On the night in 2002 that Maryland won the national championship, I was standing on the Georgia Dome floor with Gary Williams’s daughter, Kristin. As she watched her father cut down the last strand of net, she said, “Maybe now he can relax a little.”
I laughed and said something like, “Have you met your father?”
Relaxing was never something Gary Williams was any good at during his remarkable career as a basketball coach. On that same night, when I congratulated him on reaching the top of the mountain he had spent his entire adult life trying to scale, he shook his head almost as if he was bewildered. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do with myself tomorrow.”
Now that he has decided to retire after 22 years at Maryland, who knows what Gary will do with himself.
“I didn’t want to be one of those coaches who is still hanging around at 70 and can’t stand up to get off the bench during a game,” he said in a phone conversation Thursday. “I’m 66. There are a lot of things I want to do.”
I know he believes that right now. I know he was worn out by a lot of things: 15 years of battling an athletic director who couldn’t stand Williams being the face of Maryland sports; the skepticism of his own fans even after he revived a beleaguered program and delivered its only national championship; the complete cesspool high school recruiting has become; and, finally, his most talented player’s misguided decision to turn pro rather than return for his junior season.
Gary would never put it on any kid, but I suspect Jordan Williams’s departure was the last straw.
“I told Joe Smith to go; I told Chris Wilcox to go; I told Steve Francis to go,” he said a couple of weeks ago. “They were lock lottery picks. Jordan’s not. It’s better for him to come back. Sure, we’re better with him than without him, but I’ve been at this long enough that I think I can look a player in the eye and tell them the truth.”
The flaw in that reasoning? Today’s players often don’t want to hear the truth. So they listen to those who tell them what they want to hear.
Gary had already come very close to quitting a year ago, largely because of his ongoing frustrations with former athletic director Debbie Yow.
He decided to come back for at least one more season and seemed energized when Yow left and was replaced by Kevin Anderson.
“I definitely liked working with Kevin Anderson this year,” he said Thursday afternoon. “He’s a straight shooter, and I think with him in charge, this is a very good job for whoever takes my place. But I just got to the point where I thought 43 years was enough.”
He laughed for a second. “I mean, who does anything for 43 years?”
People who are very good at what they do and love doing it. Williams was both. Forget the numbers and the championships; no one ever put more heart and soul into coaching basketball.
Sure, he hated recruiting as he got older, but it was never his style to recruit 10 McDonald’s all-Americans anyway. Those weren’t his type of players.
He won with the guys no one else wanted — in part because he reminded them no one else wanted them and Maryland was their chance to show others they had made a mistake.
No one ever coached with a larger chip on his shoulder than Gary, and it was reflected in the way his teams played.
You might beat the Terrapins, but you almost never beat them without a fight.
“I’m not sure people to this day appreciate how good Gary is,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “If you aren’t totally prepared mentally and physically to play his teams at 100 percent for 40 minutes, he’s going to find a way to beat you.”
There will be plenty said and written about how, when Williams arrived in 1989, Maryland basketball was about to get nailed by the NCAA and was still reeling from Len Bias’s death. It is all true. It is impossible to believe that he is not in the Hall of Fame.
But my memories of Gary extend beyond the victories and the great moments he brought to Maryland, first at Cole Field House and then at Comcast Center. As flinty and tightly wound as he often appeared to be, he was always the first guy to help people out, whether through charity work or just quietly being there for friends.
As intense as he was during games, referees loved him. He almost always knew just how far he could go and usually put enough humor into his objections that he could avoid technical fouls.
Duke Edsall, who refereed in the ACC for years, loved to tell the story about working a first-round ACC tournament game years ago when Maryland was the No. 8 seed: “I ran by the bench and Gary said to me, ‘Hey Duke, you know why we’re in this game? Because we suck. You know why you’re in this game? Because you suck too.’ I mean, how can you tee a guy up after a line like that?”
In fact, Gary went three years without a technical foul until the last day of the regular season this past March.
Maybe that stunning home loss to Virginia was a hint that the end was near. Maryland absolutely had to win the game to have any chance to make the NCAA tournament, and the Terrapins came out flat — something Williams-coached teams simply didn’t do in such situations.
Maybe one of those guys will elect to follow Gary, but it won’t be easy. Even in seasons such as this past one, Gary had a knack for keeping his team competitive when it probably shouldn’t have been. What bothered him was the second part of the sentence: He couldn’t bear coaching a team that had to work just to compete. He was never about just competing. He was about winning.
Several years ago, after Maryland’s season had ended with a first-round loss to Manhattaan in the NIT, I called him to see how he was doing.
“I’m at the beach,” he said. “I just drove down here to get away as soon as the game was over.”
“That’s a good idea,” I replied. “A few days just walking on the beach will be good for you.”
“John,” he said. “There are only so many times you can walk on the [expletive] beach.”
That was Gary. Walking on the beach was never his thing. The next practice, the next game, the next season — that was his thing.
Now, he’s moving on, and winter nights in this town won’t be the same without his players and him lighting up Comcast Center for two riveting hours.
“I’d like to think I gave everything I had to the job and to the players,” he said shortly after he had delivered the news to his players Thursday afternoon. “I would hope the next guy will do the same thing.”
The next guy will no doubt work hard and will have success. But he won’t be Gary Williams. There was only one of him.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com