the same thing. But there's always a guy out there who can do the job."
"At least," said Frailey, a man with a keen sense of humor, "they leave of their own volition."
Williams leaves behind a team that had no seniors and reached levels unattained since American joined Division I two decades ago: two consecutive 20-victory seasons and postseason tournament bids.
And he leaves one of only two schools (Long Island University is the other) among 80 in this season's NCAA and National Invitation tournaments that does not play on campus or in a major arena. Ironically, both Frailey and Williams agree, the AU team is more respected in Philadelphia, New York and some parts of New Jersey than at home. That's because the Eagles' strongest games usually are played against quality competition on the road. Fort Myer does not attract top-50 opposition.
The imminent prospect of a field house--the current gym is a converted WAC barracks from World War II--has been in the works for almost two decades. Previous announcements have not materialized in ground breaking, so Frailey will not be specific. "It's further advanced than it's ever been," he said." . . . The (next) announcement will be 'The shovel goes in the ground whenever.' Otherwise I won't be a part of it."
Williams feels that AU's league affiliation will be as significant a factor in the Eagles' future success as the gym. The East Coast Conference lost its two glamor teams, St. Joseph's and Temple, to the Eastern Athletic Association, which expanded to 10 schools.
Frailey is carefully pursuing the possibilities of new alignments. "The old league right now doesn't bother me at all. There's an automatic (NCAA) bid there," he said. "We just happen to be associated with a group of very academic-minded universities. What's wrong with that?
"Let's go back to the whole damned thing being dictated by money. You should be able to associate with institutions of the same athletic and academic philosophies. I tend to think the money has turned some people's values a different way."
The current core of schools discussing a new league is American, Holy Cross, William and Mary, La Salle, Richmond and Iona.
The timing of Williams' move is critical, especially in recruiting. The current team is an amalgamation of transfers and little-recruited high school players. Said Juan Jones, the 6-foot-7 starting center, "We've got to have five players who are going to work hard. We can't just show up for a game and expect to win (on talent)."
In the East Coast Conference, in which everybody played each other once, AU was 19-3 the past two regular seasons. Without better players, AU cannot compete successfully on a double-round robin basis against the quality of teams included in talks for a new league. When Jones was recruited out of a junior college two years ago, the assistant coach, Ed Tapscott, told him he might have to play some center until the Eagles recruited a true big man. He enters his senior year without that help in sight.
The new coach--Williams and his former players strongly endorse Tapscott--will be under the gun immediately. What Williams said about replacing Tom Davis at Boston College--"It's a tough act to follow"--also will apply at AU, where strong consideration also is expected to be given to Brad Greenberg, former AU player and assistant coach who now is an assistant at St. Joseph's, and Billy Jones, head coach at UMBC.
The current players have won 45 games the last two seasons and anything less than an NCAA berth next season will be a big letdown.
Williams and Tapscott had made strong inroads in local recruiting, an area in which Lynam was unsuccessful. But only now, off what Williams accomplished the past two seasons, are the Eagles in a position to get the top local players to stay at home. And now, too, George Washington is involved.
"I thought we gradually got in a position we could get a pretty good player out of Washington," Williams said. "Realistically, if Georgetown wanted him badly enough, they'd get him. But the second-best forward or the second-best guard is not bad to get out of Washington."
That's the future.
"We had to forget about all the negative aspects of the program--no field house and no big man. He made us believe that we could win on the road," said Gordon Austin, the point guard. "I'm sorry he's not going to be here next year when we get to the NCAAs. He's the one who put the team together."
Williams, according to Jones, cried Monday afternoon when he told his players he was leaving them and his friends here. Jones said that Williams was honest with his players and he expected them to be honest with him.