There's no extinguishing Williams' fiery team


COLLEGE PARK -- The NCAA canceled his dreams, but it didn't cancel his games. Removed from television, banned from the postseason, Maryland's Gary Williams sought refuge in a coach's most fundamental truth:

His team.

He loves this team, this collection of bit players who not only overcame Kenny Anderson and Georgia Tech 96-93 last night, but again quieted skeptics who insist their season is without purpose.

Maryland athletic director Andy Geiger says, "They're playing for an idea," and the idea is not television exposure, the ACC tournament or the NCAAs, all of which remain off-limits.

No, the Terps are playing for each other, and for their coach. "They feel his intensity, his fire," Geiger says. "They draw strength from him. And he draws strength from them."

It would all be so heartwarming, if only Maryland's predicament wasn't of its own making. Williams inherited NCAA sanctions for violations committed under Bob Wade, but lest we forget, Williams was no angel his first year either.

That said, it's time to acknowledge the turnaround at Maryland, time to concede the worst is over, time to finally begin looking ahead instead of behind.

Williams has rebounded from his most torturous year since becoming a head coach in 1978 to lay the groundwork for his alma mater's revival. The Terps are 13-10 -- 5-4 since losing Walt Williams -- but don't ask how.

Indeed, the first words out of Geiger's mouth last night were, "How'd they win that game?" For starters, six players scored in double figures. Maybe that's all you need to know.

"You develop a certain relationship with your players," Williams says. "This year's team is a new experience for me. I always get, 'Do you wish you were still at Ohio State? It would be great being No. 2 in the country.'

"But these guys put everything aside. They're committed to being the best they can be. I appreciate that. They've been through so much, especially the older guys."

Williams, of course, went through a great deal himself, not the least of which was his drunk-driving arrest last May, just two months after the NCAA hit Maryland with its three-year probation.

But he says the hard times only strengthened his resolve, and the same is true for his team. Don't ask how, but the Terps won the Holiday Festival. Erased a 19-point second-half deficit at South Florida. Beat North Carolina State by four after seeing a 17-point lead evaporate.

"The whole season has been worth it," says Matt Roe, the senior transfer who chose to remain at Maryland for his final season and fought back the flu to score a career-high 33 points last night.

"I could have bailed out," he says. "But I knew what I was getting into. I enjoy playing for him. He's a vocal coach, but you've got to listen to the guy. He knows what he's doing."

The question now is, how quickly can Maryland return to prominence? Williams is recruiting feverishly, offering players a return to television and the ACC tournament next year, the NCAAs the year after that. It's a start.

As for junior guard Walt Williams, he says, "I'm not totally certain he'll be back [next year]. I think he can really use another year, especially with his injury [a broken left fibula]. We're going to have some more players. It could be a good year for him.

"But he'll have to look at it. I'd never the shut the door on TC player going into the NBA draft as an underclassman -- if it was guaranteed he'd do well financially."

The Terps surely would benefit from Williams' return, yet they'd survive if he doesn't. Frankly, the most critical piece for Williams isn't any one player, but his new athletic director Geiger, whom he says "has the respect of everyone."

"The faculty sees him here, they know he's interested in what's best for the student-athlete," Williams explains, but it's more than that. Geiger is dynamic, Geiger is sincere, and most of all, Geiger is a Gary Williams fan.

The previous AD, Lew Perkins, was so embroiled in his own controversies, he couldn't support Williams at a time he needed it most. "Every day was like walking through a minefield," Williams says. "I didn't feel I was giving enough back to the players."

No longer is that a concern. The 1966-67 Maryland media guide described point guard Gary Williams as "a fierce competitor with a heart as big as his chest." This team reflects that spirit.

"I'm pretty much a fighter," he says. "I don't walk away from challenges."

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