Is this inquest really necessary?

Maryland’s stunning upset victory yesterday over North Carolina comes against the backdrop of non-stop attacks on the Terps coach, Gary Williams. The Washington Post has led the charge. Two weeks ago, it ran a three part series devoted to Williams’ “failings” as a recruiter (his ability to coach the players he recruits remains beyond dispute).

A three-part inquest into one aspect of a college basketball program seems a bit excessive. Even the Washington Redskins – a local obsession for decades – don’t get that kind of scrutiny.

The premise for the inquest is the fact that Maryland has missed out on the NCAA tournament in three out of the last four seasons and may do so again this year. But this statistic overstates Maryland’s decline. During this stretch, the Terps have basically played .500 ball in the ACC, one of the nation’s premier conferences. Until recently, this was good enough to make the tournament and Williams put a number of Maryland team in the tournament with this kind of record.

Nowadays, the mid-major conferences have more panache, so .500 in the ACC often isn’t good enough. But that doesn’t mean Maryland’s program is in crisis. Obviously, its has declined from its peak, but there are plenty of programs that would be happy to trade places with Maryland.

One of those programs is at George Washington University, right in the Post’s backyard. A few years ago, GW was a nationally ranked program that went to three straight NCAA tournaments and defeated Maryland on several occasions. Now, GW can barely eek out a win in the Atlantic 10 conference. Yet the Post has had little to say about its coach, Karl Hobbs. (Think of Gary Williams as George W. Bush or Richard Nixon; think of GW as the Democratic Congress).

As for the Post’s three-part series, it basically made three points. First, Williams is not in contention for the very top recruits because he doesn’t get involved with the AAU coaches who increasingly tend to control these players. Second, Williams has failed to seek out certain less highly touted recruits who were interested in his program because he didn’t realize how good they would become. Third, Williams misses out on some recruits because he can come across as distant and perhaps intimidating.

The first point is true, and well known. Williams shuns the AAU scene (and the “pimps” associated with it) due to some combination of ethical concern and the sense that “life is too short.”

The second point is also true, but probably true of every coach. Figuring out which high schools players (especially those non-AAU superstars without the “can’t miss” label) will become stars is an art, not a science. Over the years, Williams has excelled at this. The two best players on his championship team – Juan Dixon and Lonnie Baxter – were not considered top recruits. To point to Williams’ mistake without comparing his judgment to that of similarly situated coaches seems unfair.

Williams is not infallible. But then, neither is Eric Prisbell, co-author of the Post’s series. On sports talk television this week, he insisted that there was no way Maryland was gong to upset North Carolina.

The third point – that Williams is not cuddly – is also true. But it’s always been true. His personality may cause him to miss out on some good players, but it also causes him to end up with tough players he likes to coach. That’s probably why he can pull off upsets like yesterday’s.

The Post’s assault on Williams has not been confined to the three-part series. The Post also combined with the Maryland athletic department (with whom Williams has been at odds for some time) to call the Maryland coach, in effect, a liar.

The dispute stems from Williams’ efforts to defend his recruiting. He noted that he has recruited some players who could have helped the team, only to lose them based on “calls” he didn’t make. In particular, Gus Gilchrist left Maryland after a ruling by the NCAA that offered him extra “eligibility” for playing for a non-ACC team (Gilchrist initially committed to Virginia Tech, another ACC team, but backed up after the shootings at that school). The loss of Gilchrist was particularly galling because, at 6-10, he could have been the center Maryland so sorely lacks. Playing for South Florida in the Big East, this freshman is averaging more points than all but two Terps.

The Maryland athletic department responded to Williams’ statement that losing Gilchrist wasn’t his call by giving the Washington Post a copy of the document Williams signed releasing Gilchrist from his commitment to Maryland. The Post implied that this is proof that the loss of Gilchrist resulted from Williams’ “call,” not the athletic department’s. (Think of Williams as George W. Bush and the athletic department as the CIA).

This attack on Williams is grossly unfair. First, Williams did not say it was the athletic department’s “call” on Gilchrist. Second, Williams did not make the call by signing the papers releasing Glichrist – that was just a formality, once Gilchrist decided he wanted the extra eligibility. Declining to hold Gilchrist in bondage is not the same thing as rejecting the player. The real call on Gilchrist was made when the NCAA made its ruling on his eligibility. Williams never said otherwise.

Gary Williams returned to his alma mater when the program had fallen about as far as a college basketball program can fall. The team was on probation, and couldn’t even play on television. Moreover, Williams left a final-four caliber team he had built at Ohio State. (The year after he left, Ohio State narrowly missed out on the final four, losing in overtime to the Fab Five Michigan team it had handled twice during the regular season).

Within a very few years, Maryland was back in the NCAA tournament and regularly making the sweet 16. Two final four appearances and a national title (in 2002) followed.

This doesn’t mean that Williams should be coach for life at Maryland. But it does mean, at a minimum, that as long as he’s producing competitive teams, he shouldn’t come under public attack from his own athletic department in conjunction with the local newspaper.

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