Even before he took Maryland to its first Final Four in 2001 and led the Terps to their only national championship the following season, Gary Williams had long been a respected member of the college coaching fraternity.
On Monday, that opinion was validated when Williams was selected to join the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Williams, 69, will be inducted along with longtime NBA commissioner David Stern, former NBA stars Alonzo Mourning and Mitch Richmond as well as former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson and former Indiana Pacers coach and commentator Bob “Slick” Leonard in Springfield, Mass., in August.
Asked if his selection changes the way he feels about his 33-year career as a Division I head coach, including the last 22 at Maryland, Williams said: “What’s good about it is that I don’t have to say that about my career. Whatever I felt as a coach, I think it sometimes comes off sounding wrong if you talk about your own career.
“This makes the statement, that you’re in the Naismith Hall of Fame. … It’s a big deal.”
The news of Williams’ selection — he becomes the first with ties to College Park since legendary DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten, who graduated from Maryland — was met with a mix of emotion and elation by the player most commonly tied to the former Maryland coach.
“I really feel like we all made the Hall of Fame,” said former Terps star Juan Dixon, the school’s all-time leading scorer and now a special assistant to current Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. “I’m like a proud son right now, and my Dad is in the Hall of Fame.”
Just as Dixon typified the kind of blue-collar player Williams recruited, the personality of his teams came from a coach who had grown up a gym rat in South Jersey.
“He was going to give his all every minute, whether it was in games, or in practice, or preparing for games or practice,” Dixon said. “He felt that he could build his programs with players like himself, like he coached, his hard-nosed personality. We were going to run through a brick wall for him to give ourselves a chance to win basketball games.”
In achieving basketball’s highest honor, Williams gives a lot of credit to those he played for and coached under, going back to when he was growing up in Collingswood, N.J., and later when he played for the late Bud Millikan at Maryland.
“My freshman coach, a guy named Neil Thompson, got me through a very tough year when my parents got divorced,” Williams recalled. “My high school [coach], John Smith, took over as a father figure and he made sure that I did enough academic work that I’d be eligible to get a scholarship to go to college.
“Given where I was in my life, I didn’t care too much about academics at the time. I was more concerned about playing basketball whenever I could because that was the one thing I really enjoyed. He made me do things I really didn’t want to do, like take language courses or math.”
Williams has long credited Millikan as well as the two other coaches, Tom Davis and Tom Young, who helped him get his first head coaching job at American University.
“You couldn’t play for a better coach than Bud Millikan in terms of learning fundamentals, because you wouldn’t play unless you did things fundamentally correct,” Williams said. “You learned things that you could teach players after you became a coach.
“Tom Davis got me into college coaching [as an assistant at Lafayette]. Tom Davis, with [former Maryland assistant] Tom Young told the athletic director at American to hire me. All those people got me into a position where I could be a head coach in college.”
Former Loyola athletic director Joe Boylan, who has been a close friend of Williams’ for more than 40 years, said few can really appreciate how tough a job it was to rebuild the Maryland basketball program.
Williams arrived in 1989, three years after the death of Len Bias and the subsequent resignation of Lefty Driesell, and in the aftermath of three tumultous years under Bob Wade that ended with the Terps about to go on NCAA probation.
At the time, Williams was coming off a successful three-year stint at Ohio State.
“He had the best recruiting class in the country coming in [at Ohio State], and I think he always wanted to come back to Maryland, he loved the school,” recalled Boylan, then an assistant under Young at Rutgers. “They [the Terps] were hammered with the toughest sanctions that had been given out except for the death penalty at [Southern Methodist University].”
Boylan got to see first hand what Williams was going though when he went to Loyola and visited practice one day with college basketball analyst Bill Raftery.
“Walt [Williams] was there there, but after about 10 minutes, Bill turned to me and said, ‘Can you imagine playing with this team in the [Atlantic Coast Conferece]?’” Boylan said. “He just persevered.”
Williams wound up winning 668 games, including 441 at Maryland, taking teams to the NCAA tournament 16 times, including 11 straight in College Park. His only two losing seasons came in 1991-92, with the team in the second year of probation, and the following year with a team that started the turnaround for the Terps.
When Williams retired suddenly in May 2011, the landscape of college basketball had changed dramatically. Until Connecticut’s appearance in Monday’s NCAA title game against Kentucky, the 2002 Terps remained the only team since 1979 to play for a national championship without a single player who had been a McDonald’s All-American in high school.
“I was really focused on teaching the game the way I thought it should be played, and sticking true to my principles,” Williams said Monday. “Starting when I was a high school coach, I really thought you owed your players, especially those who didn’t go to the NBA, a commitment to help them as much as possible. It’s not a perfect science. You try to do your best.”
In this case, it was good enough for the Hall of Fame.