Garyland is no more. That’s the stunning news out of College Park where Gary Williams will announce his retirement as Maryland men’s basketball coach tomorrow after 22 seasons.
Think for a moment about how different the world was when alumnus Williams returned to College Park in June 1989 to try to restore a program that had come apart that season under the overmatched Bob Wade, successor to the legendary Lefty Driesell.
There was no Internet. The Berlin Wall still stood. The Dow Jones average was in the 2000s. Billboard’s No. 1 song was “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler (really). The Big East had nine teams, the ACC eight. Barack Obama had just finished his first year of law school.
Maryland had advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in just three of the last 14 seasons and was about to be slapped with probation and other sanctions from the Wade era – which followed upon star Len Bias’ cocaine-induced death in a dorm room three years before Williams’ hiring.
Despite those obstacles and his success at Ohio State that had followed good runs at AU and Boston College, the 44-year-old Williams came “home” in 1989.
The marriage between the intense Williams and the hungry to win Terps fans blossomed, especially after an unknown freshman named Joe Smith led Maryland over local archrival Georgetown in the fall of 1993. That season ended with the first of seven Sweet 16 trips in a decade that included the Terps’ first Final Four appearance in 2001 and the glorious, unforgettable national championship the next year.
That 2001-02 season was also Maryland’s last in the sweatbox known as Cole Field House, a building that always seemed more Williams-like than the swank Comcast Center which replaced it. The closing of Cole prompted me and John McNamara to write “Cole Classics: Maryland Basketball’s Leading Men and Moments.” The NCAA title certainly helped books fly off the shelves in those pre-Kindle days.
I went to Maryland’s athletic awards banquet that June to see Williams, who had written the foreword for us gratis and whom I hadn’t seen since his “one shining moment.” Williams, whom I had first covered when he was at BC, walked in late, saw me in the hallway and before I could congratulate him said with a smile, “You know why we won the national championship? … Book sales.”
The Terps averaged the same 21 victories the past eight years as they did during Williams’ first 14 seasons in College Park, but they didn’t get past the second round once. Georgetown and George Mason reached the Final Four, but Maryland didn’t get close.
Last season was Williams’ first without an NCAA or NIT bid since 1993 and with his top player, Jordan Williams, leaving early for the NBA, Gary must have decided that at 66, he didn’t have the stomach for trying to rebuild the program once again and compete against perennial ACC powers Duke and North Carolina.
All told, Williams was 460-248 at Maryland (192-154 in the ACC) and 667-376 for his career. He reached postseason in 27 of his 33 years. That’s a Hall of Fame resume.
The man also the best on/off switch I’ve ever seen. A crouching, sweating, cursing lunatic on the sideline, Williams can be a terrific companion not long afterwards. Few alums have done so much for Maryland and he is at retirement age, but this still ranks with Joe Gibbs’ first exit from the Redskins and the first John Thompson’s in-season departure from Georgetown on the stun-o-meter in DC sports.
Thanks, Gary for a job well done.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.