With His Back Against The Wall

Diamondback File Photo

(In his 20th year coaching Maryland basketball, Gary Williams unexpectedly took the Terrapins to the NCAA tournament, capping off a historical two decades on the job. Originally published in The Diamondback on Apr. 2, 2009) …

Talk to Gary Williams long enough and surely some topic in the conversation will cause the 20-year Terrapin coach to reminisce about his career in basketball.

He will link his approach to his days as a high school coach in Camden, N.J.

He will reference his own playing career at the university when discussing athletes who supplement mediocre talent with knowledge of the game

He will laugh about the fracases Big East teams regularly engaged in when he used to coach at Boston College.

So in the midst of a chaotic season for Williams, which featured a verbal spat with the Athletics Department, a bevy of criticism vis-à-vis his recruiting ability and a home fan-base that was divided in support, Williams reminisced to a worse time.

When a reporter asked him if this was the toughest season mentally, the self-assured coach was quick to debunk that notion.

“No,” Williams said. “My first three years here, due to NCAA sanctions, we couldn’t be on TV or play in the postseason. That was the toughest.”

Amid constant racket surrounding the program this season, Williams led the Terps to the NCAA Tournament for the 13th time in his 20 years as coach of the Terrapins. Few expected the tournament run, which ended in the second round against Memphis. But even fewer may have expected Williams’ 19 years that preceded it, given the circumstances by which he entered his current outpost.

TERP TURMOIL

June 19, 1986: Len Bias is pronounced dead at Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale after a heart attack caused by cocaine use.

“I remember sitting in my office and a friend of mine from [the university] called me, and I was like, ‘Get out of here,'” Williams said. “It was unbelievable.”

After successful stints as head coach at American University and Boston College, Williams had just accepted a new job during that offseason to coach Ohio State.

As he sat in his new office, he watched his alma mater fall apart. Within months, Lefty Driesell, the Terps’ coach for 17 seasons, was forced to resign. Williams would have loved to have helped; he just couldn’t.

“I took the Ohio State job, and people asked me if I’d leave Ohio State to go to Maryland once Lefty left,” Williams said. “I said, ‘I can’t do that. I just took this job three months ago.’ So I assumed the next coach would be there another 20 years, and I’d never get the chance to coach them.”

As the Terps struggled under new coach Bob Wade, the first black head coach in the ACC, 400 miles away, in Columbus, Ohio, Williams was thriving. He immediately led the Buckeyes to a 20-win season and a second round appearance while stockpiling strong recruiting classes for the future.

Meanwhile, after three seasons at this university, Wade resigned from his job after the NCAA began investigating recruiting violations. According to a 1989 article in The Washington Post, the Terps sent out advertisements for a new coach, listing the following three qualifications:

• Bachelor’s degree required, with a master’s degree preferred.

• Minimum of five years coaching experience preferred.

• Commitment to the academic and athletic development of student athletes required.

This time, Williams couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

BASKETBALL IN BLOOD

As a kid growing up in Collingswood, N.J., Williams frequented local blacktops with his friend Stan Pawlak so the two could inhale the game of basketball.

Pawlak, who eventually played in the Continental Basketball Association, and Williams, a feisty young point guard, formed a formidable duo that dominated the other local kids.

So when competition was lagging behind, they found another place to play just a few miles away.

“We would hitchhike into the city of Camden all the time so we could play against better players,” Pawlak said. “During the summertime, we would just stick out our thumbs, find a ride and go down and play.”

When it was time to decide on a college, Williams wanted to attend Pennsylvania – a short drive (or hitchhike) away, and a place where he could play with his friend Pawlak against strong Big 5 basketball competition.

But without the grades to get into the Ivy League school, Williams contemplated going to Clemson, Pittsburgh, Providence and Maryland. His recruiting visit to this university – during an NCAA Tournament Eastern Regional final held at Cole Field House – removed all doubt.

“I walked in; it was the first time I had ever seen a gym that big,” Williams said. “You know how you could walk in the street level there at Cole and look down? I see 14,000 people there, and I said, ‘That’s where I want to go.’ That’s why I came to Maryland.”

As a pass-first point guard, Williams averaged 4.5 points in 74 games at this university, but showed a sense for the game that belied his average play.

“Gary Williams was very keen and well minded,” Williams’ coach Bud Millikan said. “He always knew what we were trying to do. He was born to be a coach.”

After his eligibility expired, Williams spent a fifth year completing an undergrad degree in marketing and acting as an assistant coach under Tom Davis for the school’s freshman team.

Williams returned home to coach high school basketball, and in his first season as the head man at Woodrow Wilson, his team went 27-0.

Then he followed his mentor, Davis, to Lafayette College to become an assistant coach. Problem was, the only money left was the salary for a vacant soccer coaching position.

So at age 25, a naive Williams began coaching soccer – a position he admittedly was not qualified for.

The school’s athletics director told Williams to coach soccer for a year before they got somebody more qualified to fill the position. Six seasons and one school-record nine-win season later, Williams finally left his men’s soccer post, heading to Boston College, again as an assistant to Davis.

“It kept me as a head coach,” Williams said. “I was making decisions like a head coach would make at a very young age, so when I finally got [a head coaching opportunity], at least I had experience as a head coach, even though it wasn’t basketball.”

Williams began climbing the college coaching ranks, moving from American to Boston College to Ohio State, before he answered the cry for help from fledgling Maryland.

THE RECOVERY PROCESS

June 13, 1989: Gary Williams became the seventh head coach in the history of Terrapin men’s basketball.

After the Terps’ previous coach, Wade, violated NCAA rules when dealing with recruits, Williams was told his new team would face impending penalties – probably just a slap on the wrist.

That slap turned out to be a smack, clench and pull. The program was effectively crippled.

While the Terps were preparing for an ACC Tournament game during Williams’ first season as head coach, they learned of the penalties.

No postseason play for two seasons. No television coverage for one.

“No Maryland,” is what that meant for potential recruits.

The Terps finished the ACC season in second-to-last place the next two years, and Williams didn’t look like the savior many projected him to be.

Though the Terps weren’t on television or in the NCAA Tournament, point-forward Walt “The Wizard” Williams was exciting enough that Gary Williams could wrangle together a quality 1992 freshman class.

And, building on that success, the Terps pulled in decorated high school players Joe Smith and Keith Booth the next season. Smith scored 26 points in his first game, leading the Terps to an upset overtime victory over Georgetown.

Finally, the wheels were turning.

“That game really might have put the program back on the map nationally,” Booth said. “It was big thing in this area because Georgetown was known as the top team in the area for many years before that.”

Smith and Booth’s freshman season (’93-’94) ended in a Sweet 16 finish – Williams’ first NCAA Tournament appearance at the university.

The next season, the Terps won 26 games – a school record at the time – but once again, they were ousted in the third round.

In the following five seasons, players like Terrell Stokes, Rodney Elliot, Laron Profit, Obinna Ekezie and Steve Francis came and went. The Terps made the tournament each year, but never got past that vaunted Sweet 16.

Skeptics began to view Williams as just an average coach who would never be able to make a serious title run.

SWEAT AND TEARS

Williams is an indefatigable force on the sidelines.

Throughout a game he will pace a country mile on the sideline, causing sweat to seep through his sport coat. And if his team is not playing flawlessly, he will embark on profanity-laced tirades directed towards his players and assistant coaches.

This rash routine has chafed at some of his past players, namely John Gilchirst, who left the Terps after a chaotic junior year only to go unselected in the NBA Draft.

But some players, such as current guard Greivis Vasquez, embrace the tough love that Williams doles out.

“He’s a tough guy, who never gives up and always tries hard,” Vasquez said. “It’s just a privilege to play for him. … I mean, if I got to go to war with him, I would die for him before he dies.”

On at least one occasion, before either Gilchrist or Vasquez had ever played for the Terps, Williams’ tough-guy approach worked to perfection:

In 2001, the Terps finally broke through the Sweet 16, making it all the way to the Final Four, where they lost to Duke. The following season, they earned a No. 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and treated that honor with too much relaxation.

Two days before the opening round game, Williams kicked his team off the practice court in response to what he thought was poor effort.

“It showed us that, no matter who you are, he’s still in charge,” said Byron Mouton, the starting small forward on the team.

Guard Juan Dixon begged Williams to give the team another shot at practice and told his teammates to refocus.

The Terps then won six straight games to become National Champions. Williams stood atop a ladder with the championship game net in his right hand and an uncharacteristically joyous smile plastered to his face, as a tear barely crept out of his eye.

“It was the best moment of my professional career,” he said.

SEVEN YEARS A.C. (AFTER CHAMPIONSHIP)

Since the National Championship in 2002, the Terps have been on a much-publicized decline. But Williams, who has won a school record 418 games for the university, is dogged in defending his program, pointing out the merits amid the more talked about faults.

In four out of the seven seasons A.C., the Terps have made the NCAA Tournament, but they have not been a serious contender to return to the Final Four.

The turnover rate of assistant coaches has been frenetic, thus hampering the team’s recruiting efforts.

Additionally, brokers from the AAU scene do not believe Williams has adjusted to the increasingly complicated recruiting world.

Going into this past season, the Terps were projected to be a bottom-tier team in the ACC.

And with fan expectations at an astronomical level and the Terps in the midst of a rut, Williams’ status as head coach was called into question this year.

In response, Athletics Director Deborah Yow, who is widely believed to have a tepid relationship with Williams, gave her coach a vote of confidence.

In meeting certain performance-based benchmarks in his contract (reaching the NCAA Tournament and having players sustain a fixed number of credit hours), Williams’ contract, which reportedly averages roughly $2 million per year, will more than likely extend through the 2012-13 season.

“Health is the biggest thing, and I feel very healthy,” the 64-year-old Williams said before the season. “I think you have to look at this as not a job but something you like to do. You make money as a coach now, but when I started, I made $6,900.”

As for his legacy, despite all that Williams has accomplished, the next few years might help decide what people ultimately remember about the polarizing Terps coach.

“I want to be remembered that we took a program that was probably the lowest of any program, that was supposed to be a decent basketball program, and made it a national champion,” Williams said. “We had to leapfrog about 200 schools to win a national championship and I’m proud of that.”

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