Once an enfant Terp terrible, always one?
At a recent Maryland basketball practice, as a couple of reporters discussed the possibility that 47-year-old coach Gary Williams was easing up in his dotage, from his mouth exploded a burst of four-letter expletives. As his face reddened, Williams grabbed the practice schedule from his back pocket and slammed it to the court.
"Unbelievable!" he screamed at an embarrassed Terp. "I did not see that ball go through your hands! Didn't happen! Physically impossible! Will you for once get coordinated!"
Accompanying all of this was, of course, the stalk. Forget Williams' blasphemy and his frozen-eyed stare following a Maryland transgression -- or, more often, a referee's. The coach's hunched-shoulders, clenched-hands, pigeon-toed, giant-strides pace is enough in itself to give a strong, young college athlete a case of horrifying night tremors.
Johnny Rhodes, this year's freshman star who Williams desperately needed to resuscitate the Maryland program, was only momentarily put off by the vision of this well-groomed, pleasant-faced mentor turning into Psycho Terp.
"When I started coming to Maryland games and watching Coach Williams yelling at guys and doing that walk," Rhodes says, "I wasn't sure if I wanted to be in this situation. But he was sweating through his shirts and his suits and everything. That was the sign of a good coach to me."
"Intense" is the word always used to describe Williams. But that's hardly close. Three Mile Island was intense. Kuwait was intense. About Williams, the word "maniacal" is closer.
"Yeah, OK, I'm a maniac . . . sometime," Williams says, laughing with that ever-present edge to his voice. "But I'm much more mature about it now. And I never get out of control."
In other words, gone are the days of the Williams Whirl, a 360-degree jump and spin occasioned by what he felt to be an outrageously incorrect official's whistle.
Way back when the Wacko (only his best friends in coaching call him this) was earning his reputation, during an American University game one of these dazzling pirouettes seemed to summon donations of money. The reality was that dozens of $1 bills -- the team's meal stipend -- had come flying out of Williams' suit pocket and onto the court as he was in midspin.
Then, in 1983, during the very first Big East game he coached (for Boston College vs. Villanova University), Williams ripped the league banner from its moorings at the scorers' table. Not deliberately, of course. "Aw, that's exaggerated. I just pounded the table and the damn thing fell off," he says today.
In the 1990-91 season, his second at Maryland, when his team fell behind at South Florida by 17 points, Williams stomped off the court at halftime, threatening some hecklers in the Sun Dome stands.
"Gary's always thinking and that time we needed to turn the arena atmosphere around," says Maryland assistant coach Billy Hahn. "It was amazing how he channeled the energy in that place so the crowd all got on him and not on our players." The Terps won the game, 87-81. Just as surprising, Williams didn't get punched out. "All of us in this business have to have incredible drive and spirit. All of us hate to lose," says Hahn. "But, competitive-wise, this guy's on another planet."
Williams can't help but have passed along this trait. His 22-year-old daughter, Kristin, who was graduated from Miami University of Ohio last spring, teaches high school outside of Columbus, Ohio. "I always enjoyed being around the atmosphere my father created," she says. "I saw his passion and the long hours he put in. At school I get upset when the kids screw up. I stress pride in the work they do. I guess I teach like he coaches. All my students comment how fired up I get. 'We know where that comes from,' they say."
"My intensity that everybody talks about," Williams says, "whatever it is, it comes from my high school years."
He was a skinny kid, a quintessential gym rat who came out of the Philadelphia suburb of Collingswood, N.J. His father worked the night shift at a Federal Reserve Bank, his mother was a secretary in a car dealership. Williams was the middle brother of three in a strong Presbyterian family -- "We lived at church on Sundays," he says. But after his parents divorced and his mother later moved to California, 14-year-old Gary was devastated. In those days, divorce was a stigma, and his family, including the brothers, never got close again.
Once an honor-society student, Williams lost interest in school. He dove into basketball. "Under those circumstances, a kid takes refuge in whatever he feels is most comfortable," he says. His dad "always thought basketball was a waste of time," so Williams gravitated toward his high school coaches, one of whom, John Smith, and his wife, Olive, fed him and then forced him to go to summer school when his grades were falling out of sight.
He became the first from his family to go to college.
"I only wanted to go to college because that was the next place to play basketball," he says. He didn't get into his first choice, the University of Pennsylvania. Then Bud Millikan at Maryland promised him a running game.
That would be only the first time he 1) experienced the wiles of recruiting and 2) would be shocked at what awaited him at Maryland. He went off to College Park where he started for the Terps at point guard, and for three seasons (1965-1967) he walked the ball up the court, averaged 4.5 points (the Terps compiled a record of 43-33) and learned what blue cheese was.
Jay McMillen, his roommate from Mansfield, Pa., a prematurely gray sophisticate, future doctor and brother of another future Maryland star and congressman, Tom McMillen, taught him that.
"One night on the road, Jay ordered blue cheese dressing for the whole team's salads," Williams recalls. "I thought that was really something. That he'd have the nerve to order for everybody. I'd never heard of blue cheese. But it didn't sound very appetizing. Cheese that was blue? Naive? Yeah, I guess so. I wasn't worldly. I didn't come from money. I was different. I didn't have what those other guys had going for them."
Jay McMillen and Williams' other roommate and teammate, Joe Harrington, pledged fraternities. Williams did not. McMillen and Harrington dated. Williams did not. At the time, his high school sweetheart, a former cheerleader named Diane McMillen (no relation) was attending nursing school in Camden, N.J. "I wasn't real good socially. I was never at ease or comfortable in those situations. The thing with Diane was easy. It was security."
They married after college.
"Gary was different," says McMillen, now practicing medicine in St. Joseph, Mo. "He was a very simple guy. A total straight arrow who had zero interests except for his basketball and his books. It was a difficult time because basketball was such an afterthought at Maryland. We never felt we got enough respect. We all had a chip on our shoulder and to some extent we all still carry that feeling. We all had other things going on, so the losing didn't bother us that much.
"But it bothered Gary. He didn't forget. Maybe that's what has made him such a great coach."
Gary Williams' running, pressing, take-no-prisoners policy was formed in those years when he blew out his aggression on any of his teammates who didn't give 110 percent. As seniors they were 11-14 and lost seven of their last eight games; Georgetown defeated them, 80-49.
"The slowdown game, the lack of respect . . . I was always frustrated as a player here," says Williams. "Maybe a perceived inferiority did help me as a coach. I know this. Our team in college lapsed because we took on other interests, including fraternities and girls. We never got better."
After graduating from Maryland with a degree in business, and knowing he had no chance to make the pros, Williams roared into the face of the only business that interested him: coaching.
His basketball varsity at a Camden, N.J., inner-city high school won the state championship, finishing at 27-0. And as the soccer coach at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., he earned as many personal penalties as victories.
"Don't you know the golden rule?" a fed-up referee once $H screamed at him. "Golden rule? I don't even know the soccer rules," he screamed back.
As a head coach Williams had records of 72-42 in four years at American University in Washington, 76-45 in four years at Boston College, and 59-41 in three years at Ohio State. He took American to the National Invitation Tournament and Boston College to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Sweet 16, places those schools had never been before -- nor have been since. Williams remains the only man in history to coach in all three of the NCAA's marquee conferences, the Big East, the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference.
In 1989, after saving Ohio State basketball and recruiting All-American Jimmy Jackson, Williams returned to Maryland as a distinguished, graying grad who, depending on score, situation and clock, looks as if he stepped out of an Armani catalog or a straitjacket.
During Williams' first season at College Park, anticipated NCAA sanctions hung over the program like a shroud. (Part of the NCAA punishment, of course, is the act of delaying your punishment.) Then came the actual penalties for violations committed during the Bob Wade era: two years of postseason ineligibility, one year of no television coverage. Try recruiting kids who live mostly to frolic on television and in the NCAA. There went future security. There went control.
At the same time the Maryland athletic department was in a shambles. There was the hangover from the Len Bias tragedy. There were the factions supporting former Terp coaches Lefty Driesell and Bob Wade. There was a change in athletic directors from Lew Perkins to Andy Geiger. There were fear and loathing and intrigue.
In 1990, Williams and members of his coaching staff got in trouble because the season before they'd watched some of his players' preseason scrimmages, an NCAA rules infraction for which Maryland penalized itself with a five-day delay of the start of the 1990-91 season. In May 1990, Williams was arrested on a drunken driving charge, for which he was fined and sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation.
"The worst thing that ever happened to me," he says. "There were days I didn't want to come into the office. The people who were for us were different from the people who were against us. The trouble was we never knew who was who."
Still, "During the toughest of times he always motivated us," says Terp senior guard Kevin McLinton. "Even when we weren't on TV he always found a way to keep us up. Pride, sacrifice, whatever. When he was down -- and we knew he was -- he never showed it to us. I've always admired him the most for that."
He dealt with the brutal shots and pulled through. His record was 49-41 in his first three years at Maryland. Halfway through this ACC season the team was 10-10 but still considered dangerous by the rest of the conference. Maybe the Terps can even finish with a flourish in the ACC this week.
Could anybody but Williams have transformed a no-hands lug like Cedric Lewis into the nation's second-leading shot-blocker; turned former high school football players such as seniors Evers Burns and McLinton into near all-conference basketball stars; or persuaded Walt Williams to finish his career in school just so he could help Maryland stay competitive and remain alive in the recruiting marketplace?
So now, after four years of soiling his lapels and toiling on his haunches, not to mention selling tickets, marketing the team, schmoozing the alumni, recruiting All-Star teen-agers near and far and teaching the daylights out of the game he loves, Williams has finally turned a dead-in-the-cesspool situation into a hopeful point of light.
Williams' success isn't a product solely of his fire-and-brimstone methods. As much as he ridicules his troops in practice or in the locker room, he is equally as caring and protective and positive and complimentary toward them in public.
For example, Michael Adams, the mini-guard who helped lead Williams' team at Boston College to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, used to "drive me nuts," Williams says. Adams' repertoire of antics included deliberately throwing the ball up on the backboard and missing the shot so he could rush the lane, get his own rebound and put it back in.
The two had private screaming matches that scorched the walls of the old Roberts Center in Chestnut Hill, Mass., but the general populace wouldn't know about these. And now on the way home from Maryland practices, Williams sometimes stops at the Capital Centre in Landover to catch Adams, the record-breaking, three-point specialist, not missing shots in the second halves of Bullet games.
"I love players I call Unpredictables," Williams says. "Guys who somehow find a way to make a play you didn't draw up." Adams was an Unpredictable. Jay Burson, the feisty little scorer at Ohio State who broke his neck halfway through his senior year, was. And Walt "the Wizard" Williams, Maryland's versatile mainstay now toiling in the NBA for the Sacramento Kings, also was. But Unpredictables are a two-edged sword. Unpredictables deny coaches control, and coaches, as we all know, are control freaks.
"When you don't have control," says Williams, smiling, "you must have Unpredictables."
Down in College Park, or as the Cole Field House students spell it, Garyland, Williams seems to be mellowing out. Has he become an Unpredictable himself? This season, with all the babes in swaddling clothes littering Maryland's roster (four of the top eight players are freshmen), evidence suggests Williams has toned down his apoplexy.
On this matter the Terps' game with Oklahoma in the Baltimore Arena in mid-January was most instructive. The Terps were on a four-game losing streak, the Sooners were ranked 12th in the land. But as the game wound down it seemed Maryland's eventual 89-78 victory might never happen as the Terp youngsters began frittering away the lead. Rhodes missed free throws. Exree Hipp faltered on defense. Ultimately, point guard Duane Simpkins ran the shot clock all the way down and penetrated, only to lose the ball out of bounds.
A younger Williams, raging on the bench, would have whirled, ripped a conference logo, threatened somebody and generally gone ballistic.
"At BC I would have been a basket case," he said later.
This Williams, Maryland's Williams, simply lip-synced to Simpkins: "Pass . . . the . . . ball." He simply motioned for calm, palms down. He simply kept bouncing down there on his haunches.
(When he isn't stalking, Williams is always bouncing on his haunches, as if he's Yogi Berra or somebody. It's not over 'til it's over. Or until Williams is off his haunches.) "Sitting on the bench is the worst seat in the house; you get screened out a lot; crouching is the best," he says.
And what about the awe-inspiring stalking?
"I tell my players that all great athletes are pigeon-toed and mostly it's true," he says, "but really I don't know why I walk up on my toes like I do. It used to bother me how I walked. I've tried to change, to walk normal. The only thing I can think of is that as a kid I was so small and I wanted to play basketball and so I was always trying to get taller. Maybe I thought if I walked around on my toes, I'd get taller."
For all his forced marches on the PR and promotions front, Williams is basically a quiet, shy, sometimes withdrawn fellow.
"I wondered why he never smiled," former Terp Jerrod Mustaf said upon meeting his new coach.
"The first few years here, there wasn't much to smile or laugh about," Williams says. Still, he worries about being one-dimensional. "That's not all bad. That means I'm focused," he says, laughing.
He sometimes seems remote -- distant, closed off to all but a tight circle of friends both in the profession and out: Joe Harrington of Colorado, P. J. Carlesimo of Seton Hall, Boston Celtics' boss (and former Big East commissioner) Dave Gavitt; a few of the young Maryland alumni boosters who got together to refurbish the Maryland coaches' offices and are now busy planning a massive renovation of the Cole Field House locker rooms.
"It takes a long time before Gary will let you know the real him, the guy I wish everybody could be able to see," says Hahn, the Maryland assistant coach.
"I like my privacy," says Williams, who lives in a town house on the Prince George's County Country Club golf course in Mitchellville that he is furnishing all by himself. He says he's also proud that he's eating better, all on his own.
"I treasure the down time. After all the stuff coaches have to do with their team and the media and the public, at the end of the day I like the aloneness."
Williams and his wife were in the process of ending their 20-year marriage even before he returned to College Park.
"There's no doubt my father's true love is basketball and that hurt their marriage," says daughter Kristin. "That independent streak drives him."
"Totally my fault," says Williams. "I wasn't happy. After awhile I didn't work at the thing. I talk so much in the office and on the court, I guess I just didn't talk enough at home. I didn't communicate. There should be a balance in a coach's life and it just wasn't there. I was a loner even when I was married."
Friends say Williams has trouble relaxing even on the golf course, where his competitive fires are stoked anew. Last summer during an outing on Scotland's St. Andrews course with cronies Gavitt, Carlesimo and Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, an infuriated Williams threatened to bust up a caddie. Gavitt had to pay the caddie to leave the premises. "The guy was lipping off and Gary was justified," Gavitt says. "Still, I bet Gary's the only guy ever to run a caddie off at St. Andrews."
Though both would deny it, insiders say Gavitt -- a respected adviser even before his and Williams' years together in the Big East -- will always furnish a safe haven should Williams ever tire of Maryland. But coaching in the NBA?
"I don't know," says Williams. "I wouldn't miss the recruiting. But is there enough teaching? I think what I'd really like in the NBA is the purity of the game."
Excuse me? Says his lawyer and friend Don McCartney: "Egos not aside, I kid Gary he'd never be able to coach a team where a player is more important than the coach. Also, he couldn't stand to see the game not played the right way."
And there, that's the rub. Williams coaches and now Maryland plays the game the way it was meant to be played. Fast, hard, frenetic. With emotion and -- his own daughter's word -- passion.
"I came back to College Park because I think I can get it done here," he says. "It's been hard, yes, and I had doubts those first two years. But I hate pity. I especially hate self-pity. And nobody made me leave Ohio State and come here. It's time I put down roots somewhere. I made my commitment. Now I plan to fulfill it."
CURRY KIRKPATRICK, a free-lance writer in Hilton Head, S.C., watched his first NCAA Final Four in 1966 at Cole Field House.