“I’m not going to tell you,” Billy Hahn said over the telephone several weeks ago. “You talk to him. See if he wants to tell you.”
The subject was Gary Williams, and the legacy he left behind after 22 seasons of coaching the men’s basketball team at the University of Maryland. It is a legendary legacy, no doubt, one that might usher Williams into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame if the vote tilts his way when announced on Monday. And given the gutted circumstances Williams found upon arriving in College Park, returning to his alma mater after three seasons with Ohio State, the legacy becomes even more magnified.
“I’m telling you,” said Hahn, an assistant under Williams from 1989 to 2001 who now coaches at West Virginia. “Two people know. Gary Williams and Billy Hahn know what he did for the entire turnaround during his career. People don’t understand. Trust me. No idea. Now Gary Williams, the man of highest credibility and highest character, did everything the right way in rolling up his sleeves and fought like a dog for what he felt was right. Because of that, the rest is history. He went to a national championship, which was never done before [at Maryland]. And what was overcome for him to do that was absolutely mind-boggling, which no one knows.”
The basics are known. Bob Wade, his predecessor, left Williams with a program bracing for NCAA sanctions, though no one realized their full extent until after Williams took the job. Ultimately, the Terrapins were handed a two-year NCAA tournament ban and a one-year television ban.
“We lived it every day,” Hahn said. “Up until we won it, no one, no one understands what he had to overcome. That’s what the most significant thing is about Gary Williams and Gary Williams’s legacy. People should not, which drives me crazy, they don’t give him the bit of credit he deserves if they know the whole story, which they don’t.”
The conversation went on like this for a bit. Hahn declined to divulge specifics about what exactly he meant, though one assumes more was happening than the cut-and-dry sanctions that put Williams behind the eight-ball immediately, making his ultimate turnaround that much more impressive.
“The General needs to talk,” Hahn said, “not the soldiers.”
When Williams met for lunch the next day, he also didn’t want to mention details about his early coaching days at Maryland, which led to a historic career filled with two Final Four appearances, three ACC regular season championships, two ACC coach of the year awards and, in 2002, the national title.
But that’s okay. Williams has earned the right to enjoy retirement, golfing and reading and visiting family and watching basketball games on his own schedule. He also left behind a long coaching tree, one that includes Texas Coach Rick Barnes, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, Temple’s Fran Dunphy, Siena’s Jimmy Patsos, George Washington’s Mike Lonergan, Ohio State assistant Dave Dickerson and Hahn, each of them with their own memories of the one man who helped light the way.
Take Lonergan, for instance. The Bowie native was raised a Maryland fan and spent most of the late 1990s and early 2000s at Division III Catholic. The Cardinals began practices two weeks later than Division I programs, so for that time Lonergan trekked to Maryland practices, where he watched Williams work. His Catholic teams even ran flex variations called “Maryland” and “Terps,” and when the actual Maryland team made the NCAA tournament, his best friend Patsos, then an assistant, would take Lonergan along.
“That’s probably how I got the job,” Lonergan said, and he would have been a Terps assistant for longer had the Vermont gig not opened up in 2005.
It was a disappointing season, Lonergan said, the one year he worked under Williams. The Terps beat Duke twice but whiffed on the NCAA tournament. But he learned so much from Williams.
“He would prepare just as much if we were playing UMBC as if we were playing Duke,” Lonergan said. “He’d get down in the dungeon, a players’ locker room where he could watch film. He’d be in there all day, and he’d watch film.”
Now with the Colonials, Lonergan was checking his upcoming 2014-15 schedule to see if his team played in late November, when Williams will be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Rest assured, if Williams makes the Naismith Hall of Fame, Lonergan will be there.
The same likely applies for Dickerson, who played for the Terps from 1985 to 1989. He knew nothing about Williams when the young coach arrived from Ohio State, but let Williams know that he wanted to coach. They stayed in touch, sending two notes each year, at the beginning and the end. They encountered each other on the road, bonded by the mutual interest in Maryland. In 1996, Williams hired Dickerson to be an assistant.
Dickerson’s favorite Williams story came that first season. The Terps were playing North Carolina, ranked No. 1 at the time. It was a late tipoff, broadcast on ESPN, and the atmosphere at Cole Field House was intense. So Maryland marched into the locker room at halftime.
“Everyone on the staff, Jimmy Patsos, Billy Hahn, they’re sweating their [certain male body parts] off,” Dickerson said. “And I wasn’t.”
As memory serves, Williams glared at Dickerson.
“You don’t really care about this game,” he said.
“Why?” Dickerson asked.
The stare continued. “Because you’re not sweating,” Williams replied.
Calmly, Dickerson told Williams that his lack of sweat came not from lack of care, but because he wore an undershirt.
“Lastly,” Dickerson said, “I personally think, and I don’t know how he feels, and I don’t need to get his permission to say this, I think he should still be coaching. I think there are kids and there are universities that need his passion, that need his intensity and need his love for the game in order to get their program and their culture going.
“I don’t know how he feels about this, but from the times I’ve seen him in the last three years, and he was here when we played Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, there is no doubt in my mind that he can revive a program and get that program to be one of the best programs in college basketball. There is a place for him in college basketball. I just know him and I know he still can do it at a high level. I know he still has the energy and he still has the passion.”