It was shortly after noon today and Virginia's basketball coaches were meeting as they always do the day before a game to decide how best to attack their opponent.
On a blackboard, the names of Maryland's starters had been written and the coaches were standing or lounging in different positions, throwing ideas back and forth. One thing was apparent: No one really was in charge. This was a democracy in a profession known for its monarchs.
Several feet from where the coaches met, the office of the man who would have been in charge sat dark and empty. Mail was stacked high on the desk awaiting Coach Terry Holland's return.
Holland has been in the hospital for most of the last 10 days, the victim of a painful stomach problem that first hit him the morning of Jan. 20 in Atlanta. Since that time, Holland, who was operated on for an intestinal blockage in May, has been in and out of the hospital three times undergoing extensive tests.
Today, for the first time in almost a week, he ate solid food. Doctors were continuing to run tests because thus far they have no definite reason for Holland's "intestinal upset." There is some thinking now that Holland might be suffering from a "spasmodic colon." That means he is suffering spasms that prevent food from entering or leaving his stomach without extreme pain.
In a taped interview today with Rich Murray, Virginia's sports information director, Holland said, "I don't want to rush back too soon like I did after the incident in Atlanta. The doctors still haven't found a cause for this and even though that sounds a little scary at times it's actually pretty good in that they've checked me for every possible thing and they haven't found anything that should cause a long-term problem."
Holland will not be with the Cavaliers (10-9, 1-6 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) Wednesday when they play at Maryland. It would be the fourth straight game he has missed.
His doctor, Morton Wilhelm, said Holland probably would leave the hospital Wednesday morning. He also said he "would be surprised" if Holland was not back coaching Monday night, when the Cavaliers are host to George Washington.
"When he first got sick we all thought it would be for one game, maybe two," senior guard Tim Mullen said today. "That's one thing. But now, we're sort of at the point of thinking, 'God, now what?' You pick your college based largely on who the head coach is. It feels real funny not to have him around."
In an already strange season for the Cavaliers, this is yet another twist. They began by losing their opener in Hawaii to a weak Providence team. That same week, the honor committee trial of center Olden Polynice became public, leading to considerable embarrassment for Polynice, Holland and the school.
In December, Polynice left the team briefly. January began with cold shooting and close losses and now is ending with Holland in the hospital.
"Everything was really tense around here during the Olden thing," Mullen said. "I mean, practices were strange. Everyone -- coaches, players -- was uptight. Then, just when we thought it had finally blown over, he left the team for a while.
"With Coach Holland, it was different. When you play a game and your head coach isn't even there, it's almost relaxing because what do you have to lose? No one expects anything of you. But now, we all wish it would be over and he would be back. I'm sure some of the younger players are wondering if they're going to get to play for him the rest of their careers."
The men who have been asked to shoulder the questions and doubts of the players, fans and media are Jim Larranaga and Dave Odom, Holland's top two assistants. Each has had head coaching experience. Larranaga, 35, was head coach at American International College for two years before coming here in 1979. Odom, 42, coached at East Carolina for three years before coming here in 1982.
Because he's been here longer, Larranaga is designated the acting coach. But he and Odom are making most decisions jointly. "Actually, on most things day to day, we still consult with Terry," Odom said. "We've tried to keep everything as much the same as possible."
That is, of course, not possible. Larranaga has been so tense that his voice often disappears for hours at a time. Today, as he picked at a lunch salad, he was hoarse and wondering if his voice would disappear again before the Maryland game. Larranaga is all New York: intense, emotional, his concerns written across his face.
Odom is a Southerner. He has a saying for most situations and shows little outward sign of emotion, even in stressful times like these. In that way he is much like Holland; both grew up in North Carolina. But as Larranaga talked today, Odom twirled a napkin and often stared off into space, conceding his mind's eye was seeing Maryland's Len Bias running roughshod over the Cavaliers.
"This is a stressful situation, no doubt about it," Larranaga was saying. "That's why I keep losing my voice, the stress. But Dave and I know Terry's right nearby when we need to talk to him. If we couldn't talk to him, it would be different. But he's still very involved in what we're doing and what we're deciding."
Larranaga and Odom have encouraged the players to visit Holland so they can see that he is doing okay, so that they won't be imagining a scenario that is worse than reality. "He just gets so thin when he's sick," Mullen said. "He looked pale when I saw him. I remember last summer after his operation, he was so thin someone said he was just a smile and that's all."
Holland, who is 42, has seen friends and taken calls for several days now. Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell called over the weekend and suggested they quit coaching, retire to the beach and open an antique shop. The thought of Driesell hawking antiques -- "Aah can sell" -- gave Holland a good laugh.
Keeping solid food down today was an accomplishment for Holland, the first time he could do that since he woke Larranaga at 2 a.m. in Atlanta, saying, "Jimmy, I've got to get home." Larranaga tried to get Holland a chartered plane home that night but, failing that, finally took him to a hospital when the pain, so bad that Holland could do little more than sit in the bathroom doubled over, didn't subside. That morning, Larranaga and Odom told the team Holland was in the hospital.
"It was like in a Laurel and Hardy movie," Larranaga said. "After we met with the players, I looked at Dave as if to say, 'Well now, this is a fine mess you've gotten us into.' "
They have survived the mess pretty well. The night Holland got sick, the Cavaliers were coming off their worst game of the season, a 82-62 loss at Clemson. Since then they have lost a close game at Georgia Tech and then, last weekend, beat Wake Forest and Arkansas in two-point games.
Wednesday, Virginia will be without starting forward Dan Merrifield, out with a sprained knee. Senior Jim Miller is most likely to start in his spot. Substitutes John Dyslin (mononucleosis) and senior guard Kenny Johnson (sore back) also are out.
Holland's absence is most notable, though.
"When someone who is always there isn't, you miss them," Odom said. "But every little kid growing up reaches a day where your mom and dad aren't standing there watching you any more, telling you what to do. When that day comes, if they've trained you properly, you know what they would want you to do and you do it even without them there to tell you."