There are two truths one must be willing to concede before beginning any argument about the state of Maryland men's basketball.
The first is that Gary Williams, more than any other person, is responsible for the university's most important athletic achievement, the 2002 NCAA championship. It was Williams who helped erase the bitter memories of Len Bias' death and the NCAA rules violations committed shortly before his 1989 arrival. It was Williams who elevated Maryland, once again, to a national basketball power. He has raised millions of dollars for the university, and, at the height of his powers, he earned not just the respect of his peers but also a fan base's love.
The second truth is that, right now, all is not well in the House That Gary Built. Barring an impressive run in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament - which begins tonight in Atlanta with the Terps facing N.C. State - Maryland will likely miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. In that period, Williams has seen a succession of high-profile area players enroll at other schools and, in his 20th season guiding the program, Maryland fans have become a house divided.
Williams' supporters are not shy in defending him. Many of them are the power brokers and captains of industry whose checkbooks help build Maryland athletics. They are people such as Harry Geller, a McLean, Va., businessman and major donor who says flatly that Williams should remain "until he's ready to leave." Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is the most prominent such booster, in addition to being one of Williams' friends and confidants. He is frank about where his loyalties lie: with Williams more so than Maryland.
"My commitment to them came through my friendship with Gary," says Bisciotti, who graduated from Salisbury State but has given more than $1 million to Maryland athletics. "I'd rather reference my relationship as a great supporter of Gary Williams than a great supporter of Maryland basketball."
Bisciotti says Williams has earned every right to finish his career on his terms.
"The advice I keep telling him is to be a little like Bob Knight and tell his critics where to kiss him," Bisciotti says. "Gary loves his alma mater, Gary runs a clean program and it hurts Gary to be criticized. I just wish it didn't hurt him as much as it does."
But frustration that many fans feel isn't going away, barring a return to prominence. Miles Resnick, a longtime television news director who once worked at CBS for former anchorman Walter Cronkite, has followed Maryland basketball since graduating from the school in 1969, and says winning a national title raised the bar.
"I am spoiled. I want another championship," said Resnick, who lives in Beaumont, Texas, and whose license plate reads TERPS. "I love Gary, but I don't know if time passed him by or not. I am sick and tired of losing to Duke. I am sick and tired of losing to Virginia at Virginia. I am sick and tired of going to the NIT. Where are the residuals of winning the national championship? What did it do for national recruiting?"
Most of Williams' critics aren't quite so bold when it comes to expressing their opinion, at least publicly. But the anonymity of Internet message boards has created a culture where emotions can be expressed passionately with little accountability. It's a culture that seems to frustrate Williams, who occasionally makes snide remarks about criticism on recruiting and other topics. "There are fans who seem to care more about recruiting than who actually wins games in competition," the coach told The Baltimore Sun in an e-mail. He only agreed to answer questions for this story via e-mail.
But it's also a reality of college sports and it's not going away. While Williams has online defenders, in recent years they have been out-numbered by those fed up with the Terps missing the NCAAs.
The man who is the lightning rod for all those emotions turned 64 this past week. Regardless of what happens this season, he will almost certainly be back next year. His contract pays $1.65 million a year, excluding incentives, and could extend his tenure through May 2013. He remains as stubborn as ever, snarling at his players and his assistant coaches during games, and defending his team at every opportunity. But he is as loyal to his alma mater and as emotional about it as the day he held his first news conference in College Park, in June 1989. Back then, his hair had more brown in it than gray, and he got choked up, fighting off tears, while talking about how lucky he was, as a 1968 graduate, to have the opportunity to coach at a school he truly loved.
But coaching now is about far more than drawing up plays and making sure your kids attend class. Much of it, for better or worse, is about collecting talent, whether it's wooing McDonald's All-Americans to your campus, or scouring gyms for overlooked gems who have something to prove. It might be demeaning, but it is part of the job. As a result, any photo taken of Williams playing golf - even if it was snapped during a recruiting dead period - makes a segment of Maryland fans furious. Why, the thinking goes, is he hitting 7-irons instead of the recruiting trail?
AAU coaches say Williams doesn't reach out to prospects and coaches early or often enough. Recent local players Maryland missed out on include Rudy Gay, whom Maryland recruited hard but who went to Connecticut; Roger Mason, who attended Virginia and said Maryland didn't recruit him early or aggressively enough; Georgetown's DaJuan Summers, who says he forged a connection with Hoyas coach John Thompson III on the AAU circuit; and Michael Beasley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft. Beasley ended up at Kansas State, where Dalonte Hill, a mentor from his AAU days, had been hired as an assistant and is now in his third season.
"Our relationship with Gary personally is slim to none across the board," said Scottie Bowden, long affiliated with the Baltimore Select AAU - now part of Team Melo - whose recent alumni include Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse), Joey Dorsey (Memphis) and Todd Galloway (Florida State). "Other [head] coaches you had contact with them, not just with the assistant. We've never heard from Mr. Williams."
Williams says each case of a missed recruit has its own set of circumstances, and suggests it's unfair to say he isn't involved enough. He said former Terps Joe Smith and Steve Francis were the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in their respective drafts, and Travis Garrison and Mike Jones were McDonald's All-Americans.
"I have been at every home visit we have ever had with a recruit in 20 years," Williams wrote to The Baltimore Sun when asked how hands-on he is with recruits. "I am out recruiting every allowable day in July. When I was hired in 1989, former President Britt Kirwan said my first responsibility was to run a clean program. I have done that for 20 years. I work hard at recruiting, if I didn't we would not have the overall record that we have had for the past 16 years since we came off the NCAA sanctions that were imposed in the spring of 1990."
Maryland has not had a player picked in the first round of the NBA Draft since 2002, when Chris Wilcox (No. 7) and Juan Dixon (No. 17) were both selected. Only four other ACC schools (Clemson, Miami, Virginia and Virginia Tech) have not had a first-round pick in that six-year period.
Williams is proud but defensive about the way he runs his program, and prone to sarcasm and bullying when it suits him, with a clenched jaw and icy stare. Although he will not accuse his peers in the coaching profession of anything untoward, he is adamant about the fact that he does not cheat.
"Gary Williams has done a tremendous job there, and he's done it the right way," says Loyola College basketball coach Jimmy Patsos, an assistant for Williams for 13 years. "And none of us want to talk about what that means. But we all know what that means."
Exactly what does it mean, Patsos is asked. That he won't break the rules that others will?
"I'm not here to cast aspersions on anybody," Patsos says. "But let me just say again that he's doing it the right way."
Patsos considers Williams something of a father figure in his life, and the two still talk at least once a week. There is a Shakespearean quality, Patsos acknowledges, to the drama that has unfolded in College Park this year: The king who built his kingdom from scratch now finds it under siege from his own supporters.
"Heavy is the head that wears the crown," Patsos says.
Williams is a private man reluctant to let anyone inside his emotional suit of armor. In 1979, when he was coaching at American University, he dove into a pool and saved the life of a toddler, the son of former George Washington coach Bob Tallent.
"My son would have drowned immediately, would have gone right to the bottom," Tallent says. "Gary saved my son's life."
When asked about the incident, Williams is almost dismissive about his role in saving the boy's life. "It's something anyone would have done," Williams says.
For years, Williams, who is divorced, made it clear to beat reporters that he did not want anyone to try and talk to his daughter, Kristin, 34, his only child and mother to his three grandchildren, even if it was only to try and gain insight into who he is. Though his emotions are on display for all to see during games, vulnerability is not something that comes easily to him. In 2002, when his father died the night before a game against top-ranked Duke, he didn't even tell his team until nearly two days later. When the Terps defeated the Blue Devils, he took a moment and teared up, alone, outside the locker room. He told the media several days later that he and his father had not been particularly close, and that his father, like him, was a stubborn man of principle.
"He didn't compromise," Williams said at the time. "I respected that, and he respected the fact that I was a coach."
It has become something of a cliche for the media to write about his pre-game fist pump, and then assign larger motives to it. But to watch Williams emerge from the Comcast Center tunnel, to see him punch the air and soak in the roar of the student section, is to see a man who, even after all these years, loves the idea of sticking it to those who dare to suggest he might not measure up.
"I would have jumped off the Delaware Bridge if people were taking shots at me like that," Patsos says. "But he's just like, 'I don't agree with them. We have to get ready for our next game anyway.' "
The most notable public verbal scuffle Williams had this season was with his own athletic department.
Williams and Maryland assistant athletic director Kathy Worthington each sought to publicly correct the other over the circumstances of two former recruits who are playing at other schools. After donors and others became concerned, athletic director Debbie Yow and Williams considered having a meeting to discuss any lingering issues, two sources told The Baltimore Sun.
But the meeting never materialized. Instead, Yow showed up at Williams' regularly scheduled media session Feb. 2 and publicly expressed her support for the coach. He received little or no advance notice of what Yow planned to do or say, the sources said.
A number of boosters weren't pleased at what they perceived to be a lack of support for Williams by the athletic department after Worthington called several newspapers to dispute statements Williams made.
"Personally, I thought it showed the thin skin of administration," said Chuck Corcoran, who owns Corcoran Caterers and has been a courtside seat holder for 20 years. "He didn't even mention them in his original comments. It made it seem like maybe they are a little paranoid."
Geller said scores of boosters contacted Williams to show their support.
Yow e-mailed a statement yesterday saying Williams also has the department's support. She would not answer questions e-mailed yesterday and said in February that she typically doesn't respond to questions about the basketball program until the season is over.
"Coach Williams and I share mutual goals for the men's basketball program - consistent top 25 finishes and the continued recent academic success of our student-athletes," she said. "He and his staff are working hard to get us back to that level and I have every confidence that we will get there. He continues to have our full support in this effort."
Through it all, Maryland players seemed to rally around their embattled coach. A team that was picked to finish near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference won four of six games after the infighting began between Williams and the athletic department. Maryland knocked off No. 1 North Carolina, and came within a basket of beating No. 9 Wake Forest in the final home game of this season.
"These guys have had my back all year," the coach said.
Leading scorer Greivis Vasquez openly challenged the media after a recent game to stop criticizing the coach. "We're just here to play games. We're not here to talk about Gary," he said. "He has got more money than all of you guys together. He's not worried about what you guys say."
It is in Williams' nature to keep fighting. A year ago, when the athletic department was putting together a video montage to celebrate the 600th win of his career, there was some debate about what song to pick to accompany the video. Despite concerns that it would mostly bring to mind images of Chevy Trucks, especially for younger fans, Maryland decided to go with Bob Seger's "Like a Rock," feeling it perfectly captured Williams and the years he has spent in College Park.
The song's lyrics, especially now, say more about Williams, and the way he sees himself, than any supporter ever could.
And I stood arrow straight; unencumbered by the weight
of all these hustlers and their schemes.
I stood proud I stood tall; high above it all.
I still believed in my dreams.
MARYLAND VS. N.C. STATE