Gary Williams enters the basketball Hall of Fame

Two coaches helped define my life as a Washington D.C. area sports fan — Joe Gibbs and Gary Williams. The contrast between the two is sharp. Gibbs was understated, mellow on the outside, and a conspicuous family man; Williams was brash, edgy, and seemingly a lone wolf.

Gibbs made it look relatively easy (at least during his first Redskins coaching stint); Williams made it look painfully hard, — which, of course, it is. For me, then, Williams was the more compelling, more authentic figure.

Gibbs has been in the Football Hall of Fame for years. Yesterday Williams entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Williams’ association with the D.C. area began in the mid 1960s when he was a scrappy point guard for the University of Maryland. It continued when, in 1978, he became the head coach at American University.

If you thought Williams was a madman when he coached at Maryland, you should have seen him as a young coach at AU. In those days, AU didn’t have its own gym. The team played across the river in Virginia at Fort Meyer.

I coached youth basketball in Northern Virginia in those days, and our league offered free tickets to some AU home games. The 11 and 12 year olds in our league could take or leave the play on the court. For them, Gary Williams’ theatrics were the attraction.

My favorite story from Williams’ AU days occurred (so they say) in a road game. Williams was keeping the players’ meal money, including the change, in the inside pocket of his suit coat. After an objectionable call by the ref, Williams leaped in the air and did a pirouette. The meal money — bills, quarters, and dimes — spilled all over the court.

In 1981, Williams led AU to a 24-6 season, its best record ever (still today). It was good for the championship of the East Coast Conference. Under today’s format for the NCAA tournament, it’s overwhelmingly likely that AU would have made the tourney at least once during his stay at AU.

Williams did lead his next team, Boston College, into the NCAA tournament. BC played in the Big East, which had emerged as giant. Williams coached against the likes of Jim Boeheim, John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Rollie Massamino, and P.J. Carlesemo.

He more than held his own. His 1983 team went 25-7 and won the regular season Big East title. Williams finished third in the national coach of the year balloting that year.

Twice, Williams led BC to the Sweet 16. In 1985, the Eagles narrowly missed the Elite Eight, losing to Memphis State on a last second game winner by Andre Turner (if memory serves).

Williams moved on to Ohio State in 1986. The Buckeyes became his second NCAA tournament team.

Williams recruited Jim Jackson to Columbus, his only top-ten rated high school signee ever (to my knowledge). Great things were expected from the Jackson led teams, and they delivered two Big Ten titles, a trip to the Sweet Sixteen, and one to the Elite Eight.

But Williams wasn’t around for any of his. He had left a program on the verge of greatness to return to the post-Len Bias shambles at his alma mater. Had there been a Hall of Fame for dubious career moves by a coach, Williams would have been an immediate inductee.

Maryland basketball was on a harsh probation at that time. Its games couldn’t even be televised.

Moreover, due to the sins of past coaches, the program was also under heavy scrutiny from the administration. Williams was thus unable to have several top recruits admitted due to heightened academic standards. In addition, Williams had to persuade the top players he had to remain at Maryland despite the lack of television exposure.

Williams was able to accomplish this. In particular, the great Walt Williams stayed. Thus, Maryland kept its head above water, barely, and the coach eventually was able to recruit quality players to College Park, though never the most highly sought after.

Williams’ Maryland teams compensated for their shortfall in raw talent during the 1990s with hard-nosed play — full court pressure on defense and a grinding “flex” half court offense. Thus, to play for Williams’ team, you had to be committed to playing manic defense all over the court

Sarunas Jasikevicius is probably the greatest shooter ever to play for Maryland. He went to become a major international basketball star and an NBA player. In the 2000 Olympic semifinal, he scored 27 points for Lithuania against the U.S.

At Maryland, though, he couldn’t get on the court during his first two years because his defense wasn’t up to Williams’ standard. When his defense improved, he became a starter. However, he rarely shot the ball up to his capability because, I thought, he was exhausted from playing full court defense

I imagine that to play for Williams you also had to take a fair amount of abuse. In public, most of the abuse fell on the player who happened to be sitting nearest to Williams on the bench when someone on the floor made a mistake.

This, I figured, was just the tip of the iceberg. However, we shouldn’t assume that behind closed doors Williams was more abusive than other top college coaches. In any case, most of his players seemed to end up liking him, and transfers were infrequent.

The bottom line is that nearly all of his players improved every year they were at Maryland, sometimes dramatically.

This was especially important because, as noted, Williams rarely brought in cream-of-the-crop recruits. However, he was a smart recruiter who sought players capable, under his coaching, of succeeding in his system. It turned out that his biggest stars were relatively unheralded coming out of high school.

Keith Booth was a rare top recruit. He was also a very important one because his signing signaled penetration into talent-rich Baltimore, an area Maryland had been shut out of after the firing of Williams’ predecessor, Bob Wade of Dunbar High where Booth played.

Booth had a terrific career at Maryland. But Joe Smith, recruited the same year with little ballyhoo, was even better.

With players like Booth, Smith, Jasikevicius, Johnny Rhodes, Duane Simpkins, Laron Profit, Obinna Ekezie, and Terrell Stokes, Maryland appeared regularly in the NCAA tournament and reached the Sweet Sixteen four times in the mid to late 1990s. These were the kind of players Williams jokingly referred to as “Burger King All Americans” when reporters asked him about his failure to recruit McDonald’s All Americans.

As the decade ended, Williams had lifted the Maryland program off the floor and made it one of the best in the country. Yet some Maryland fans — the stupid ones — had become disillusioned with Williams because his teams hadn’t advanced past the Sweet Sixteen and hadn’t supplanted Duke and North Carolina at the top of the ACC.

Two more Burger King All Americans finally pushed Maryland through the ceiling. Neither Juan Dixon (from Baltimore) nor Lonnie Baxter was a big name coming out of high school. But they made most of the plays that carried Maryland to the Final Four in 2001 and to the Championship the next year.

Speaking of Dixon, let’s dispense with the claim that Len Bias is Maryland’s all-time best basketball player. Dixon is the program’s leading scorer and is first all-time in the ACC in steals. Finally, he led the Terps to their only national championship. Bias was a great player and an enormous talent. But Dixon accomplished more for Maryland.

The 2001 season produced two losses that might have crushed a less resilient coach and team. That both came against Duke made them all the more devastating.

First, Maryland blew a 10 point lead in less than a minute to the Blue Devils in College Park and lost in overtime. I’d say more about the game except I’m becoming sick thinking about it.

Maryland bounced back to beat Duke at their place later in the season to remove some of the sting. And much of the rest was eliminated when Maryland upset Stanford to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history.

But then, Maryland faced Duke in the National Semifinal game, the fourth meeting between the teams that season. Maryland roared out to a 22 point lead in the first half, only to be beaten fairly decisively by the eventual champions. That made it two comeback losses for the ages to their biggest rival in just two months.

Maryland was on a mission in 2002, and the mission was accomplished. The Terps won the ACC regular season with a 15-1 record, and captured the NCAA title. I read recently that the 2002 team is the only NCAA winner in modern history not to have a McDonald’s All American (I thought Chris Wilcox might have been one, but apparently not).

I hoped that with the exposure gained from winning the national championship, Williams might take Maryland’s recruiting to another level. But the recruiting scene had changed. AAU coaches and other hangers-on now had major influence.

Williams was stridently unwilling to suck up to these characters, at least one of whom in the D.C. area turned out to be a felon. It may also have been the case that, quite apart from this change in the landscape, Williams’ personality and coaching style put a ceiling on his ability to recruit superstars.

After 2002, Maryland was able to recruit players a bit higher up in the high school pecking order. But Williams’ recruits were still a cut below those of Carolina and Duke. More importantly, some of them did not improve under Williams at the rate their counterparts from the 1990s did.

William’ last hurrah came via a vintage Williams recruit. Tempestuous Greivais Vasquez and Gary Williams were a perfect match. The only question was whether Williams could surround his point guard with enough talent to win (and to keep him at College Park).

It wasn’t easy. By now, Williams was at war with his athletic director. And with his players’ graduation rates slipping, the coach once again found his school refusing to admit important recruits.

Thus, as the Washington Post’s Michael Wise points out, in 2009 Williams found himself taking on number 1 ranked North Carolina in Chapel Hill with a lineup of Vasquez, Bambale Osby, James Gist, Cliff Tucker, and Landon Milbourne. Maryland prevailed, one of seven times a Williams coached team defeated the top ranked team in the nation.

Williams finally found the help he needed for Vasquez in Jordan Williams, a recruit who didn’t seem worthy even of Burger King All American status. In Jordan Williams’ freshman year, with Vasquez playing well enough to win the Bob Cousy award as the nation’s top point guard, the Terps claimed a share of the ACC crown. Vasquez hit an iconic off-balance runner against Duke to seal the deal.

The starting line-up that season typically was Vasquez, Eric Hayes, Sean Moseley, Milbourne, and Williams (9.6 points per game, 8.6 rebounds). Duke, with whom Maryland shared the title, won the National Championship.

As for Maryland, it fell to Michigan State on an outrageous buzzer beater by reserve guard Korie Lucious. Shades of Andre Turner.

When Jordan Williams decided, after a big sophomore season, to enter the NBA draft, Gary Williams followed the tradition of Joe Gibbs (twice) and John Thompson (D.C.’s other Hall of Fame coach), and quit while ahead. It was a good decision by Gary, but a questionable one by Jordan, who wasn’t drafted until the second round and has played only 43 NBA games.

Most of all, it was a sad day for Maryland basketball, which hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since Williams departed.

During his Hall of Fame induction speech, Williams told the story of how, as a Maryland player, he tried to draw a charge against the great Billy Cunningham. Williams left his man and arrived at his spot in time to set up, only for “the Kangaroo Kid” to soar over him for an easy basket. No contact; no call.

As a coach, however, no one soared over Gary Williams. Even against the likes of Boeheim, Bobby Knight, and Coach K, Williams always drew contact — always demanded a call.

Sometimes, as in 2001, the contact must have been painful. But Williams earned enough calls to deserve basketball’s highest honor, a place in the Naismith Hall of Fame.


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