Maryland's decision to name the Comcast Center court for its all-time winningest men's basketball coach, Gary Williams, was bumpier than the public knew and came despite the objections from the coach with the second most wins in program history — Lefty Driesell.
Driesell recently detailed his concerns in an email to chancellor William "Brit" Kirwan. The retired coach, 80, emphasized that he was not advocating for his own name on the court, nor that of any coach.
"It's not fair to my players that they would put Gary Williams' name on the court," Driesell said Tuesday. "It's a disservice to players such as Tom McMillen, John Lucas, Len Elmore, Brad Davis, Greg Manning, Adrian Branch and Steve Sheppard."
The retired Williams, who was 461-252 at the school and won the 2002 national championship, will be honored before Wednesday night's game with Duke. The words "Gary Williams Court" will appear near the visiting-team bench and in the opposite corner across from the home-team bench, where the coach famously sweated and stomped before retiring last May.
His supporters often use the word "icon" to describe the animated Williams.
"Gary in so many ways taught us how to be proud," said John Brown, a longtime Maryland supporter and owner of RJ Bentley's restaurant near campus. "For so many years, Maryland was its own worst enemy — afraid to be great."
The process that led to Williams' honor was complicated — and at times mysterious.
As they privately discussed whether the floor should be named for Williams, members of the university system's Board of Regents were informed in September that the prospect of a significant gift could be tied to the outcome, regent John L. Young said in November. Two other board members also said there had been talk at various times — but nothing firm — of a major contribution that could be forthcoming if the court were to bear Williams' name.
The prospect of a donation raised the question of whether financial considerations could have been a factor in Maryland's decision — a scenario the school strongly denied. Maryland could have tried to sell naming rights to the court, as it did with Comcast Center.
Kirwan, who made the final decision, said in a written statement to The Baltimore Sun: "A possible gift was not a factor in my consideration. As men's basketball coach from 1989 through 2011, Coach Williams brought an enduring legacy to Maryland basketball that helped lead to greater national visibility and enhanced stature for the College Park campus overall. As a result, I felt it appropriate to approve the strong recommendation coming from the campus to honor Gary Williams in this fashion."
The identity of the prospective donor has not been revealed.
There had been talk for years of naming the court for Williams. Among the idea's early proponents was former Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow. That, too, is puzzling since the two had frequently clashed.
Asked about her support for the proposal, Yow — now athletic director at North Carolina State — replied Tuesday in an e-mail: "Naming the floor after Gary is a tremendous recognition of what was achieved under his leadership as Head Coach. I congratulate Gary, all of his assistants and the players that contributed to his terrific success over the 22 years at Maryland."
Yow's proposal was endorsed by current athletic director Kevin Anderson and by university president Wallace Loh. Williams still earns $400,000 a year from Maryland. The school said he has been deployed as a fundraiser and high-level salesman.
Those who question putting Williams' name on the court appear to be a small but vocal minority. They argue that his players' graduation records were subpar or that such a move could be unfair to other such as Driesell — who was 348-159 in 17 Maryland seasons — and women's basketball coach Brenda Frese, who, like Williams, won a national championship. Williams did not immediately respond to a text message Tuesday seeking comment.
In some years, Williams' players' graduation rates were among the nation's lowest. Maryland had a 0 percent graduation rate for players entering school from 1997 to 2000, a period in which the school was building two Final Four teams.
Maryland said many of Williams' players left school to pursue professional careers throughout his career and that his teams' graduation records had improved over time.
Joe Harrington — a former assistant coach under Driesell and Gary Williams who was Williams' Maryland teammate in the 1960s — said he favored naming the court for Williams for one season to mark the 10th anniversary of the national championship season.
"And then you follow that with [naming the court for] Brenda Frese for a year because she won a national championship," Harrington said.
But Williams' backers said he deserved permanent recognition.
"The only reason that building [Comcast Center] was built is because of what he did," longtime Terrapin Club member Chuck Corcoran said. "This is something that links him to Maryland basketball forever."
Corcoran also said: "There should be something to honor Lefty." The school is considering honoring Driesell, although it's uncertain what form the tribute might take.
During a private ceremony, 350 supporters honored Williams on Monday night. There were video messages from, among others, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina coach Roy Williams and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
Driesell was forced out after the 1986 death of star player Len Bias, and many of his players and supporters believe he never got his due.
Manning, who played for Driesell and is a former Terps radio broadcaster, said Driesell and Williams "both had great careers there, and they both did very well. Gary is the most recent. Does he deserve to have his name on the court? I'd say probably so. Does Lefty? Probably so. Do I have a soft spot in my heart for coach Driesell? Of course. But I'm delighted for Gary."