I think everyone that attended the University of Maryland has one personal encounter or at least one legendary bar story about Gary Williams. Upon the conclusion of his legendary career, here’s mine:
Weeks into my freshman year at Maryland, a few years before Gary would even sniff the Final Four, much less a National Championship, one of my friends and I were walking around Cole Field House for one reason or another on a random weekday afternoon. As we walked along the narrow grey concourse, we saw a solitary figure moving quite fast and directly toward us. He looked like an older guy dressed in a white sweater vest and khaki chinos. As he came closer, we realized it was Gary. Mustering up all the courage a couple of precocious suburban kids were capable of, we stammered something like, “Hey, Coach!” or “Hey, Gary!” In retrospect, we didn’t expect much, but a “Hey, guys” would have been just fine.
Instead, Gary looked right past us as if we were ghosts, pushing ahead at a furious pace. I’ve adored the guy ever since.
The list of Gary’s accomplishments are nothing short of incredible, especially given the state of the program he inherited at Maryland. All very impressive. However, the most remarkable thing about Williams’ career is the way inwhich he went about establishing his Hall of Fame legacy.
He was at Boston College in the early 1980′s, going up against John Thompson’s legendary Patrick Ewing teams. In the late 1980′s, he took on the Big Ten at Ohio State, coaching against Michigan’s national title team in 1989. Then, off to his alma mater in College Park, taking a program that was basically dead and building it back up, competing year after year against the likes of Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski. For most of Gary’s coaching career, he fought against some of the biggest names in college basketball — and won.
When I arrived at College Park, Williams had somewhat of a reputation as being a choke artist in the tournament. It wasn’t enough that he brought the Terps back from the abyss, now he was a pariah for failing to accomplish even what Lefty Driesell failed to do. When the third-seeded Terps lost by 35 to UCLA in the second round of the 2000 NCAA Tournament, there were murmurs that it was time for Gary to go. Instead of getting angry at the fans or moving on to a place that might appreciate his ability to get the most out of his players and just flat-out win in the country’s best conference, Gary came back the next season and took his “underachieving” team all the way to the Final Four (records show the Duke Blue Devils were victorious in this game, but for an alternate take, see this). A year later, he won his first and only National Title.
Throughout all of his trials and tribulations, he generated a devoted fan base that began taking on the persona of its head basketball
coach: tough, fiery, relentless, and pissed off. Maryland games no longer became “something to do” on a Tuesday night. Kids started camping out for tickets days in advance for weekday games against ACC opponents. During college basketball season, College Park became “Garyland.”
While Gary never made it back to the Final Four, there were plenty of other highlights: winning out in the 2004 ACC Tournament to secure a NCAA Tournament bid and winning the 2010 ACC regular season title, just to name a few. Despite all of this, he fought with his Athletic Director and took criticism from fans and local writers for his refusal to engage in the seedy world of AAU recruiting. He bypassed the one-and-done kids and continued his method of signing under-the-radar high schoolers. Despite the mounting criticism, he continued to win (albeit not as prolifically). Although he’s taken shots in the past for low graduation rates, he’ll retire with one of the cleanest programs in all of college basketball.
Gary’s successor will be under a tremendous amount of pressure to build upon the success Williams has instilled in not just the program, but the University. The school’s undergone a tremendous amount of change in the last year with the naming of a new President, Athletic Director, Head Football Coach, and now, Williams’ replacement. In no small part because of Gary’s tireless effort, the Maryland job will be one of the most sought after spots in the country.
I lamented the day that the seemingly ageless Gary Williams would ever walk away. I guess I’m just happy that he’s leaving on his own accord, by his own choice. Just like every other step in his illustrious coaching career.
The record shows, Gary took the blows, and he did it his way.
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