Gary Williams went to a high school game Monday afternoon, but left early, so he could get home to watch Ohio State play Indiana. "I wanted to see the start," Williams said, explaining how those first few minutes would be very important because the atmosphere at Indiana can be suffocating. Williams said, "When you're playing on TV" -- calling them "the good old days," a biting reference to the NCAA's pulling the plug on Maryland -- "you're trying to get to that first TV timeout without their crowd chasing you home."
Of course, any college coach would hunker down to watch No. 4 Ohio State at No. 3 Indiana. But Williams had more than his customary professional interest. This was personal as well. Before coming to Maryland two seasons ago, Williams coached Ohio State. Every one of the Buckeyes who scored against Indiana was recruited by Williams. It may not be his decoration, but it is his design.
"This was the first time I've seen them play this year. I guess that's been intentional," Williams said over a cup of coffee in his College Park office. "I want to focus on this team here. I don't want to think about what might have been." A good day ain't got no rain. A bad day's when I lie in bed and think of things that might have been.
Ohio State is 16-0, the only undefeated amateur basketball team in Division I. The Buckeyes haven't had this good a start since 1962 -- with Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and a reserve guard named Knight, who has since gained acclaim as a coach and furniture rearranger -- when they finished 26-2 and NCAA runners-up. And by winning at Indiana, these Buckeyes have invited comparisons. They're strong, fast and experienced. Four of the five starters are veterans: seniors Treg Lee and Perry Carter, and juniors Mark Baker and Jamaal Brown. The fifth, soph Jim Jackson, was the jewel in Williams's recruiting crown, the Big Ten freshman of the year in 1990. Sixteen-and-oh. "I knew we'd be good," Williams said, the "we" slipping in unconsciously. "Hey, I wouldn't have left Ohio State for any other job than this." For Maryland. For alma mater. And as he found out after making the move, much to his chagrin, for no tournament until 1993.
So Williams brought an uncertainty to the TV set Monday night. "I wanted to see how I felt," he said. "I wanted to see if I was bitter, and yeah, I was, a little. . . . You know, you think of all the things that have happened here, and if I stay at Ohio State, then none of them happen, and you think, damn, it would have been good if I stayed. But I thought it could be better here. And I still feel that way." Williams put down his coffee and leaned forward. "Look, I made the decision to come here. Obviously I'd love to coach a team ranked that high. I'd love to coach in the Final Four. If Ohio State gets there -- and I hope they do -- I might feel maybe I missed an opportunity. But I think I can do it here. Everyone said the Maryland job could be a great job. Well, it's up to me. If I do the job, it will be a great job."
It's an interesting juxtaposition. Williams arrives at Maryland and gets slapped by sanctions for events that preceded him, specifically preventing him from playing on TV or in the tournament -- and effectively sink his recruiting -- while his former assistant and close friend at Ohio State, Randy Ayers, inherits the job and, perhaps, a field of dreams. They chat every couple of weeks; occasionally it comes up. "I think he feels funny sometimes," Williams said. "But he knows me well. I don't take any credit for the way that team is playing. The head coach determines that. I laid some groundwork is all. It's Randy's team." If Ohio State wins the title, Williams won't get a ring or a plaque. "All I'll get," he said with a smile, "is a good feeling."
The original "Goodbye, Columbus" was a comic novel. Gary Williams's version had no laughs at all. From the day he got to Maryland it's been one smack after another -- some of his own making -- and as late as last summer he was thinking about leaving. "Not anymore, though," he said. He's sure the worst is over. He loves the area. He likes the changes in the athletic department. He even likes this scruffy, depleted team. The funniest thing is, he realized how much he liked them while he was watching Ohio State-Indiana. "I was wondering how I felt about Ohio State, whether I was envious, and I saw what a great situation that was. Then, I thought it through. I thought about this team, how the guys who stayed have really hung in there. And I thought about how much I liked them. We're not as good as Ohio State, I know that, but I guarantee you we work just as hard."
With a team like this you take pleasure where you can. Any sensible person would have forecast gloom this season. Maryland had lost four starters: Jerrod Mustaf and Tony Massenburg to the NBA; Teyon McCoy to transfer; Jesse Martin to academics. The one genuine big-time player they had was Walt Williams, and four games ago he was lost to a broken leg, which left the Terrapins a starting five that had contributed the embarrassing total of seven points a game last season. And still Maryland is 10-7, including a win over South Carolina, No. 12 at the time. Even if Maryland doesn't win any of its remaining 11 games, that's already one more W than Bob Wade got two years ago, and he put two future pros, Massenburg and Mustaf, on the floor. "Nobody thought we could beat South Carolina," Williams said. "When we did, they said it was because we had one great player. Now we don't have that player anymore. We had to see if we could win without him. We came from 19 down in the second half to beat South Florida on their court. They were 11-2, and last year they made the NCAAs. And we beat Boston University, who beat us last year." Williams allowed himself a quick smile. No, it isn't Ohio State, but it's not the end of the earth either. "This is us. We may not be perfect, but everything we have, we give."