So often you can read a mind by looking at a face. And Gary Williams was almost desperate for clues as he greeted Walt Williams at the door to his office and led him to a chair beside an oval-shaped desk used for meetings. This was no ordinary summer drop-in by a star player.

Decisions by 20-year-olds rarely cause so many ripples as the one Walt Williams was about to reveal to his coach. If he left Maryland, as nearly every outsider had predicted, it would be the most crippling blow yet to a basketball program hit heavily and often the last four years.

"If Walt leaves," a major college head coach had said about a week earlier, "Gary will have what amounts to a Division II team. And then he might go."

That was a consideration at one time, Williams admitted in a recent interview. He thought about leaving, but not necessarily because of NCAA sanctions unexpectedly severe or Jerrod Mustaf opting for the NBA. Mostly, he was frustrated because the school where he was coaching was in name only the school where he played a quarter-century earlier.

To player Walt during earlier discussions, coach Gary had wanted to say: "It's always hard to change. I know. I've changed a few times. And it's never exactly like you think it's going to be. I could have said: 'Walt. Look at me.' "

Perhaps he had. Looking at Gary Williams with a face ideally suited for poker, Walt said: "One of my goals as a player was to play in the NCAA tournament." Gary's heart suddenly sank to about his shoes. Walt had said "was," but only the traumatic "NCAA tournament" registered. Like one of his no-look passes, Walt's tense had blown by Gary.

"Then he talked about looking to the future, and that he'd be staying," Gary said. "For the average college player, the ultimate is playing on television and in the NCAAs. For him, it's the NBA."

"Walt's unique," Gary Williams said. "He's a 6-8 point guard. And he knows that here he'll play the point. I don't think anyone else could guarantee him that."

Maryland still figures to be last in the ACC this season. But the coach can remind recruits who may not have considered Maryland: "If Walt Williams stuck around, it can't be all that bad."

Yet the problems sometimes seem never-ending. Last fall, Williams watched his new team work out a couple of times before the start of official practice. If, as Williams insists, that's all that happened, it's a ticky-tack violation that almost surely takes place in half the schools that play big-time basketball.

Also, at most other schools, whoever saw Williams watch practice would have said: "Gary, this is against the rules. Shoo." Instead, Williams was turned in, apparently by the wife of a former Terrapins assistant cited by the NCAA for ticket-selling violations.

Responding to that charge, Maryland has acted while the NCAA is considering it. Instead of beginning practice three days ago, as everyone else did, the Terrapins delayed their first session until this Saturday.

"It's something that had to be done, to get this behind us," Williams said. "He {new athletic director Andy Geiger} said: 'Let's offer this, see how it goes.' I think it's a fair response. I feel sorry for the players, but it's not something that can't be made up. We'll be ready for the season."

From the time he came as a player to when he returned as its coach 26 years later, in mid-June of 1989, Gary Williams had been running toward Maryland. On each occasion, he was told the truth as Maryland officials probably saw it; reality was not what he'd expected.

"When I was being recruited {out of southern New Jersey}," the 44-year-old Williams said, "Bud Millikan told me we were going to run, be a fast-breaking team."

Maryland's coach in 1963 may well have meant that. What happened was that Millikan reverted to the patterned play with which he was familiar -- and mostly successful. Williams's varsity career also was the final three of Millikan's 17 years at Maryland.

"I was a little, quick guard who couldn't do much else but run," Williams said. "But that turned out to be good for me. I got into coaching and remembered that, because there is a tendency to say what recruits want to hear."

Williams always thought he could have done better at Maryland -- and that Maryland, with its location and great jewel of a gym, could do better than almost make the Final Four a couple of times. Even in a leave-your-bags-packed profession, Williams changed jobs in a hurry, always with the dream of returning to Maryland and reestablishing roots. Didn't Stay Long

Along the way, he left three head-coaching jobs in 11 years -- and many disappointed people. Mostly, they were players too young to understand ambition. And Williams very likely was too ambitious to fully appreciate trust.

Ohio State after three years with Williams was as good a job as any in college basketball. He had all but locked a talent-rich state tight to outside recruiters. But it was Maryland crooking a come-hither finger.

"I almost didn't come here," he said, "because the whole process took so long. I was told early: 'You're the guy they want.' But it went on a month, two months.

"I had to live in Columbus. There were days, after some big wins, where a camera crew would be outside the house when I got the paper in the morning. It was hard to live there with everyone knowing I was involved in the Maryland situation."

Not too long after he arrived, the situation at Maryland started to sour for him. Williams hadn't come close to sensing how split the athletic department had become, that there seemed to be people, paid by Maryland, who were determined to see the university -- and him -- fail.

In addition to losing its five practice days through its own admission, Maryland also reported to conference and NCAA officials that some equipment was issued to two players before they officially enrolled this fall.

"I learned a lot. . . . This past year was good for me," Williams said, "because I'd had things pretty much going my way as a coach. I'd gone from American University to the Big East {with Boston College} to the Big Ten. That's pretty nice.

"Then I came here. Maybe if I'd stepped back and looked at it a little clearer. I didn't know the feeling here. . . . The immediate reaction was depression. Then there was a gathering of the clan, where everyone all of a sudden says: 'We've got to fight.' "

Perhaps worse than any minor violations of NCAA rules was Williams being arrested for drunk driving May 13. All of a sudden, the savior was digging Maryland's already enormous public relations hole even deeper.

"I felt sorry for the other people here, players and coaches, not involved with basketball," said Williams, referring to the mood before his arrival and after the embarrassment he caused. "It's been tough on {football coach} Joe Krivak. It's been tough on the nonrevenue sports, whose budgets have gotten cut because of sanctions against the basketball program."

The idea of leaving came long before NCAA sanctions that included no TV for Maryland basketball this season and no NCAA tournament this season and next.

"I was upset about things here I didn't know about," he said. "I didn't know if anybody knew, or whatever. It just bothered me that I didn't know coming in. So I had to get over that, the pity. And I hate that, the self-pity.

"That carried into early December. Lots of nights I didn't sleep. I thought: 'Look where you were. Look what you've put yourself into.' " Not a Happy Time

Only a few months into the job he'd coveted his entire coaching career, Williams found it difficult to show up for work.

"That really bothered me," he said. "You get selfish. You say: 'This is my school. And my school is like this?' Finally one night, I thought: 'Hey, you came here. Nobody made you come. And everything is here for you to win.' I made up my mind we're going to do it."

Whatever might be said of the coach Williams replaced, Bob Wade, he left several fine players. Yet Maryland struggled early last season, being blown away by a Connecticut team underrated at the time and losing at home to Coppin State.

The turnaround, Williams said, alluding to two victories over North Carolina and carrying Final Four Duke into overtime, came gradually. It began when Mike Anderson, a running back on the football team, joined the team during the January break for exams.

"Here was a guy who fought cancer, who was just happy to be playing," Williams said. "That had an impact. Before? Well, the players had so much negative happen that they wouldn't allow themselves to be good. First bad thing happened in a game and it was like: 'We lose.'

"But we got good. And right away. We were good within a week." Mustaf became more of a force inside. Tony Massenburg stepped outside and hit some shots. The frustration of not getting Walt Williams the ball enough ended when Gary Williams decided to give it to him on the inbounds play. Make Walt the point guard.

"When the players started to play is when things turned positive for me," the coach said. "The North Carolina win here was as good as any I've ever been associated with. We also won there, which may have been more significant because we didn't play great, but were tough."

To those who thought he seemed almost gaunt, Williams smiled and said he always looks that way after a season.

"Coaches either lose weight or put it on, with nervous eating," he said. "There's always stress during the season, whether you're going good or bad. But last year being my toughest year wasn't because of the team. I really liked our team. We got better. The stress was all the off-the-court stuff."

After the NCAA penalties were announced, Williams was in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable position of wondering if a few people important to him would desert him.

Mustaf did what seemed best for him -- and Williams could not argue with a youngster being selected in the first round of the NBA draft and becoming instantly wealthy. If a college degree is important, as Adrian Dantley and several others have shown, it will be obtained.

Several prominent high school players Williams recruited for Maryland chose to go elsewhere before and after the sanctions were announced. Among the most talented, Charles Harrison went to Georgetown and John Leahy enrolled at Seton Hall.

Williams had only a handshake acquaintance with Geiger, but he said: "He seems a hands-on guy. I like that. He's strong enough and his background is strong enough that he can come in here with clout. I think that's important. We need a good leader."

And where is Williams at this point in his career?

"This is a funny business," he said. "What you do only holds for a while. That's what keeps most coaches going, knowing that you can disappear just as quickly as you appeared.

"One thing I'm secure in -- and this year probably helped me a lot -- is that I think I can coach. You always doubt yourself. Where are you going to lose it? Do you lose the ability to coach? As you get older, you get concerned with that."

Walt Williams staying allows Gary Williams more time for just basketball. And his face brightens at the prospect.

"I've got to make sure the probation doesn't affect the way I coach," he said. "If I feel sorry for myself, mope around and not get fired up for every practice, the players will follow. We've got 28 games. That's all. It's a big deal if you don't show up and play one particular night."

Already plotting, Williams said: "I think we'll be competitive {in the ACC}. Cedric Lewis has a chance to dominate inside and {transfer} Matt Roe started a couple of years for some pretty good Syracuse teams. Walt can get better. He can shoot better from the outside. He can explode more. I like to coach players, like Walt, who are unpredictable. A Michael Adams {at Boston College}, a Dennis Hopson and Jay Burson {at Ohio State}. And now Walt.

"What makes them great is there comes a time in a game when they just do something. All of a sudden, they make a move. You'd like to take credit, that you taught them, or told them what to do. Truth is, it's just an instinctive thing you gain by playing. Lots of players can score 20 points. Players like Walt can take over an arena."

And Gary Williams can go about the most pleasurable job of getting him near-equal playmates.