In the spring of 1989, an up-and-coming Division I basketball coach returned to his alma mater, leaving a prestigious job and a burgeoning national reputation behind. The coach was aware that his new program was about to be sanctioned by the NCAA for violations committed by his predecessor, but when the penalties hit nearly a year later, he was surprised by their severity.
There were times Gary Williams second-guessed his decision to help rebuild a Maryland program still reeling from the scandal surrounding the cocaine-induced death of All-American Len Bias three years before, and the turmoil that enveloped the Terps during Bob Wade’s tenure.
Williams wound up staying at Maryland for 22 seasons, bringing the program back to national prominence and helping it reach its pinnacle by leading the Terps to their first national championship in school history in 2002.
While the circumstances he inherited were much different, and the sanctions Maryland endured not as far reaching as those placed on Penn State by the NCAA on Monday, Williams can relate to what new Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien is going through.
“There are a couple of parallels,” Williams, who retired from coaching last year, said in an interview Monday, a few hours after NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the sanctions. “One is the players. The players that are being punished had nothing to do with what happened. The other one is, and Penn State will find out, it will affect things for more than four years. It’s not just the life of whatever the penalty is.”
Trying to rebuild a program on NCAA probation is difficult for many schools, but Williams said that the problems at Maryland extended past the initial sanctions that included two years without postseason competition and one off live television. At the time, Williams and others said that what the Terps were given what amounted to a death penalty and likened Maryland’s situation to SMU, which remains the only school in modern NCAA history to be shut down by the NCAA for at least a season.
“The penalty came out the week of the ACC tournament in ‘90. There hadn’t been as severe a penalty [for a basketball program] as that,” Williams recalled. “People in the program like Walt Williams, Vince Broadnax, Cedric Lewis, Matt Roe, Tony Massenburg sustained us for that period. At the end of the sanctions those guys left, got their degrees, went on to the pros, we were left in a situation where we couldn’t recruit and we were left to compete in the best league in the country. It’s hard. It was a very difficult time for me trying to figure out how to get it done.”
Williams said that one morning in the fall of 1990, he was in his office at Cole Field House wondering if he had made a mistake leaving Ohio State, where he had been for three years. Williams had options, including joining his mentor, former Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt, who by then was running the Boston Celtics and would have hired Williams as an assistant coach.
“It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself,” Williams said. “My experience was that I said to myself that I either had to leave or I had to figure out a way to get it done. I didn’t know how to get it done other than to work hard. I decided to go that way. It was a tough summer. I wasn’t naïve. I wasn’t a rookie. I knew in five or six years if we weren’t winning games, people have short memories. It wouldn’t have been good if we didn’t get it turned around.”
Before he was able to get several local players, including Dunbar star Keith Booth, to commit, Williams had to convince a wary administration that he was going about things differently than Wade and Lefty Driesell. Williams eventually did, but not before losing a number of talented high school players to other schools. He also sustained his only losing seasons as a head coach, in 1991-1992 and 1992-93.
I can remember being at Cole Field House on that March afternoon in 1994 when the Terps, considered a bit of bubble team going into Selection Sunday despite an 8-8 record in the ACC, heard the school’s name called. From behind a closed door, a loud roar erupted. When Williams and his players emerged, and spoke to the media, the emotions were clear.
I can also recall standing in the ballroom of an Atlanta hotel in early April 2002 listening to Williams talk about rebuilding Maryland basketball.
It was the morning after the Terps, led by former Calvert Hall star Juan Dixon, beat Indiana to win the national championship. I can still see Williams shooting me a “You didn’t think we were going to do this” look. I shot him a “No, I didn’t” look right back.
More than two decades later, the memories are still fresh for Williams of one of the more challenging periods of his career.
“Just to be honest, I look at my career record and those three years hurt my career record because we weren’t on a level playing field with great basketball teams,” Williams said. “I gave my guys a lot of credit. I think it was Walt Williams’ senior year, and I remember after the season was over we weren’t eligible to go to the NCAA, a reporter said to them, ‘You’ll play hard next year with a chance to go to the NCAA tournament again.’ That was the biggest slap in the face. No teams ever played harder. We had some our best teams during that time. We were playing for the love of the game.”