Gary Williams just had finished dinner with some friends late Saturday night. It was a couple of hours after his team's 82-68 victory over Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The Maryland basketball coach was sitting in the lobby of the team's hotel in Salt Lake City, talking about survival. His Terrapins, the No. 3 seed in the West Regional, had made it through the first two rounds to advance into this week's Sweet 16 against second-seeded Connecticut on Thursday night in Oakland, Calif.
But Williams also had made it through, having returned from a two-week bout with pneumonia during which the 50-year-old coach was hospitalized for nine days, raising doubts whether he would be ready to coach in this year's tournament.
"The first night back was the difficult part," said Williams, recalling an 87-63 victory over 14th seed Gonzaga on Thursday night. "I was really feeling my way. I wasn't sure if I could come back and coach the way I wanted to. Tonight, I felt like I always do. It was a good feeling."
He had trepidations Thursday not only because he was returning from his first absence of any kind during a 27-year coaching career. He also was uncertain about how hard he could push himself, given what he had been through and the city's high altitude.
That combination left Williams, one of the most animated and, at times, agitated coaches in college basketball, strangely silent on the sidelines. He knelt on one leg in front of the bench, hoarsely yelling instructions, catching his breath on occasion. Only once, when there was no call made after Gonzaga center Paul Rogers drove over Duane Simpkins trying to dunk, did Williams jump in the air and do one of his flails.
"I went into that game trying to control myself so I wouldn't get tired," he said. "As the game went on, you forget about your situation and you become yourself. There was probably some reasoning not to [coach the first two rounds], but you've got to live your life. If I felt like I did when I got out of the hospital, I wouldn't have done it. It was a gradual process."
The process began within a couple of days after he had been released from Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Md. With his team in Greensboro, N.C., for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Williams walked for about 20 minutes. A couple of days later, Williams walked a little longer. He could feel his strength slowly returning.
But when he showed up at Cole Field House the night the NCAA tournament selections were announced, Williams looked like a ghost. He was pale and gaunt, his eyes were as hollow as a raccoon's and the 15 pounds he had lost from not eating or drinking for the first few days after being taken to the hospital by ambulance made him look painfully thin.
"I guess I won't have to have liposuction," Williams said jokingly.
Williams talked that day about his illness, about his doctors warning him that if he waited another 18 hours, it would have been even more serious. And Williams, who was diagnosed with an atypical and high-grade strain of what is normally called "walking pneumonia," was in pretty bad shape as it was.
"I was in a situation where I waited too long to go to the doctor," said Williams. "I couldn't eat or drink because of the fluid in my lungs."
The first few days in the hospital are still a blur. Though the hospital wasn't wired for cable, Williams couldn't have watched Maryland's thrilling 94-92 victory over Duke -- won on a last-second tip by Joe Smith -- the night after he was admitted. "I was sleeping," he said. "I didn't find out about Joe's tip-in until I saw it a couple of days later."
He was able to watch his team's 25-point, regular-season-ending loss at Virginia on March 5.
"I wasn't paying attention to it as if I were scouting a game," said Williams, who had turned 50 the previous day. "I was still very tired, and I was sleeping a lot. It was very hard, because I didn't know anyone who had been in this situation."
Even when he received clearance from his doctors two days later to resume coaching, many questioned his decision. His friends feared a relapse and the possibility of a more serious infection. But Williams had built Maryland back into a Top 10 team and resurrected his own reputation as well.
He wasn't going to miss the NCAA tournament.
"It might not have been the smartest decision," he said the day before the opening game, "but nobody has ever accused me of being smart."
But in the four days here at the Huntsman Center, Williams showed that his sense of humor was back, if not his strength and his weight. He joked about how his team "was going to kill me" with the way it had blown leads against Gonzaga and Texas before putting both teams away down the stretch.
His intensity, which can border on the maniacal, returned Saturday night, when his team saw its nine-point lead with less than a minute left until halftime turn into a five-point lead at intermission. "I was OK," he said later. "I just told them to grow up. But the thing we've done all year is play well at the end."
The end of what has been a magical season at Maryland is rapidly approaching. Williams took his team to Oakland, Calif., yesterday to get ready for Thursday's game against second-seeded, eighth-ranked Connecticut at Oakland Coliseum in the NCAA West Regional semifinals. Williams can find more time to rest up because the Terps were able to stay on the road with the school on spring break.
"It's good for the players because they get to go somewhere for spring break like the other kids on campus," said Williams, whose team was supposed to practice at the Nike training facility in Beaverton, Ore., until the NCAA decided it would have been an unfair benefit for Maryland. "And not being in the office will give me a chance to relax a little."
But only a little. When the Terps opened their season in Hawaii, Williams barely left his hotel room as he prepared for three games in three days. There is a lot more at stake now, with Maryland (26-7) one win shy of tying a school record and two games shy of reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history.
After three Sweet 16 appearances in his career, after more than 300 victories, Williams no longer seems obsessed with getting to the Final Four to validate his accomplishments. "I hope we make it," said Williams. "But the longer you're in coaching, the more you judge the job you do in other terms. I know a lot of guys who are good coaches who've never been to the Final Four."
One of them, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, has come within a Christian Laettner last-second jumper of getting there. Calhoun also knows what Williams is going through, having missed part of last season after being hospitalized with pneumonia.
"The difference is that Gary lost 15 pounds that he could ill-afford to lose, while I lost 18 pounds that I could well-afford to lose," Calhoun said yesterday from Reno, Nev., where his team is practicing. "I don't know how it's going to affect his coaching, but it does affect the other stuff after the season, like recruiting. I was tired for about six months."
Williams' recent illness apparently has not altered his perspective. He always has been something of a cynic, and he isn't suddenly going to turn soft. He always has been demanding of his players, and he isn't suddenly going to become cuddly. And he always has been a workaholic, and he isn't suddenly going to mail it in.
"The next time I get a cold or the flu during the season, I won't say, 'I'll get through it because I've always been able to,' " he said. "Now, I haven't. Maybe this was a good wake-up call."
WILLIAMS IN NCAAS
Maryland coach Gary Williams' record in the NCAA tournament:
Season ....... School ........ W-L
1982-83 .... Boston College .. 1-1
* Beat Princeton in 2nd round; lost to Virginia in Sweet 16.
1984-85 .... Boston College .. 2-1
* Beat Texas Tech in 1st round, Duke in 2nd round; lost to Memphis State in Sweet 16.
1986-87 .... Ohio State ...... 1-1
* Beat Kentucky in 1st round; lost to Georgetown in 2nd round.
1993-94 .... Maryland ........ 2-1
* Beat Saint Louis in 1st round, Massachusetts in 2nd round; lost to Michigan in Sweet 16.
1994-95 .... Maryland ........ 2-0
* Beat Gonzaga in 1st round, Texas in 2nd round; vs. Connecticut in Sweet 16.
Totals ........ ....... ...... 8-4