COLLEGE PARK -- He was sitting in a lounge next to the locker room at Cole Field House an hour or so after his team's recent loss to North Carolina, his gray hair a bit disheveled, his white dress shirt drenched with sweat, his face drained of whatever color it had a couple of hours before.
Gary Williams leaned on a couch, more than a bit concerned about the way the season seemed to be turning out. He talked about his Maryland Terrapins getting back the hunger and chemistry that they had demonstrated earlier in the season, when they were ranked as high as fifth in the country.
His team won 17 of its first 19 games, but was in the midst of losing seven of its last 10 in the regular season. Could the Terps find their second wind going into the postseason? Williams smiled.
"That's my job," he said. "That's what I'm paid to do."
Beginning today in Greensboro, N.C., when 22nd-ranked Maryland plays No. 13 Clemson in the quarterfinals of this year's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Williams hopes to have found some of the answers that have eluded the Terrapins over the past five weeks.
If not, then the coach will try to prepare his team for its first game in the NCAA tournament. Whatever happens will not detract from what Maryland, picked to finish eighth in the ACC, has accomplished; or from what many consider to be perhaps Williams' best coaching job in his 19-year Division I career.
Not that Williams, who turned 52 on Tuesday, has had much time to enjoy it.
"You don't get a chance," he said in his one of his few relaxed moments recently, sitting in his office before practice one afternoon last week.
"I don't allow it. The most fun I have is on the plane rides back from the big games we win, like Wake Forest or Carolina. But by the next day, I'm thinking about the next game."
Williams has been down this seemingly bumpy road before. Two years ago, he watched a young and tired team struggle to make the NCAA tournament after a surprisingly hot start. With freshmen Keith Booth and Joe Smith, along with three sophomores, Maryland won six of its first eight ACC games, but lost six of its last eight as well as an opening-round game in the ACC tournament, to Virginia.
Then, the Terrapins made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed.
"I really felt playing in the ACC tournament, even though we lost to Virginia, helped that team get used to everything in the NCAA tournament, and I think that will happen for this year's team, too," said Williams, who has to remind himself and others that Maryland starts three sophomores and only one senior, first-team All-ACC player Booth.
"If we didn't, I don't know if we would have beaten Saint Louis [in the opening round]. You never know how a team is going to react. Sometimes, you get re-energized. Sometimes you don't."
Questions at start
Before this season began, some wondered whether Williams' eighth year at Maryland might be his last coaching his alma mater. There was the constant swirl of controversy that surrounded the Terrapins through an up-and-down 17-13 season year ago, one that ended with a first-round upset loss to Santa Clara in the NCAA tournament.
There was the fiasco involving unpaid parking tickets by several players, most notably senior guard Duane Simpkins. There was friction between the seniors and freshmen. There was an incident during the ACC tournament in which Williams got into a verbal confrontation with a couple of fans behind his team's bench. And there was the firing last spring of longtime assistant coach Art Perry, the man credited with bringing Smith to Maryland.
"There was a time when I was into a bit of self-pity," said Williams. "I was disappointed that people didn't understand what we had done the last three years by going to the NCAA tournament. I knew what Joe had done for us. He took a lot of pressure off us. I thought we played well just to make it to the NCAAs, but a lot of people around here didn't."
When the Terrapins failed to land a single Top 50 recruit, the radio talk shows were flooded with calls from angry and frustrated fans who thought the Maryland program was in
When the 10-year anniversary of the death of former star Len Bias was marked by stories about a continued lack of attention to academics, there were rumors that a fed-up Williams was looking to get out or that school officials were looking for a way to force him to leave.
"Last year was tough for two reasons," said Don McCartney, Williams' attorney and friend. "It was tough for him to put up with a team that didn't play hard every game and then to have the talk shows descend on him after the season. I think all that took their toll. To have this year's team be more the prototype of what his teams have been about makes it special. The contrast is there for everyone to see."
'That's my personality'
Williams' confrontation with fans during last year's ACC tournament seemed to take on a life of its own. There were whispers that the coach had been asked by Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow to seek counseling to control his hair-trigger temper on the sideline.
Williams declined, but according to those familiar with the incident, wrote a letter of apology to the young daughter of one of the fans for the foul language he used.
"I've never seen anybody for anger counseling," Williams said evenly. "I get upset during games. That's my personality. People think it's how I am all the time, but my friends know I'm completely different away from the game. That's not how I teach my players to act. I'll tell them, 'Don't act the way I do.' "
Said junior forward Rodney Elliott: "If people just saw the way he acted during games and thought that was the way he was all the time, they'd think he was crazy. But the players feed off that excitement he shows. That's the way he coaches, and that's the way we play."
Asked if he ever watches himself go into what a psychologist might call controlled rage on the sidelines, Williams cringes at the thought.
"When I watch tapes of our games, I turn the sound down because I don't want to hear what the guys are saying about me," he said. "When I was younger, I thought I would change as I got older. Now that I've gotten older, I realize that I won't change."
On the surface, it doesn't seem as if Williams has changed much. He is constantly barking at the officials and has received seven technicals this season, equaling the most he has gotten in a season at Maryland. He received two in one game during a loss at Florida State and was ejected for what he said was the first time in his coaching career.
And he still yells at his players -- some of whom have yelled back at him this season -- whether they are on the court or on the bench.
But his players say that he has changed for the better. Where they see it has been where others outside the program can't: at practice, during team meals, in private conversations on buses and planes. While the differences might not be dramatic, they are noticeable enough to make headway in the relationships he has forged with as independent thinking a group of players as he has ever coached.
Sophomore guard Laron Profit, a talented but erratic player who has felt the brunt of a few of Williams' expletive-laced tirades this season, said after Sunday's loss at Virginia: "I think Coach
Williams has done a much better job at communicating with us this year. It's tough for Coach. It's not his natural style. He's more elusive. But he's worked hard on it."
Said junior guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, another to have spent time in the coach's doghouse during his first two years at Maryland: "He's much more loose. He's always talking to us about what he decides. He trusts us more than he did with the teams in the past. He lets us do a lot more on the court."
Kristin Scott, the only child of Williams and his former wife, Diane, has noticed a difference, too. Mostly it has come from watching games on television from her home near Columbus, Ohio, where she teaches eighth-grade Spanish. But a recent trip to Cole Field House for the North Carolina game confirmed those feelings.
"I've seen a lot more applauding on his part," said Scott. "For me, it was good to see him tell the guys, 'Nice job,' and pat them on the back when they came out. I really think this is a special group for him."
Scott also has noticed how her father seems more comfortable being at Maryland than he did in the past.
Said Yow: "A year ago, we were able to say that we were one of three ACC teams to go to three straight NCAA tournaments, and now we can say we are one of three to go to four straight. That's quite an achievement for a school coming from where we were. I think he's done a tremendous coaching job. With everybody back next year except Keith, the future looks very bright."
L But will Williams stay and see the program continue to grow?
There was a time when he had aspirations to coach in the NBA, but those feelings might have dissipated in light of what is happening to his close friend, former Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo, in three rocky years with the Portland Trail Blazers. There has been speculation that Carlesimo will be fired any day.
"For me to be a viable candidate, I would have to get to the Final Four," said Williams, whose teams have reached the Sweet 16 twice at Maryland, and once at Boston College in 1985. "That's what [New Jersey Nets coach John] Calipari did at UMass. That's what P.J. did. But I really like this area. This is the longest I've been anywhere aside from when I was here for college."
Except to say that he plans to stay at Maryland as long as he remains a college coach, Williams is noncommittal about his future. There was a recent report that Williams, who grew up in Collingswood, N.J., might be a candidate at Rutgers. And earlier this season, there were rumors about him going to Arizona State.
But despite what many believe is a sometimes tense relationship with Yow, Williams likely will stay here unless an NBA general manager makes a lucrative offer.
Williams has a seven-year contract with Maryland that pays him somewhere between $500,000 and $600,000 annually, with a clause that allows Yow the option of rolling it over at the end of each season, something she has done since it went into effect in 1995. The thought of rebuilding another college program, as he did at Maryland, is not something that intrigues him.
"Every spring it's a running joke when his name is mentioned for different jobs," said Scott. "I'll ask him, 'Where are you going this year?' But I think he's happier than he's ever been. After the Carolina game, I told him to let that game go and get ready for the next one. I took a risk saying that. But I think he realizes that this has been a very special team. I think he's getting better at appreciating things like that."
ACC tournament quarterfinal
Maryland (20-9) vs. Clemson (21-8)
Site: Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum
TV/Radio: Chs. 54, 9/WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)
Outlook: The key will be the Terrapins' ability to stop two Clemson players: junior forward Greg Buckner, who has averaged 19.5 points and seven rebounds in his team's two wins over Maryland, and, perhaps more significantly, sophomore guard Terrell McIntyre, who dominated the second half of both games. The Terrapins couldn't make their free throws in the first game, and got into severe foul trouble in the second. Obinna Ekezie was not a factor in either game, limited to 22 minutes the first time and a season-low 12 the second. Both Ekezie and Laron Profit need to be a presence for Maryland to have a chance today. Profit, a sophomore guard, has made only eight of 23 shots against the Tigers, but he tied his career high in scoring with 24 on Sunday in a loss at Virginia. If Profit disappears, as is his habit, so will the Terrapins.
Williams' Terps in postseason
1994 NCAA: 2-1 (beat Saint Louis, 74-68; beat Massachusetts, 95-87; lost to Michigan, 78-71)
1995 NCAA: 2-1 (beat Gonzaga, 87-63; beat Texas, 82-68; lost to Connecticut, 99-89)
1996 NCAA: 0-1 (lost to Santa Clara, 91-79)
Pub Date: 3/07/97