Gary Williams and the voyage of life
Years from now, whenever I think about the Shakespearean figure that was Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, I will think first and foremost about sleeping bags and the sticky, soda-stained concrete floor of Cole Field House.
I never experienced it myself, but someone I love did. This was the detail, you see, that my wife Jen used years ago as she tried to help me understand what it was like to be a college student at the University of Maryland in the late 1990s. Maryland basketball was a tough ticket in those days, much tougher than it is now, and instead of holding a lottery (the way that so many schools do) the athletic department rewarded student tickets on a first-come, first-served basis.
If you were passionate enough, you showed up at Cole the day before distribution began, and you camped out in line. Your back and neck paid the price, my wife explained, but to be down in front when Gary Williams threw a fist pump in the direction of the student section -- and to answer with a thunderous roar -- was a quintessential College Park experience.
That passion has ebbed and flowed in recent years, but with Williams surprisingly calling it a career this week, it's important to understand and reflect on what exactly he built in College Park, and how his unique blend of defiance and hard work changed what it meant to be a Maryland basketball fan.
It wasn't easy to root for the Terps before Williams showed up 22 years ago, sweating and cursing, his teeth clenched and his chin thrust forward like a brawler just begging for someone -- anyone, really -- to take a swing at him. Maryland basketball was mired in scandals both big and small, and Len Bias' death still lingered over the athletic department like a gray fog, even several years after his cocaine overdose.
Little by little, Williams chipped away at those doubts and replaced them with pride.
In 1990, with the school barred from appearing on television by the NCAA, Maryland took No. 4 Duke to overtime -- with Teyon McCoy hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer just to get them there -- before eventually losing 114-111. It remains one of the best games the two schools have ever played, even though Maryland (with its depleted roster and first-year head coach) had no business being in it. If not for 26 points by Blue Devils sophomore forward Christian Laettner, heavily-favored Duke might not have escaped with a victory. Moral victories, Williams liked to say over the years, were meaningless. But in talking to people over the years about that game, I'm not sure it's true. The lasting image from that night, especially for those who were there, was the Maryland sellout crowd giving Williams and his players a standing ovation as they left the court. In that moment, it was OK to be proud of Maryland basketball again.
Williams had passion, and it was never in short supply. And passion is the mortar that holds together the foundation of a successful basketball program. I'm always fascinated by hard men who occasionally get choked up in public, as Williams often did, because it reveals a vulnerability that takes an edge off the screaming. Say what you will about Gary, but the man cared with every last wrinkle in his forehead.
It's hard to say whether the Maryland fan base adopted Williams' personality over the years, or whether he became the perfect conduit for their refusal to gracefully accept slights or take a backseat to the Carolina duo that controlled the landscape of the Atlantic Coast Conference. But it's probably fair to say that for about 19 of the 22 years of his tenure, a basketball coach and his program's fans have never been so perfectly matched. Maryland fans saw conspiracy theories around every corner, and Williams toed the the fine line between dismissing them and actively encouraging them. He channeled those emotions into his players, knowing that the never-ending quest for respect was perhaps the most effective arrow in his quiver.
He felt dissed long after the dissing had ceased, and he was determined to brawl for respect even after he and Maryland already had it. But that mentality is what made him so successful. When he found a skinny kid from East Baltimore named Juan Dixon who was just as stubborn, just as focused and just as unwilling to take (bleep) from anyone in the pursuit of success, the result was a National Championship. About once a year, my wife will ask me to cue up the clip of "One Shining Moment" from 2002. It never fails to make her cry.
As college basketball changed, however, Williams became burdened by both his past successes and his reluctance to adapt to the modern indignities of recruiting. He was an absolutist who believed in following both the letter of the rules and the spirit of them, and sucking up to high school kids and their cadre of handlers (some of them shady) to get those who didn't want something monetary in return involved too much pride-swallowing for him to keep up. Gary Williams might be able to coach circles around John Calipari as far as Xs and Os are concerned, but that no longer mattered nearly as much. Calipari was a better fit for the modern game.
The Maryland program started to slip, and that put Terps fans in an awkward position. Here was a man that everyone admired, a man who gave CPR to a program previously on life support, who won a national title without compromising himself. But at the same time, his convictions and his coaching acumen were no longer producing a consistent winner. A sect of Maryland fans, though grateful for all he had done, grew impatient. On the climb to the top, Williams had taught them to expect more from their school, and so they did. You didn't get extra points in the ACC based on degree of difficulty, by winning the occasional gun battle with a set of steak knives.
Personally, I sort of love the fact that Gary refused to adapt, to pretend to be someone he clearly did not want to be, deep down. I think college recruiting is among the most loathsome things in all of sports. But it's a huge part of the job, like it or not. If you're a part of the game, you have to accept that eventually.
I tell friends often that I've always pictured Williams as a perfect character for one of Shakespeare's plays. His complexities are fascinating. He built his kingdom from virtually nothing, returning home in a time of turmoil to restore honor to a place that always felt picked on and slighted by those kingdoms around them with more wealth and power. He could be paranoid, hard to please, and he was easily angered, often lashing out at those who were most desperate to please him. But at his core, he was ultimately a man of virtue. He did not spend his spare time looking for a better job. He was not a huckster or a snake oil salesman or a carpetbagger. He was a Terp.
And as his kingdom grew restless in his later years, especially when Maryland missed a string of NCAA tournaments, you could tell a part of him almost wanted to remind them: Remember where you were before I came along? Remember?
But he never did. He simply put his head down and soldiered on.
There is a passage in Julius Caesar that could easily be about both Gary Williams and Maryland. In it, Brutus is attempting to convince Cassius that it is time to take up arms against Octavius and Antony, but like virtually everything Shakespeare wrote, it also about something deeper, about free will and fate and the role they play in our lives.
We at the height are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
There is a tide in the affairs of men, and Gary Williams willed the tide at Maryland to great heights and eventually it led to great fortune. Had he never arrived, had he stayed at Ohio State and declined to answer Maryland's plea to be rescued, there is a good chance the program would have remained mired in the shallows for years, or even much longer. Some of it was fate -- right time, right players, right place -- but much of it was just his stubborn determination.
No one, of course, can will the tide forever. Inevitably, the decline always comes. Williams seems to understand it's time for a new coach to get a shot, to have the chance to carve out his own kingdom. Maryland basketball is not bigger than one man, just as no king is bigger than his kingdom.