When Maryland Coach Gary Williams revisits his coaching roots in his team's next two games against Boston College and American University, he will walk onto the court as he always has, shoulders hunched, and will reprimand players, when warranted, with the same four-letter words he used two decades ago.
College basketball's culture has dramatically changed since Williams coached at American from 1978 to '82 and at Boston College the following four seasons. But Williams, 60, still cuts the same figure on the sideline, as if trying to prove himself in his first Division I head job or matching wits against the coaching vanguard in the Big East Conference of the early to mid-1980s.
"That's the fear you have: You relax," said Williams, whose Terrapins host Boston College tonight. "And you can't relax. . . . I don't want to say, 'I'm not going to go nuts anymore because I've won a national championship.' That doesn't sound right to me."
The focus on high-profile recruiting has intensified tenfold and the advent of Internet message boards has prompted Williams to alter, in some ways, the way he acts publicly. His on-court intensity, though, has not wavered.
On the sideline at American, Williams recalls, he once performed a spinning pirouette so fast that the team's meal money fluttered out of his coat pocket onto the court. He drew a technical foul because the game was stopped while he collected the $1 bills from the floor.
At Boston College, the team doctor brought a defibrillator to games particularly with the animated Williams in mind -- just in case -- according to longtime school spokesman, Reid Oslin.
And just this fall, when a player attempted a free throw during an open scrimmage at Maryland, the arena was silent except for the sound of a baby several rows up who started crying. Sensing distraction, Williams turned and from afar offered the baby a steely gaze.
"There might be a few more gray hairs, a few more lines on his face," said Oslin, Boston College's sports information director from 1974 to '97. "But he has not changed one iota. . . . I can still picture the vein in his neck."
Williams's coaching resume remains part of his genes. When he walked on the floor at the Georgia Dome for the 2002 national title game, he peered up at the impossibly large crowd and flashed back to nights when he roamed the sidelines of Fort Myer, which was used for Army ceremonies and American basketball games.
Then, he was grateful for the $16,000 salary and the office he shared with assistants. It beat the $6,700 he earned a decade earlier at 22. Plus, this was a Division I head job and his office was conveniently located close to the Cassell Center's practice floor. Two steps out of his office and he was inbounds.
"You look back on it," he said, "and wonder how the hell you did it."
Big East Opportunity
At Fort Myer, he waved his hands to instruct players and keep warm. It was 50 degrees at tip-off. The scoreboard occasionally malfunctioned. The court was uneven. And the locker room doubled as the weight room, which meant everyone, including Williams, moved barbells and benches before games.
"It was a pain in the neck for students to come to the games," he said. "Back then -- I'm not sure the school knew it -- we would put a keg of beer on the bus as an incentive to go to the game."
There were other creative campaigns. In 1980, the school put a picture of its star, Boo Bowers, on an imitation American Express card, with a message to the effect, "Gary doesn't leave home without Boo."
"American Express was really good," Williams said. "They didn't threaten to sue us until after the season was over."
Williams can recite key sequences from games 25 years ago and detail how he made recruiting inroads in pursuit of players now approaching 50 years old. He can recall winning 24 and 21 games during his final two seasons, respectively, which afforded him the chance to return to Boston College, where he had been an assistant for a year.
Oslin remembers two young hot names applying for the Eagles job, which became open when Tom Davis, Williams's mentor, took the Stanford job. One was Williams, the other was Jim Calhoun, the current Connecticut coach who had been successful at Northeastern.
Among the only similarities the job had with American was the inferior gymnasium. The Eagles played in the Roberts Center, a 4,400-seat bandbox that from the outside resembled an airplane hangar.
But it was the newly formed Big East, where coaches were recognized by surnames: Boeheim, Thompson, Carnesecca, Massimino and later Pitino. And games were televised on the equally young television network, ESPN.
Williams may never again coach in a league that was as dominant as the 1984-85 Big East, which had three teams reach the Final Four and nearly a fourth. Boston College suffered a heartbreaking loss to Memphis, 59-57, in the round of 16. Williams's star player, Michael Adams, still stings from the defeat and wishes he would have taken the last shot.
"He had to prove himself and we always had to prove ourselves," said Adams, now a first-year assistant under Williams, "because we were always one of the most underrated teams and never got the publicity those other schools got."
The System Has Changed
Maryland faces similar competition in the ACC that Boston College met in the Big East. But the sport's culture is vastly different than it was 20 years ago. Agents prowl for top talent almost before a heralded player steps on campus. High-profile recruiting battles are still fiercely contested, but players are now evaluated by ranking gurus in grammar school. And anonymous team message boards have sharpened the scrutiny on both players and coaches.
Williams found out firsthand the power of message boards this summer when a picture emerged on various Web sites that appeared to show Williams standing with two women at a social gathering. It angered Williams, who had the photo on the sites analyzed and said it was doctored.
"Since 2002, every place you go, people want to take your picture, which is great," he said. "But now you go, 'I'd rather you not.' And I'm not being a bad guy or anything. With the Internet, it's so easy to doctor a picture. It's so easy to take a picture of you when you are not doing anything, yet given the right angle of the picture it makes you look bad. It restricts where you go, what you do. It's a shame there are so many people who enjoy that, who like doing that. Get a life, you know."
The recruiting scene has exploded since Williams returned to his alma mater, much less compared to when he recruited in the Big East before the days of summer high school all-American camps. Two summers ago, for instance, observers who read about an 8-year-old national summer-league tournament left messages for Williams saying that he needed to check out certain children.
While fans' attention toward recruiting has risen, Williams has seen no change in how frequently schools cheat to sign a top prospect. He recounted a story about when he called a player's coach the first day NCAA rules allow telephone contact.
"Where have you been?" the coach wondered.
"This is the first day you're allowed to make a call," Williams answered.
"You hear silence on the other end," he says now. "I've been accused of not being a good recruiter, but I've been a straight recruiter, so maybe that makes you not a good recruiter. People say, 'Why didn't you get that kid?' Well, you can't come out and say, 'They flew their parents to games.' You just can't say that. But people in the business know what is going on."
Williams said he appeals to the player's professional prospects when he believes opposing coaches have offered gifts. "Whatever you get in college, if someone does give you little things, is that going to make you have a career in the NBA?" he said of the approach he may take. "It has nothing to do with it."
Coaches say there are more outside influences who offer advice and direction nowadays to players. Williams pinpoints the downfall of John Gilchrist, who went from the 2004 ACC tournament most valuable player to a disgruntled player that team sources said wasn't welcomed back on the team for his senior season. Williams said he had plenty of sleepless nights this spring wondering how he could have handled the Gilchrist situation differently, how he could have reached the player before the agents who inflated his NBA draft status. He regrets not being tougher with Gilchrist from the start of last season.
"That's how coaching has changed," said Williams, not speaking specifically of Gilchrist's situation. "If I got suspended from high school, I'd go home and my old man would beat the hell out of me. Now you get suspended, the parent goes in and yells at the principal, 'Why did you suspend the kid?' "
Since Williams left Boston College, and subsequently Ohio State in 1989, he helped rebuild a Maryland program still reeling from the death of Len Bias, an accomplishment Williams values as much as the national championship. He said he appreciates the game more than he did when he was a hard-charging 30-something, although he still coaches as if on the sideline at frosty Fort Myer.
"When you are a head coach, like at American U., you are fighting for respect, so you put all your time and energy into that," he said. "Then you jump into the Big East, you're in with [John] Thompson and [Jim] Boeheim, you really work hard there. Time goes by and you realize you have lived 20 years, whatever, without really enjoying whatever you have done as a coach."