He started playing basketball when he was 5 and has coached since age 23.
Friday at Comcast Center, Maryland Coach Gary Williams said goodbye to the game that has been his life’s passion and sole professional calling amid glowing tributes, standing ovations and chants of “Gar-Ree! Gar-Ree!” and “Four more years!”
Williams’s eyes filled with tears before he uttered his first word from the platform erected on the court for the occasion — part news conference, part celebration of his 22-year tenure at Maryland, which he led to a national championship in 2002. And he paused mid-sentence several times, determined to keep those welling tears in check as he thanked students, fans, administrators and players past and present for their support over the years, calling himself as a fortunate man who “has had [his] time.”
“I’ve seen coaches where they just stayed too long,” said Williams, 66. “If you leave a little early, it’s better than leaving late. It really is.”
Williams’s imprint on Maryland basketball and the life of the state’s flagship university was all around him. It was in the faces of former players Walt Williams and Johnny Rhodes and nearly every member of his final squad, who were among the roughly 2,000 on hand. It was in the building around him — 17,950-seat Comcast Center, also known as “Garyland” — constructed a decade ago to accommodate his team’s burgeoning following. And it was in the floor beneath him, a basketball court that Maryland President Wallace Loh announced would be named in his honor, pending approval by the Board of Regents.
Seated on the dais between Loh and Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, Williams initially looked as grim as a pupil ordered to sit beside the teacher because of his bad behavior. But the clenched jaw and palpable unease were his attempt to rein in his emotions. Williams relaxed after rising to speak, blending humor and humility, self-deprecation and pride, as he talked about his four decades in coaching and what lies beyond.
“This is my decision,” Williams said, “but it’s not a quick decision.”
Williams first considered retiring, he said, after winning the national championship in 2002 but changed his mind after checking his bank account.
Had the Terrapins’ 2009-10 squad reached the Final Four, Williams conceded he might have stepped down then, but a heart-rending loss to Michigan State in the second round spoiled that scenario. Still, he rebounded and found himself relishing the challenge of girding for another run despite the loss of three veteran players and the rebuilding challenge that implied.
But last Friday, Williams walked into Anderson’s office to say he was considering retirement. Anderson was shocked and thought for a moment, he explained later, that it was a dream. He asked Williams to think about it over the weekend.
On Monday, after discussions with a few close friends, Williams returned to announce his decision.
“I knew it was certain [then], because I could feel this peace,” Anderson said. “I don’t think most people are able to experience that. He’s able to go out on his own accord.”
Attention quickly shifted to the search for Williams’s replacement, with Friday’s speculation centering on Arizona Coach Sean Miller.
He played college basketball at Pittsburgh, hails from Western Pennsylvania, and has experience in the ACC, having been an assistant coach at North Carolina State from 1996 to 2001.
Williams said he would have no role in choosing his successor, although Anderson said the coach had made a few helpful suggestions.
“We’ll take our time and hire the right person,” said Anderson, who declined to discuss the search process in detail, saying it was a day to honor Williams. “The one thing I can guarantee: We’re going to have quality people and good citizens [as coaches] who are going to lead these young men and women. And they’re going to have talent.”
Anderson asked Williams to stay on as a special assistant, available as a consultant, speaker and goodwill ambassador. Williams also plans to work with Under Armour — whose founder and president, Maryland alum Kevin Plank, was also present Friday, sitting with Williams’s wife, Dana Smith — and explore other opportunities in the private sector.
“Besides coaching, I’m basically unskilled,” Williams said with a chuckle. “When you leave the one thing you kind of knew how to do, there is always some apprehension.”
Like Anderson, Maryland’s current players were shocked when Williams told them he planned to retire at a meeting Thursday afternoon, according to rising sophomore Haukur Palsson.
“It was really emotional,” said Palsson, who’ll likely be asked to shoulder more front-court duties after Jordan Williams’s departure for the NBA. “As a coach, he taught every one of us a lot — about basketball; about life.”
Since returning to College Park in 1989 to resurrect a scandal-plagued, demoralized basketball program, Williams has coached the way he played as a scrappy guard for the Terrapins — with unbridled passion.
He never demanded a vaunted basketball pedigree from his players; just heart. And he led with his own, sweating through tailored suit jackets and gouging scuffmarks into the sideline of Comcast Center’s shiny floor with all the manic pacing he did during games. With his hoarse barks and wild gesticulations, Williams came across on national TV as a tyrant who constantly berated his players.
To a man, Terrapin players say that’s not the coach they knew and learned from and tried so hard to please.
“He’s definitely the best coach I ever had,” said senior Cliff Tucker, among the many Terrapins to be benched and berated by Williams more than once in a four-year career. “He taught me a lot of life lessons. I just love him to death.”
Staff writers Eric Prisbell and Steve Yanda contributed to this report.