Correction: Earlier versions of this column incorrectly said that Congressional Country Club is in Chevy Chase. It is in Bethesda. This version has been corrected.
It’s hard to imagine at this minute — hours before the Comcast Center hardwood is to be named in his honor, 22 years after the first time he was Mike Krzyzewski’s counterpart at a Maryland-Duke game — but Gary Williams once had no way to get to College Park.
He didn’t have a car and didn’t have bus money. He was an 18-year-old latchkey kid from Collingswood, N.J., whose parents were divorced and whose mother had left the family for a man from California. Maryland seemed like a continent away when Williams asked his high school coach to drive him down for an on-campus interview.
John Smith, one of the few people Williams could rely on when he was growing up, obliged, pulling up in his Nash Rambler station wagon in the spring of 1963.
“We drove in and looked around and thought, ‘This is okay,’ ” recalled Smith, now 79 and retired in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “Then we saw this side door to Cole Field House. Well, we walked in there and Gary saw all those yellow seats coming down, forming a big bowl. I remember it clear as day. He said, ‘This is the place for me.’ ”
You see, Gary Williams’s love affair with College Park didn’t begin when he accepted the toughest job in collegiate athletics in 1989, taking over his probation-scarred alma mater three years after Len Bias had died on campus. Nor did it start years later when he began beating Tobacco Road royalty.
It began because a coach cared about a kid who had drive but not enough direction. It began because John Smith took Gary Williams to the office his sophomore year of high school and made him take geometry and Latin for summer school, to “get rid of the D’s on his report card so he could go to college one day.”
Williams is fond of saying “in other words” when he wants to place emphasis on a point he is trying to make. But there is no “in other words” needed Wednesday night.
If Smith and his wife, Olive, hadn’t provided plates of spaghetti, transportation and, hell, stability at a critical juncture in his life, Williams wouldn’t have become the most important figure in Maryland’s athletic history and wouldn’t be having the basketball court named after him nearly 50 years after that first visit.
“In the back of my mind I think coaching became an option for me because of him,” Williams said Monday over breakfast at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. “When you have someone like that in your life — a person who liked the game but really liked helping kids and getting them to where they wanted to go — it rubs off on you subconsciously. That’s one of the reasons I became a coach.”
On the night he celebrates a Hall of Fame career with family and friends, including Coach K, it bears repeating what Williams was faced with when he left a good job at Ohio State to take over the Terrapins. The basketball program was still reeling from the tragic death of Bias, and then was slapped with sanctions for recruiting violations — penalties that kept Maryland off TV and out of the NCAA tournament for two years, and cost the basketball program three scholarships.
But after the sanctions were lifted, Williams never won fewer than 19 games at Maryland. He still holds the distinction of coaching the only ACC team not from the state of North Carolina to a national men’s basketball title — that 2002 team of Juan Dixon and other skilled scrappers who are still the only Division I men’s squad to hoist the championship trophy without a single McDonald’s all-American.
“They make a big deal of that, but there are 24 guys on the McDonald’s team and a lot of politics involved,” Williams said. “Give me the next 76 players and I’ll pick 12 and I’ll beat them.”
He did. By the time Williams stunned his profession and Maryland by retiring a year ago, his teams had knocked off more No. 1-ranked teams — seven — than any active big-college coach.
The monster he created came back to bite him several times in recent years. Once he showed Maryland could compete with Duke and North Carolina, his critics wanted to know why an NCAA tournament berth wasn’t an annual occurrence. Why were so many talented high school players leaving the District, Maryland and Virginia for other colleges, they asked.
His supporters pointed to nary a single NCAA violation in 22 years, to a greasy AAU culture that he was too proud to embrace.
I always thought it was simpler than that. Whether it was Dixon or Greivis Vasquez or some other talented but overlooked soul with an abundance of heart, Williams really only wanted to recruit one type of player: Gary Williams, the hard-luck kid who couldn’t catch a break, whose father and mother never saw him play or coach at Maryland, who found solace and another family the only way a survivor like him knew how:
Through the game, and the teams he coached to play it with such passion.
What his detractors don’t know is that he needed them; he needed them not to believe. It fueled him. Early on in College Park, they became part of his drive.
“You got to a point, those first couple years at Maryland, where you almost wanted to get it done to prove to people they were wrong,” Williams said. “I wanted to change the campus attitude, wanted to show them that basketball could be a good thing for our image.”
His daughter Kristin and his three grandchildren will be in attendance Wednesday night, including the grandson who was a mere 2 when Williams held the child in his arms 10 years ago and wept after cutting down the nets.
He’s let go of any hurt he felt as a kid, realizing his father — a World War II veteran, a submarine chaser in the Philippines — was “a product of the times,” that his mother was “dealing with her issues, just like other people are dealing with theirs.” He’s done some forgiving because he knows people have forgiven him for not being a perfect husband or a perfect father.
Williams is no longer the defiant man who would stride onto the court with the gait of an aging gunfighter, pumping his fist toward the student section, crouching near the bench as he perspired through his sopping-wet dress shirt.
He’s gone. Having slain every real or imagined Goliath in his path, Williams is at peace now — five decades after the majesty of Cole Field House lured him to College Park.
“I was thinking the other day, I started playing basketball when I was 8 years old — that’s 58 years with this game,” he said. “It’s been my go-to thing, the one thing I could focus on and control. No matter how bad things always got, I always dived right back into my team. That’s the one place I always knew I was safe.”
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise