COLLEGE PARK -- When Dave Dickerson graduated from the University of Maryland in 1989, he put his class ring in a drawer and his Terrapins basketball uniform in the closet. He went to work as a college coach, hoping to improve on the experience he had here as a player during one of the most tumultuous and tragic periods in school history.
The feeling of embarrassment that stayed with Dickerson in his stops at Gardner-Webb, James Madison and Radford has been replaced by a sense of pride. As as an assistant coach to Gary Williams, he has a perspective few hold in watching the No. 2 Terrapins ascend to their highest ranking in 22 years.
"I can appreciate where the program was and where it is now, especially having been here during the time of the situation with Len Bias and then with Bob Wade," Dickerson, now in his third season as a coach at his alma mater, said this week. "The biggest compliment I could pay the University of Maryland is that I wish I could go out and play against Kentucky on Saturday."
Dickerson will be wearing a suit to tonight's game against the defending national champions at Rupp Arena in Lexington. In fact, the number Dickerson wore during a four-year career that included the death of Bias from cocaine intoxication, as well as the resignations of coaches Lefty Driesell and Bob Wade, was not worn until this year.
The number -- 23 -- is now on the back of Steve Francis, the junior college transfer from Takoma Park who in 10 games has become one of college basketball's most-talked-about players. In doing so, he has turned the Terrapins into one of the country's most-talked-about teams.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Gary Williams, who is in his 10th season as coach at his alma mater and recently signed a contract that could keep him here for another decade. "We've only played one conference game so far. People are talking about weird things -- like the Final Four. I hope they're still talking about it in March."
There has been this kind of March Madness-like buzz at other times in recent years, but this time there is a difference in its excess. Maryland is being thought of as a legitimate contender for what has been uncharted territory: the Final Four. Just the other night, college basketball television analyst Dick Vitale hyped the Terrapins as "the best team I've seen this year."
Getting to St. Petersburg, Fla., for this season's NCAA tournament semifinals won't be easy.
A long journey
But getting back to this rarefied place among college basketball's elite was even more difficult.
It has been a journey that lasted more than a dozen years.
Beginning with the death of Bias in June 1986, the journey included the subsequent resignation of Driesell, who brought the program to national prominence in a sometimes-controversial 17-year tenure. It included Wade, the former Dunbar legend, going largely unsupported before his forced resignation three years later.
And it led to the arrival of Williams, a former Terrapins team captain, from Ohio State. His return in May 1989 came as Maryland was about to be sanctioned by the NCAA. The Terrapins received a stiff three-year penalty that included two years with no postseason participation.
"There were times when I wasn't sure if we would turn this around," Williams said earlier this year. The black cloud stayed until the arrival in fall 1993 of a relatively unknown high school player with the most nondescript of names. Joe Smith led the Terrapins to their first NCAA tournament appearance in six years and to two straight Sweet 16s before departing after his sophomore season. He left as the Atlantic Coast Conference and national Player of the Year, as well as the No. 1 pick overall in the NBA draft.
But without some of the players who preceded Smith, Maryland basketball might have fallen into the kind of abyss that has swallowed up other top programs.
Walt Williams stayed in College Park during the NCAA probation period when other players transferred and one, Jerrod Mustaf, left for the pros. Duane Simpkins followed Walt Williams here, choosing to play for the Terrapins when every other high school All-American went elsewhere.
"With Maryland coming off probation, and being the first player to commit, everyone close to me told me not to come," said Simpkins, a former star at DeMatha who has played professionally the past two years in Europe. "That was a big gamble, but it paid off. You take pride in the fact that whether people know it or not, you did a good job when you were there."
The 1992 recruiting class, which included Simpkins, became the first of several that helped turn around the program. Next up were Smith and former Dunbar star Keith Booth, both of whom became All-Americans and saw their jersey numbers hung from the rafters of Cole Field House. Then came the current senior class of Obinna Ekezie, Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes, all of whom start for this season's team.
But it has been the arrival of two players over the past two years that has helped transform Maryland from ACC wannabe to national contender. Terence Morris showed only flashes as a freshman last year, but the 6-foot-9 forward from Frederick has become a dominant player at times this season. Then there is Francis, the 6-3 guard whose impact has been as dramatic as Smith's was.
"He's been great so far at handling the attention," Williams said of Francis. "The thing about Stevie is that he really cares about winning."
Those above-the-rim theatrics of players such as Francis, Morris and Profit have made the Terrapins a game-night staple on ESPN's "SportsCenter." But what has led Vitale to give the "edge to Maryland" over teams such as Connecticut and Duke is a relentless pressure defense that has turned nationally ranked teams such as UCLA (70-54) and Pittsburgh (87-52) into rubble.
"When we won in Puerto Rico in such a dominant way, people started talking about the Final Four more seriously," said Debbie Yow, a former college women's coach at Kentucky who is now in her fifth year as Maryland's athletic director. "That's pretty exciting when you've never been to the Final Four. The expectations have always been here since Joe Smith, but now we're getting a lot more media attention."
That attention has recently focused on the new contract Williams signed, a seven-year extension with a three-year rollover that will pay the 53-year-old coach as much as $900,000 a year. Yow hopes the hoopla can help attract a corporate sponsor willing to put up the needed $25 million to attach its name to a proposed 18,000-seat, on-campus arena.
Yow estimates donations to the Terrapin Club, which last year raised $2.8 million to help pay for athletic scholarships, will increase to more than $3 million this year. Lance Billingsley, a former varsity soccer player who serves as president of the Terrapin Club and chairman of the board of the University System of Maryland, called the timing "very fortuitous."
It also comes at a time when the men's soccer team reached the Final Four, months after the men's lacrosse team played for the national championship. With football still a losing proposition, much of the athletic department's future contributions ride on the success of the basketball team.
"The money's got to come from somewhere, and right now it's coming from basketball," said Billingsley. "It's definitely the engine that pulls the athletic department train."
By some of the telephone calls he has received in the past weeks, Dave Dickerson can sense the interest growing. He has heard from many of his former teammates, excitement in their voices.
"It's a good feeling." said Dickerson. "The guys I played with are proud now they played at Maryland."
Tragedy -- triumph
June 1986: Days after being selected by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA draft, Maryland All-American Len Bias dies of cocaine intoxication.
October 1986: Longtime coach Lefty Driesell is forced to resign; Bob Wade is brought from Baltimore's Dunbar High School as Maryland's new coach.
March 1987: The Terrapins finish their first season under Wade ++ 9-17, 0-14 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
March 1988: Led by freshman Brian Williams and senior Derrick Lewis, Maryland goes to the NCAA Tournament, losing to Kentucky in the second round.
March 1989: After the NCAA uncovers numerous infractions, Wade is forced to resign.
May 1989: Gary Williams, a former Maryland captain, is brought in from Ohio State to resurrect the program.
March 1990: After finishing a respectable 18-13, the Terrapins are snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee and are placed on probation for three years and hit with a two-year postseason ban.
March 1993: Shackled by the probation that has hurt recruiting, Maryland endures its second straight losing season, winning just two ACC games.
March 1994: Led by freshman All-American Joe Smith, the Terrapins upset Massachusetts in the second round of the NCAA tournament to reach the Sweet 16.
March 1995: Smith winds up his short but successful career in College Park by leading Maryland to a first-place tie in the ACC and to its second straight Sweet 16, where the Terrapins lose to Connecticut.
March 1998: After being upset in the first round of the NCAA
Tournament for the past two years, the Terrapins reach the Sweet 16 before losing to Arizona.
May 1998: Junior college All-American Steve Francis announces he will forgo the NBA draft and attend Maryland.
November 1998: With the addition of Francis, Juan Dixon and Danny Miller to a veteran team, the Terrapins are picked No. 6 in the preseason rankings.
December 1998: An impressive performance in the Puerto Rico Shootout propels Maryland to No. 2, its highest ranking since the 1975-1976 season.
Pub Date: 12/12/98