On eve of Hall of Fame induction, Gary Williams still emotional about Maryland career

A few months after Maryland men's basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose in June 1986, and a few days after Dunbar High coach Bob Wade was named to replace Lefty Driesell as coach, a reporter called Gary Williams to ask whether he would have considered taking the job.

"It would have been hard, but I would have had to do it — Maryland's my school," said Williams, who was entering his ninth year as a Division I head coach and had just been hired at Ohio State.


Three years later, Maryland called.

A quarter-century after that, so did the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.


On Friday night, the four-plus-decade coaching career of Williams, 69, will be celebrated in Springfield, Mass., when he is officially inducted as part of a 2014 class headlined by former NBA commissioner David Stern.

Recalling the April afternoon when he heard he had made the Hall of Fame as a first-ballot nominee, Williams became emotional.

"Basically, [I] couldn't talk," Williams said, sitting Tuesday afternoon in the basement of his Montgomery County home, the room filled with mementos and his voice cracking with emotion.

"You always think that happens to other people. That's how I always looked at it — [Mike] Krzyzewski, Dean Smith. And you never put yourself with them. This kind of did, so it was special."


Those two calls were bookends to Williams' 22 years coaching the Terps, a program he led past harsh NCAA sanctions to two straight Final Fours, including the program's only national title, in 2002.

"To leave Ohio State, I think I can really say, honestly, that I would never have left there except for the University of Maryland," Williams said Tuesday. "I felt some responsibility [as an alumnus]. I knew they weren't in great shape, I didn't know how bad a shape they were in when I went back."

Williams joked that his South Jersey upbringing "finally helped me" in rebuilding the Terps.

"You grow up with a certain toughness there," said Williams, whose small plaque from the Collingswood High Athletic Hall of Fame hangs under pictures and other items from the 2002 national championship team in his home.

"The idea that I left Ohio State and came to Maryland helped me, too. You have to remind yourself every once in a while: 'Hey, big boy, nobody made you make that move,' " Williams said.

Tony Massenburg, a senior in Williams' first season at Maryland, recalled how the 1989-90 team felt after being snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee despite a 19-14 record that included wins in five of its last six regular-season games.

"We felt slighted, with that feeling that we were still paying the price for having that black cloud from the Len Bias tragedy hanging over us," said Massenburg, who plans on attending Friday's ceremonies along with former teammate and Terps star Walt Williams.

Gary Williams has long credited Walt Williams with keeping the team competitive when the NCAA banned the Terps from postseason competition for two seasons and from television for one, beginning in the 1990-91 season, for violations committed under Wade.

"Just the type of person he was kept us relevant," Gary Williams said. "It really worked out for me, coaching-wise, because it gave me a reason to make Maryland as good as anyone else. That was always the goal after that."

Williams still gets nearly as emotional when he recalls how tough it was to rebuild while on probation.

"The doubts creep in as time goes by," he said, his voice choking again, tears starting to well up in his eyes. "So you're thinking, maybe you can't get this thing turned around."

Duane Simpkins, whose decision to play at Maryland after starring at nearby DeMatha factored largely in the turnaround, said he recently saw the interview Williams did with local media on Selection Sunday in March 1994.

As his former coach did two decades ago, Simpkins started to cry.

"I had the same feeling I had at that point in time years ago. It was very surreal," said Simpkins, a three-year starter at Maryland from 1992 to 1996 and now the associate head coach at UNC-Greensboro. "He had worked so hard. I have a much greater appreciation for it now being a coach myself."

Maryland's return to the NCAA tournament came a year after Simpkins and two other local stars, Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp, won just two of 16 ACC games as freshmen. They were joined by Joe Smith and Keith Booth (Dunbar) for the 1993-94 season.

As a 10th seed after a 16-11 season, Maryland reached the Sweet 16 for the first of seven times under Williams.

Mark Turgeon, who replaced Williams after he retired in May 2011, has yet to reach the NCAA tournament at Maryland. But from his own struggles in rebuilding Wichita State into a perennial Missouri Valley Conference contender, he can understand what Williams experienced in 1994.

"The reason Gary is where he is today is because he never let things get him down. He would be disappointed when things didn't go right, but he'd wake up the next day and fight again," Turgeon said Wednesday. "You just have to keep battling. He always had that personality. Still does. Always will."

Said Simpkins: "I'm sure a number of people saw [going to Maryland] as a bad decision when the NCAA came down with the sanctions. He's such a prideful guy. He's got a lot of heart, a lot of fight; it just probably intensified that fight in him even more."

The first coach to be inducted into to the Naismith Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in the same year — he will be honored at the latter in Kansas City, Mo., before the Terps play in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic in November — Williams' resume is a bit different that most.

Among modern-day honorees, Williams is the Naismith Hall of Fame's first member to have coached in three different major conferences. It is one of the reasons Williams believed he received the requisite 18 of 24 votes needed for induction.

"My background is coaching in the Big East [at Boston College], the Big Ten [at Ohio State] and the ACC, so once January hits, there's no easy games in any of these leagues, and I think [the committee] took that into consideration," Williams said.

In that way, Williams is different from many of his contemporaries, including close friend Jim Boeheim, who has spent his entire career at Syracuse, as well as Krzyzewski, who has won more than 90 percent of his Division I-record 983 games at Duke.

As a young assistant at Lafayette College, Williams went to a clinic where the legendary Smith was speaking.

"One of the things he said was when you become a head coach, try to be in a league where you have a chance to finish in the top two every year, because that will sustain your job," Williams recalled. "Even after we won the national championship, we were picked to finish second or third the next year."


Williams said he took a simple philosophy into each of the 1,048 college games he coached.


"Any game we ever played, there's got to be a way to win this game. I don't care if we were 20-point underdogs, " said Williams, whose 668 career victories include the most wins by a Division I coach over a No. 1-ranked team (7) and the third most as an ACC coach (461), behind only Krzyzewski and Smith.

"We were never the team [to beat] in the preseason," Williams said. "That was your target. The good thing about being at the schools I was at, you always had somebody to shoot at. There's never any complacency at all in terms of your program."

Along with the teams he coached, Williams "always coached in the shadows of others," said former Big East Conference commissioner Mike Tranghese, one of Williams' closest friends.

Tranghese points out how the Big East was dominated by the outsized personalities of Georgetown's John Thompson, Villanova's Rollie Massimino and Lou Carnesecca of St. John's. In the Big Ten, there was Indiana's Bob Knight. In the ACC, there was Krzyzewski, Smith and North Carolina State's Jim Valvano.

"Now he's on the same platform as those people. That's an incredible accomplishment," Tranghese said.

There are some close to Williams who wonder whether talking about basketball — he again will be a regular guest analyst on the Big Ten Network as well as on WTEM (980 AM) in Washington — can fill the void left from coaching. He remembers how he felt after the 2010-11 season, his last.

"I didn't feel good. I went to the doctors and everything," Williams said. "If coaching was like being a professor, where they give you a sabbatical for a year, I could have coached more. I never wanted to cheat the game. I couldn't do the job that I wanted to do. I was 66. It wasn't like I was 50 and quitting."

Getting the call from the Naismith Hall of Fame in April might have stopped other feelings of withdrawal. If the call from Maryland changed his life, this one changed his legacy.

"That's what's gratifying about the Hall of Fame, because if you leave too soon, you're not going to get into the Hall of Fame, probably," Williams said. "I'm just glad things worked out."

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