When Gary Williams first arrived at the University of Maryland nearly 48 autumns ago, he was an 18-year-old freshman basketball player out of South Jersey with a shy demeanor and a pretty awful jump shot joining a team that played in front of bored, outwardly comatose crowds at the old, half-filled Cole Field House.
When he arrived back in College Park 22 years ago as head coach, he rejoined a basketball program trying to survive in the awful shadow of Len Bias’ death and some crippling NCAA sanctions, in an athletic program that had become a state embarrassment.
When he announced his retirement Thursday, at 66, with a national championship and more victories than all but four other active college coaches in the entire country, he left behind a basketball record, and an athletic program, in which the entire state could take justifiable pride.
He was a long-shot to help lead a revolution. But he did it.
Have his teams competed seriously for a national championship the last few years? Not quite, not quite. And, for the whiners who call the sports-talk radio stations to vent their displeasure, this is sometimes perceived as a kind of crime against nature.
It’s also a sign that they have no sense of perspective, and no memory.
In the half-century between Williams’ arrival as player and his departure as coach, the transformation in sports at the state’s biggest campus has been dramatic—and Williams has been at the center of it. He brought heart, he brought integrity, he brought an indomitable sense of fight, even when he wasn’t visibly sweating straight through his game-night dress-up suits.
The Maryland athletic program is big league now, in ways that it wasn’t before. When Williams arrived as a player, the basketball team was running out the final years of the 17-year coaching career of H.A. (Bud) Millikan, maybe the last coach in America who didn’t believe in the fast break. The game had simply passed Millikan by—and so had fans. So quiet and sparse were the Cole Field House crowds that Williams and his teammates sometimes noted that home games seemed to be played on a neutral court.
When Millikan was bounced, he was succeeded by his assistant, Frank Fellows, whose teams struggled to win 16 games—over two years.
Williams’ teams have averaged about 20 wins a year, on the way to 14 NCAA tournaments, including one stretch of 11 in a row.
That’s not all. In Williams’ playing days, the school’s entire athletic program counted on the dollars generated by two sports—football and basketball. But football was even more troubled than basketball. Tom Nugent’s flashiest players kept flunking out. Lou Saban quit after one season. Bob Ward’s first team went 0-and-9 in his first year, won only twice the next year, and then the entire team gathered one night to announce they would all quit playing football unless Ward was fired. Which he was.
Fan support dried up, broadcast revenues dwindled, and so did alumni contributions.
When Williams came back as basketball coach, there was more disaster. So great was the fallout from Len Bias’ cocaine overdose death that the highly successful Bobby Ross had walked off the job as football coach, saying he was hurt by “innuendo, insinuation and guilt by association.” His departure ushered in a 13-year run in which Maryland had only three winning football seasons.
And yet basketball was in far worse shape. When Len Bias died the night he was drafted by the NBA Boston Celtics, it belatedly shined a light on a Maryland program where players had routinely stopped going to class and started a variety of unhealthy off-the-court indulgences.
Coach Lefty Driesell, despite his lengthy winning record, was fired. Bob Wade, the coaching legend out of Baltimore’s Dunbar High, was hired to replace him and dumped into shark-infested waters. In the wake of the Bias tragedy, recruiting quality kids was impossible. Wade lasted only a few seasons.
And then came Williams, successful and secure coaching at Ohio State, who decided to take a chance at his alma mater. He turned Maryland into Garyland. When Lefty Driesell appeared before crowds during his glory days, the band played “Hail to the Chief.” When Williams stepped onto the court, and thrust his fist skyward, the crowds erupted into hosannas.
Twenty-two seasons and 441 Maryland victories later, he leaves behind a quality program with crowds jamming the new Comcast Center (The House That Gary Built), and money pouring in from TV and radio contracts and proud alumni.
He did it with fire, with heart, and he did it clean. He’s 66. He said it was simply time to go. He said he didn’t want to be 70 and struggling to get up from his chair in the middle of a ballgame.
Gary Williams doesn’t need any excuses. He did himself, and his school, quite proud.