College Park — College Park-- --As a new college basketball season tipped off last night, we looked for signs of a brighter future in a pair of freshmen scurrying around the perimeter for the Maryland men's basketball team.
At the college level, to tally the glimpses of what's to come, you have to do more than add up practice time minutes and monitor the mop-up play of underclassmen. Sometimes you've got to dig through the papers - and that's what might make Terps fans scratch their heads a little.
Maryland, winner of a season-opening blowout last night against Hampton, begins the new year with a coach who, on paper, has less job security than any other coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
You didn't misread that. Despite a national championship and 11 NCAA tournament appearances, Gary Williams has a contract that's scheduled to expire before any other coach's in the ACC. He's only guaranteed through the 2008-09 season.
Frank Haith at Miami, Seth Greenberg at Virginia Tech, Leonard Hamilton at Florida State, Oliver Purnell at Clemson - combined they don't have as many tournament appearances as Williams, yet they all have contracts that stretch further into the future.
And here's what really might get you - Williams signed his deal more recently than all the others. (The lone exception is N.C. State's first-year coach, Sidney Lowe.)
Let's back up a couple of steps to make sure the complexity isn't lost to sensationalism. Williams' contract doesn't represent an imminent changing of the guard as much as it does an unprecedented sense of accountability in College Park.
When Williams' contract was announced last December, it didn't initially cause many heads to spin. The new deal didn't add a single guaranteed year for Williams. What it did was append a series of provisional extensions. Essentially, one year would be added each time Williams' team reached the NCAA tournament and met certain academic standards - up to four years total. The contract potentially would've taken Williams through the 2012-13 season. Seemed simple enough at the time.
But after Williams failed to achieve the standards a season ago that would trigger the first extension, those four extra years suddenly stand at only three, and you start to wonder just what exactly the new contract means from here on out.
With a young roster and a program that does a terrible job graduating its players, Maryland has a coach visiting recruits' homes and trying to sell them on a future that he's not contractually guaranteed to be a part of. Don't you think rival coaches could use this little tidbit of trivia when they're trying to coax a kid out of signing with Williams?
It's too simplistic to stand here a year later and criticize the Maryland athletics department for altering the contract language or Williams for accepting it. In fact, it's still commendable that a coach's contract might reflect the importance of academics. For too many coaches and for far too long, graduating athletes has prompted a bonus. Under Williams' deal, it's a requirement.
And we should be careful not to read too much into the contract's expiration date. Williams enjoys as much autonomy as any coach in College Park, and it's not unheard of for basketball coaches to sign further extensions (In fact, Williams has had six extensions in 12 years, including a 10-year add-on way before he won the national title.) However, if another extension is needed in the near future (and remember that Williams will be 64 years old in 2009), how will the athletic department accept that Williams failed to achieve contractual standards and justify adding more years?
At least one analyst I spoke with says that even if rival coaches question the long-term security of the Terps' program, Williams and fans need not worry much.
"If he were a young coach starting out a program, I would feel free to read some tea leaves and suggest that something needs to be done to send out a better perception," said Jay Bilas, a college hoops analyst for ESPN. "Gary has been there forever and he's shown commitment through the thinnest of times.
"The truth is, I think he's going to be there as long as he wants to be there. And any person in charge who would suggest otherwise has to have his or her head examined. Gary's one of the best coaches in basketball, period."
It's hard to fault the good intentions of the contract, but it's easy to see how it could potentially affect the program in rather profound ways. If the Terps don't reach the NCAA tournament, Williams needs to make sure his players either achieve the Academic Progress Rate cut score (pretty tough) or his players average at least 27 credit hours each year (not quite as tough, but certainly not a given).
Williams won't likely use youth as an excuse this year. The pressure to win is too prevalent. With a two-year layoff since the Terps' last NCAA tournament visit, with the women's basketball team defending its national title, and with the football team returning to a bowl game, you can't turn a corner on campus without running into expectations.
A lot is on the line, including the guarantee of another year of Williams' tenure.
Williams' contract doesn't tell us that the Terps might be closer to a coaching change than they are a return to competitive glory. But it does illustrate the careful balance in college athletics, the struggle every coach of every sport faces.
It'd be nice if the contract serves as a blueprint for other programs and other coaches, tying punishment and rewards closer together. But there is the alternative. If the Terps don't win and if players don't go to class, there aren't a lot of guarantees.