It has now been about a week since Gary Williams decided to retire, and to be honest, it is still a bit stunning. It is not a happy feeling, nor a sad one. It is one that we Maryland fans understand, and are happy to see Gary Williams happy and out on his own terms, but one that is an end of an era. It is one that is understood by those who understand Maryland.
In 1989, Maryland basketball was in severe turmoil. It had been just three years since the tragic death of Len Bias, something which rival schools remind prospective Maryland recruits to this day. It is also three years since the resignation of Lefty Driesell, a coach who won 348 wins in College Park. Plus the school was about to face punishment from the NCAA after Bob Wade after severe violations, but the city of Baltimore, where Wade was revered, would not take kindly to the firing.
With all of this, Gary Williams left an up and coming program in Ohio State, to come back to his alma mater and try to bring them back to prominence. It is possible that if he knew what would happen to Maryland, then he would not have come back. The NCAA put the Terps under two years probation for the infractions.
Think about what has happened to certain programs after either a strong NCAA penalty or losing a great head coach. Indiana basketball has never recovered since losing Bob Knight, with three head coaches since 2000 including one being banned by the NCAA. St. John’s has had some decent years since Lou Carnesecca left in 1992, but has been nowhere near as good and consistant since. And it took Michigan around a decade to return to the NCAA Tournament after Steve Fisher left and the program got hit with violations.
But for Gary Williams, he got Maryland back to the NCAA Tournament quickly in 1994, sending them to the Sweet Sixteen, subsequently coaching the Terps to 11 straight NCAA Tournaments, including a Final Four in 2001 and a national championship in 2002.
And he didn’t do it with five star players. Some of Gary Williams’s best players were not highly recruited. Joe Smith was not, and he turned into a first overall pick in the NBA. Juan Dixon was not, and he was Maryland’s leader to the championship. And many forget, that at the time, Eric Hayes was considered a better recruit than Greivis Vasquez. And he kept his principles, not hiring an AAU coach just to grab a big player, something which is all too common today.
We will never forget what he did with his players and how he supported them. It would have been easy in the 2008-09 season to throw his players under a bus for having trouble, even in the crosshairs of an athletic director who wanted to fire him and a lot of media pressure. But he stuck with them, and with big late victories over North Carolina and Wake Forest, both ranked in the top-10 at the time, Maryland got into the NCAAs, beat California and was one of the last 32 teams standing.
Think about basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference in the last ten years, especially after the expansion. N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Boston College have had trouble staying consistent. In a bad year for Maryland, the Terps would win around 20 games.
And now the era of Mark Turgeon begins. Maryland did it right, letting Gary Williams leave on his terms; a good gesture considering what he has done for Maryland. Kevin Anderson understood that, and would have kept him for a long time. Not only that, it is a lot for a university when in a period of 12 months, Maryland has a new president, athletic director, men’s lacrosse coach, football coach and now men’s basketball coach.
Was Gary Williams a perfect coach? Not by any means. He had his issues recruiting and sometimes Maryland would lose some strange games. But he was a great coach, got the most out of his players and kept Cole Field House and the Comcast Center a tough place to play. Not to mention that Maryland never had an NCAA violation under his tenure. The 461 wins, the first pump, the passion, the national championship, and more, might all not have happened if a former Terps point guard did not come back to help his alma mater. Thank you for your service to Maryland Gary, we will miss you. The College Basketball Hall of Fame is waiting for you.