Former assistant coach Art Perry was not the scapegoat for Maryland basketball's recruiting problems. How do we know? Because head coach Gary Williams said, "I don't think there is a problem."
If there is a problem -- and one talent evaluator rates the Terps' latest class as the worst in the Atlantic Coast Conference -- it's the perception that Williams doesn't bring the same intensity to recruiting that he does to coaching.
Williams denies that charge, saying, "I'm out there as much as anyone." Even his detractors admit that he worked as hard as any coach to land the best players in Maryland in recent years, hitting on Keith Booth and missing on Louis Bullock and Nate James.
But is that always the case?
The coach for 6-foot-11 center Jermaine O'Neal, one of the nation's top high school seniors, said Williams' detached style might have soured his player on Maryland.
Another Terps recruit, 6-6 forward Damon Thornton, said, "I didn't feel like I was really wanted," and chose North Carolina State, where his high school coach has been hired to manage the basketball office.
Recruiting is a tricky business, replete with questionable dealings and conflicting agendas. A coach can be judged only by his team's success, and Maryland is one of only three ACC schools to qualify for the NCAA tournament each of the past three years.
The question now is whether the Terps are entering a period of decline, even though they've already received an oral commitment from 6-8 forward Terence Morris of Frederick, rated one of the top 10 juniors in the country by recruiting expert Bob Gibbons.
Last season's freshman class proved far better than expected -- Williams believes that LaRon Profit will be one of the best players in the ACC next season, and that Terrell Stokes might be one of the top five point guards in the country.
But it is not unreasonable to suggest that Williams should redirect his energy, working harder at recruiting, and going easier on his players.
"My advice to him would be to lighten up, if that's possible," said Gibbons, who is based in Lenoir, N.C. "I think when people watch him -- whether they're at Cole Field House or watching on TV, they see a guy who is almost too intense, bordering on being out of control.
"I'm not pointing fingers, but is it possible the kids are saying, 'Do I really want to play for a guy who acts that way?' If that's the case, only Gary Williams can address that."
Indeed, Williams' frenzied approach became an issue last season when he alienated some of his seniors to the point where they may have bad-mouthed him to recruits.
And now he has fired Perry, the low-key assistant who served as a buffer with the players -- and played a critical role in helping Maryland land Joe Smith.
"No doubt, Art was the chief recruiter," said Jack Baker, Smith's high school coach at Maury High School in Norfolk, Va. "Gary did come down a couple of times, but every time they saw him, Art was here. And a lot of times, Art was here by himself."
Baker said head coaches take different approaches to recruiting -- some are intensely involved, some hardly at all. He described Williams as "fitting somewhere in between. . . . middle of the road."
If Williams dislikes recruiting, he wouldn't be the first college basketball coach to find the year-round courting of teen-age hotshots distasteful. Coaches as prominent as Dean Smith are routinely criticized for being too hands-off, and leaving the dirty work to their assistants.
Recruiting success can be cyclical even for top programs, but with an increasing number of college players leaving school early for the NBA, the race for high school talent is becoming even more critical.
High school stars value personal contact, be it phone calls from the big-time head coach, or token appearances by him at their games.
It is in this area that Williams' critics believe he is lacking.
George Glymph, the coach at Eau Claire High School in Columbia, S.C., said Perry did a "super job" recruiting O'Neal, who failed to meet college entrance requirements and chose to enter the NBA draft.
He did not reserve the same praise for Williams.
"I met Gary one time, when he came in for the in-home visit," Glymph said. "[South Carolina's] Eddie Fogler showed his face. [Kentucky's] Rick Pitino showed his. [Clemson's] Rick Barnes showed his -- more than once. Gary only showed it once."
Did O'Neal take that as a negative?
"He probably did," Glymph said. "If I were a kid, I would take it as a negative, wouldn't you?"
Thornton did, but his decision to snub Maryland appears less an indictment of Williams than an example of the unique challenges coaches often face in recruiting.
Mark Phelps, Thornton's coach at Atlantic Shores Christian School in Chesapeake, Va., recently joined new coach Herb Sendek's staff at N.C. State. In addition, Thornton is from Norfolk, and said he feared comparisons with Smith.
Thornton said he had "really strong" interest in Maryland early, when Perry was recruiting him. But he added that the only time he spoke with Williams was on his visit to the College Park campus.
"Coach Perry always said that Coach Williams wanted me part of the team, but I never heard from him," Thornton said.
In the end, Maryland wound up with three recruits -- 7-0 center Mike Mardesich, 6-4 shooting guard Kelly Hite and 6-7 power forward LaRon Cephas.
None is considered among the nation's top 100 players, which only adds to the scrutiny they'll face next season.
James, a 6-6 forward from St. John's Prospect Hall in Frederick, would have improved the class significantly, but he chose Duke over Maryland and UCLA.
Williams fired Perry less than two weeks after James made his decision, but what he said at the time was true -- the dismissal was "not because of Nate James."
Billy Hahn, Maryland's other assistant, was more involved than Perry in the recruitment of James. What's more, St. John's coach Stu Vetter prefers to deal mainly with head coaches.
Thus, it came down to Williams vs. Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Harrick, and James cited "Coach K" as the main reason for his decision, calling him a "players' coach."
Art Perry isn't the issue.
To reach the level of Krzyzewski or Smith, Williams needs better players. And to get better players, he needs to change his style.
Pub Date: 6/09/96