Monday, May 09, 2011

Last of the Mohicans

I was as shocked as everyone else by the sudden retirement of Gary Williams as head basketball coach at the University of Maryland. When I received a text message from a friend who is a fan of a rival ACC school I thought it was their idea of a joke. Turns out it wasn't. I still have a hard time accepting that after 22 years Gary Williams will not be coaching the basketball team this fall. Williams was much more than a basketball coach he was the most visible representative of the University for most of the last 20 years. His penchant for profanity laced tirades and sweating through his suits are characteristics that those looking for a lazy sound bite will focus on. Those things were part of his persona but they were not the measure of the man. He took a program rocked to its foundation by scandal and tragedy back to respectability and to the pinnacle of college basketball. Along the way he helped to heal some wounds to the University community itself. His success on the basketball floor helped provide money for other coaches to thrive at Maryland. He personally helped to raise almost a quarter of a billion dollars for the scholarship fund, how many other college coaches have even come close to that? My alma mater is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was when Gary Williams arrived in College Park in 1989, both in athletics and academics, and he had a significant role to play in that transformation. He did all these things without a hint of scandal and at the risk of ruining his thriving career to return to College Park. Not a single coach in today's game would leave a program like Ohio State for one in the dire shape that Maryland was in at the time. The ability of then athletic director Lew Perkins to identify Williams and hire him away from Ohio State is a hire for the ages. Some of the other candidates that Maryland considered back in 1989? Jeff Mullins, George Raveling, Bob Wenzel and Ben Jobe. Williams also achieved all this with an administration that didn't always assist him adequately and an athletic director that actively tried to undermine him in the latter half of his career. That Maryland is considered a desirable coaching job is mostly a testament to what Gary Williams has built. It is fitting that the court at Comcast Center will be named after Williams since it would not have existed without him.

Maryland fans are starting to figure out that replacing a legend isn't so easy. I doubt anyone at Maryland expected the level of success that Williams delivered in his 22 seasons at Maryland when he arrived. He is the standard for Maryland coaches and will be for many many decades. Three times his team won or tied for regular season ACC titles, he won an ACC tournament title in 2004, one of the least likely runs in ACC history, and won 10 or more games in ACC play 9 times. His career ACC wins are behind only Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski. Fourteen NCAA tournament appearances, the entire program only had 10 total before Williams, seven trips to the Sweet Sixteen, two Final Fours and a National Championship are highlights of his career. The odds are that the next coach at Maryland won't surpass that record. Very few programs in college basketball can match that success over the 18 years that Williams put together.

To be fair Williams did have his flaws. He was sometimes slavish to his coaching philosophies, running the flex and pressing regardless of his player's skill sets or the appropriateness of  these approaches to his opponent. His weak recruiting is probably one of the most widely heard critique of Williams that up until the last seven years of his career wasn't accurate. His inability to cultivate a stable and productive group of assistants was probably his biggest failure and the main source of his downfall. While Billy Hahn, Jimmy Patsos and Dave Dickerson were not bad assistants they were all failures as head coaches and there is no obvious candidate on Williams' Maryland coaching tree to take the head coaching job. The revolving door of assistants the last eight years has contributed greatly to Maryland's struggles and the collection of assistants under Williams has been some of the weakest in the ACC since the exodus of assistants after the 2002 championship. Williams could be overly defensive about his record as coach and his pride often got in the way of success on the court. There were times I think Williams would rather play "his way" in recruiting even if that placed his team and program at a decided disadvantage. He was often stubborn to a fault and I often wished he would do things differently to prove his doubters wrong. In the end he was true to himself even if it cost him.

There was a different note of melancholy when I sat in the stands at Comcast Center waiting for the retirement ceremony to begin. The bitter knowledge that there wasn't room in college basketball for a coach like Gary Williams any longer is a tough thing to accept for someone who loves the game. It was perhaps fitting that Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, a longtime nemesis if Williams', won his third national title weeks before this announcement. The public embarrassment of a national champion being crowned fresh off of being found guilty of cheating by the NCAA is a fitting prologue for the new era of college sports. This is the era of hucksters, liars and frauds. If your core principles are honesty, integrity and loyalty you might as well be the Amish of college basketball. A quaint throwback that the modern world looks at with a measure of pity and amusement. As Sean Miller and Matt Painter have demonstrated recently there is little shame in using any gambits or schemes you can to extort more money or concessions out of your employer. The ends justify all the lies and deception both in recruiting and with your employer. Some may dismiss these observations as nostalgia but I think you have to be naive or a little jaded to believe that the categorical imperative of doing what is in your own self interest at all times has not been elevated to a pervasive level among the new breed of the coaching profession these days. You would be met with guffaws if you tried to mention words like integrity and loyalty with many of the giants in college coaching these days and that is a sad commentary on the sport. Contrary to what the cynics and moral relativists would say that wasn't always the case.

For all his flaws Gary Williams had integrity. He was a straight shooter. He never did anything as a basketball coach that would embarrass the University and produced a program whose success was envied by many rivals and surpassed by only a few. He has earned the right to walk away on his terms and enjoy the next phase of his life with his new wife. He'll be impossible to replace at Maryland and his stature will only grow as his years in College Park recede into history.

He did it his way. He did it the right way. He is part of a dying breed, not a huckster or phony, a true coach. The last of the Mohicans.

Thank you, Gary Williams.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Anything on Gary's replacement? I've become very disheartened by the rejections I read in the news and I am losing faith in Anderson to find someone we can be excited about (look at what he did with the football coach search).

I am assuming our new class of Freshmen will look to de-commit. Ugh...

Gary will be missed.

itch said...

Beautiful.

pvon said...

The finest tribute I have read yet. Nice work as always, Esquire.

Esquire said...

Thanks for all the compliments.

While I'm sad that Gary Williams is leaving I'm excited about the future of Maryland basketball. It was probably time for new blood in College Park.