The timing of his decision surprised even his close friends. They had known that, at 66 and recently remarried, Williams had accomplished his main goals in the profession and was nearly ready to move to something less taxing. They knew he had grown frustrated at competing with coaches who straddled or violated NCAA guidelines in wooing high-maintenance recruits. But they didn't know the moment had arrived for him to walk away.
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Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, a close friend and confidant, was not among those who were surprised. Bisciotti said in an interview Thursday night that the coach had almost retired after the 2009-10 season. Maryland had tied Duke atop the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference standings, and Williams and Bisciotti wondered whether it might be a good time to step away.
"We talked about it last year at length," Bisciotti said. "People see this guy and they forget he's past retirement age in just about every other career. He said, 'I'm never going to be 100 percent sure. It's never a good year [to retire].'"
This year, Bisciotti said, Williams felt as close to ready as he'd ever been to stepping down. Bisciotti said Williams met with athletic director Kevin Anderson to discuss his intentions.
"He sat down with Kevin and they worked everything out," Bisciotti said.
Johnny Rhodes, a guard on the 1991-92 team, which was Williams' first season free from NCAA sanctions for violations under previous coach Bob Wade, said the retirement came as "a total shock. It seemed like he'd be there forever."
Williams' contract -- said by the university to be worth more than $2 million a year if he meets academic and athletic incentives -- was to run until June 30, 2013.
His departure means that Maryland, which hired a football coach in January, will again embark on a national search. Possible candidates include Arizona coach Sean Miller and Mike Brey of Notre Dame. Anderson, who traveled the country during the football search, is known as an aggressive salesman not hesitant to pursue big names and long shots.
Maryland has reached out to representatives for Brey, who has deep ties to the area, a source told the Chicago Tribune. But Brey has a contract extension in the works to remain with the Irish that could pre-empt any advances from the ACC school in the Irish coach's home state.
Williams is the latest and perhaps the best-known figure to leave Maryland in the past year. Wallace Loh was announced as university president in August, replacing C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr., who retired. Loh hired Anderson from Army to replace Debbie Yow, now at North Carolina State. Anderson's first high-profile move was to dismiss football coach Ralph Friedgen after last season. Friedgen's ouster led some fans to wonder whether Williams -- whose team did not make the postseason for the first time since 1992-93 -- could be next.
But Anderson told The Baltimore Sun after the regular season that Williams' job was not in jeopardy. "Gary and I have a good relationship," the athletic director said.
Anderson on Thursday called Williams "a legend" and said the coach's accomplishments -- he compiled a 668-380 (.637) record in 33 seasons at Maryland, Ohio State, Boston College and American -- "have earned him a place among the elite in college basketball history."
Williams had clashed with Yow, who recently accused Williams of trying to sabotage her men's basketball coaching search at N.C. State, an allegation he denied.
But Yow said Thursday: "Gary is one of the best X-and-O coaches in college basketball. He will be greatly missed by Terps everywhere. I trust that he will be selected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame soon. Also, his name should be on the Comcast Center floor, as was proposed a year ago."
The status of Maryland's recruits was uncertain. Sterling Gibbs, a 6-foot, 170-pound senior from Seton Hall Prep (N.J.), said he was still processing the information and planned to talk with his family before making a decision. He called a report that said he would ask out of his letter of intent "premature." Gibbs is part of a class that includes highly regarded guard Nick Faust from City College in Baltimore.
Williams, whose retirement came one day after the departure of center Jordan Williams for the NBA draft, was important to Maryland as a fundraiser, serving as the scholarship co-chair for Great Expectations, Maryland's $1billion fundraising campaign.
At the same time, Terps fans seemed to have an insatiable appetite in recent years for debating the career and future of the coach, whose team missed the NCAA tournament in four of his last seven years.
Bisciotti counseled Williams to be secure in his achievements -- he is the fifth-winningest active coach in the country -- and not sweat the criticism.
When Williams was criticized for missing out on high-profile recruits, Bisciotti said he told him: "You won with Lonny Baxters and Juan Dixons, so don't kill yourself with the criticism that you're not getting Carmelo Anthony and Michael Beasley.
"Your legacy is cemented," Bisciotti said, recounting the conversation in an interview with The Sun several years ago. "You gave the team its first Final Four and followed with a national championship."
Williams was known even by casual fans for his sideline antics. He verbally worked over assistant coaches and players on the bench during games. "We try to keep guys into the game and point out things," he once said. "Sometimes that might be looked at as yelling. But that's the way I've always tried to teach."
Williams, who helped turn around the program in the dark days after the cocaine-induced death of star player Len Bias, will remain at Maryland as an assistant athletic director and assistant to Anderson. He will appear at a news conference this afternoon at Comcast Center.
Williams told the players about his decision at a meeting Thursday. They were likely as surprised as close fiend Keith Neff.
"I was with him at the Greene Turtle in Columbia [Wednesday night]," Neff said. "He was addressing the Terrapin Club. He said a couple great things about the University of Maryland. We shook hands, and I went home and he went home. So I'm sort of shocked right now and am having a hard time sorting things out myself.
"It came as a surprise to the closest of his friends. But his friends are happy for him. In my mind, it's so cool that he did everything his own way, including his retirement."