Gary Williams spent this college basketball season out of coaching for the first time in more than four decades. A fundraiser for the university and an analyst for the Big Ten Network and ESPN 980 in Rockville, Williams was honored Wednesday night at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards ahead of the 10th anniversary of Maryland's national championship. The 67-year old sat down with The Baltimore Sun prior to the "An Evening With Gary Williams" celebration to discuss the anniversary.
Baltimore Sun: Looking back at the championship season, was there a game prior to the tournament that gave you an indication that the team was capable of winning it all?
Gary Williams: The only [ACC] loss we had was at Duke, and we came back and played them at Cole Field House and really did a good job that day of taking away [Mike] Dunleavy and Jason Williams. I knew if we could do that against them, even though it was at our place, that we had a chance against anybody we had to play in the NCAA tournament.
When you look back at the Final Four, do you think the semifinal against Kansas was more like a champonship game, given the talent the two teams had, and how hard was it to come back after that high level game to play for the national championship?
To get to the Kansas game we had to beat Kentucky, who had Tayshaun Prince and Connecticut with three pro players, so that was a tough regional. The Kansas game was a great game because it was a game the fans liked, it was an offensive game, both teams shot the ball very well. It could have affected the championship game. I was proud of us in the championship game because we played great defense. When you hold a team to 52 points in the championship game for the NCAA title, you're a pretty good basketball team.
Jimmy Patsos has told a story about you writing on the whiteboard in the team's dressing room after losing to UCLA by 35 in the 2000 tournament "We'll be back next year" or something to that regard. Was that a way to get the team refocused after such a bad loss, or did you really feel and want to put in their minds that they would be back playing for a national championship?
Well, we weren't ready to beat a good team that year. We had a couple of injuries going into the game; Danny Miller had been hurt the game before. We played against a good UCLA team. They shot it well, we couldn't shoot and you lose. You go home, and good teams handle that well. Good teams use that as motivation for the following year. Whether it's guys getting in the weight room or putting a lot of time working on their shots or playing pickup and really getting comfortable playing with the other guys, all those things are what good players and good teams do in the offseason. Those group of guys were always willing to put the extra time in. I thought that was the key to our success at that time.
When you look at the great college teams of today, how do you think the 2002 Terps would stack up? Guys like Chris Wilcox and Juan Dixon had enough athleticism, and because of the toughness and the way you played defense, would you be able to compete on that stage with that kind of talent today?
Sure, we had four NBA players. You very rarely see a team like that. A guy like Byron Mouton was an exceptional addition to our team, because he could guard anybody. He was a tough guy who kept people off of [Steve] Blake and Dixon. We had probably the biggest team in the NCAA that year with Tahj Holden, who was 6-10, 260, Ryan Randle who was 6-7, 250, coming off the bench in addition to a great shooter like Drew Nicholas, who was probably as good a shooter as I've ever coached at Maryland, plus a Mike Grinnon who was also great in practice because he could shoot it also. And a guy like Calvin McCall who was a great leader even though he didn't play a lot of minutes that year."
Do any of this year's Final Four teams remind you of the Terps in terms of personnel, and do any players remind you of a Juan Dixon?
This year's Final Four has a lot of talent, no doubt about that. The thing that you see at the Final Four is that they're all programs that have earned their way there. They've been there before, the coaches have been there before. It's really a good Final Four. As far as someone who reminds me of Juan Dixon, there's nobody that jumps out at me because Juan was special. He was a very deceiving basketball player in terms of his strength, because he looked thin. He was very strong, very physical when he played. I don't think there's a guard who can streak that many points together when he had to. He was one of the great streak scorers that I ever coached.
Speaking of Juan, do you think NBA coaches and general managers stereotyped him as a shooting guard in a point guard's body and never really utitiized his ability to score as best they could?
Seven years is a long time to play, I think the average is four. I saw Juan get 35 in a playoff game against Chicago. He had some great moments. Being that size in the NBA and being a so-called second guard, you have to prove it every year that you can play, there's no automatic roster spot for you. I think that's what happened to Juan. As he played a few years, the injuries started to come in and all those things give coaches, general managers reasons why not to keep a guy. A seven-year career was a great career for Juan Dixon.
I was talking to Lonny Baxter about the phantom fifth foul against Duke in the 2001 NCAA semifinals. Did that bother you, especially after winning the second year? Do you look back and say we could have done it two years in a row?
We could have, but to get to two straight Final Fours, how many teams do that? That's the way I look at it. You have to put it away eventually. It bothered me that night quite a bit because we did everything we could to win that game. We blew a big lead, but we weren't 20 points better than Duke. We were a very competitive team with Duke that year. I just thought that last call, especially when it was close enough that we could have won that game, really affected us because people thought the referee had called it on [Shane] Battier and changed his mind by the time he got to the scorer's table.
Which loss bothers you more, that loss or the second-round loss to Michigan State a couple of years ago that you've talked about?
They're two different things. We had to play from behind in 2010 just to be in the game, we had to do it a couple of times in the second half. I think that game showed how great a player Greivis Vasquez was. To lose that game really hurt because it was a way to get to the Final Four that year in our region, and Michigan State did get to the Final Four. I thought that team at that time was playing really good basketball and we had a chance to do it. We had tied for the ACC regular season championship.
Given the state of the program when you arrived in 1989, do you feel that getting to the Final Four two years in a row and winning the championship was never really appreciated in terms of college basketball achievements?
I think nationally it was appreciated. We live in a metropolitan area that have seven pro teams on both sides of us. There's always something going on. You're not in Lawrence, Kan., or in Tobacco Road. You have a lot of competition. But basketball-wise nationally, I thought it was appreciated very much.
How did the first year out of coaching go for you? Was it easier than you thought it was going to be? Was it more challenging just trying to focus yourself in a different direction?
It was uncharted waters. It was one of those things where you think you know what it's going to be like, but you don't until you do it. I miss practice. When practice started Oct. 15, that was a tough time. This NCAA tournament, if you're a part of the tournament, there's a certain buzz to that. I was fortunate, I coached 43 years and never had a season where I didn't have a job. Not many coaches get that opportunity. There's no good time [to retire], there's no perfect time is a better way to say it, to stop coaching. You look around and there's only two or three coaches at the top level coaching that are my age or older. It's definitely a young man's game. I wanted to coach my last game like I coached my first game at Maryland, and I was able to do that. I felt very fortunate for that. I always felt I owed the game. The game was very good to me, so I owed that to the game. I wasn't going to cheat the game.
Do you like doing TV?
I like it. The games are good because you're basically acting like a coach during the game. You have a pretty good feel because you've been on the bench before. The studio work is good. I work with a couple of great people who have helped make the transition a lot easier.
You can't predict that, but I can predict that they will be a very good basketball team because Mark Turgeon is a good coach and they had a good recruiting year. I know a couple of the recruits, and they can play. I think Maryland is in a good position the way the league is right now to make a move in the league. Once you get to the NCAA tournament, if you're a good team, you can prove how good you are. That's when you know how tough you are, when you can go in that tournament and play very well.