Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Maryland hires Mark Turgeon

I'll certainly have more thoughts on the hire of Mark Turgeon to replace Gary Williams as the head basketball coach at the University of Maryland. My initial reaction is this is a very good hire. Calling him a "solid" hire has a whiff of condescension to it as he is almost certainly the best hire by any ACC program this off season. The only coaches in the league that have more NCAA tournament appearances than Turgeon's five are Coach K, Roy Williams, Leonard Hamilton and Mark Gottfried. Hamilton has been coaching 10 years longer than Turgeon and has one more appearance while Gottfried has been out of college basketball since 2009. The other two on the list are coaching royalty. Turgeon has done very well at a program where it isn't easy to win. Since 1980 Texas A&M had been to the NCAA tournament three times before Turgeon took over from Billy Gillispie in 2007 and they have since been to four tournaments in a row. In the last four seasons Turgeon's team had 11 wins against ranked opponents while Maryland had six. His teams win, play hard, and are well coached.

I'll have more about the details of what Maryland fans can expect from Turgeon's teams in the coming days but suffice to say I think Maryland did very well in this hire.

My thoughts on the coaching search:
It was probably easy to get caught up in the hysteria over the weekend regarding Sean Miller but I don't think Miller was serious about leaving Arizona for Maryland. Contrary to what his camp is leaking out regarding his meeting with Maryland AD Kevin Anderson I think his main goal was to leverage the meeting into a better financial commitment from Arizona. Reportedly upset over funding and support he was promised by the prior athletic director Miller used Maryland interest to not only get a sizable raise but also make a power play. It is now clear who runs the show in Tuscon. Wildcat fans now will be nervous every time a high profile job opens up because Miller is clearly more of a mercenary than a coach.

For all the Maryland fans who are upset that Miller or Jay Wright or Jamie Dixon isn't the new coach at Maryland: get over it. When Arizona's job opened after Lute Olson went over the cuckoo's nest it was such a disaster that they had to resort to interim coaches twice. Sean Miller's hire wasn't some brilliant move by Arizona it was more akin to a Hail Mary. Arizona is certainly on par with Maryland if not slightly better and they offered their head coaching job to every coach with a pulse. Jamie Dixon, John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino, Mark Few, Jeff Capel and even cheater Tim Floyd were mentioned in connection with the search. The Wildcats gone none of them. Sean Miller waffled on Arizona until they made a higher salary offer (sound familiar, Wildcat fans?) as the six or seventh coach they were interested in. When Kentucky finally moved on from Tubby Smith they had to hire the then coach at Texas A&M who turned into a disaster on and off the court. They failed to convince Billy Donovan to take one of the best jobs in the nation even though he coaches at a football school for a basketball program that has little history worth mentioning. No school just picks who they want from another successful program with great resources. North Carolina had to ask Roy Williams, an alum, twice before he took the job. It would be nice for everyone to assume that coaches would scramble to take the Maryland job but it isn't true. You can count on one hand the programs that have the prestige to get their dream hire and even then it is no guarantee. Everyone else is in the same boat including programs like UConn, Syracuse, Arizona, Florida, Michigan State, Michigan and Indiana that have won national titles. You better have some connection (alum, coaching tree, local native, etc.) if you hope to pull a successful coach from a comparable program. Compare the talent on the rosters that Dixon, Wright and Miller have coming back next season (plus their recruiting classes) with what Maryland has and then ask yourself why they would give that up to rebuild at Maryland. Mark Turgeon has left a preseason top 25 squad that could make a run at a Big 12 title to start over at Maryland. Terrapin fans should be happy he was willing to do that.

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.