Gary Williams was getting ready to play in Johnny Holliday’s charity golf tournament Monday when he heard about John Beilein’s stunning announcement that after 12 seasons at Michigan, he was leaving to coach the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
The news surprised many who follow both college basketball and the NBA, and brought back memories for Williams and Maryland fans of his decision to suddenly retire after 22 seasons in College Park in the first week of May 2011.
Given the current climate surrounding college basketball, Williams wasn’t shocked.
“John was one of those guys, if you talk with him a little bit, he’s a college coach,” Williams said. “In John’s mind, what went on in the last couple of years — the FBI trial, players leaving early, not sure of what your team is going to look like next year — you start to wonder about that. I know myself, all you want is a level playing field as a coach.
“You’re going to try to get every advantage you can. … That went into my thinking [to retire]. I wasn’t sure there was a level playing field out there anymore. And that was eight years ago. I can’t speak for John Beilein. I’m sure all those things went through his mind. Whatever went into his decision, I don’t know — maybe he just wanted to be a pro coach.”
Aside from being the exact same age (66) when they made the decision to leave a program they helped resurrect, there are several similarities between Williams and Beilein.
Both began as high school coaches.
Both went to two Final Fours as college coaches.
Both won nearly the same percent of games in their most high-profile job.
And both were known not only as terrific bench coaches whose ability to make in-game adjustments led to their teams’ success, but for playing by the rules that many of their colleagues either broke or bent.
Shortly before Williams retired, star sophomore Jordan Williams announced that he was leaving Maryland to pursue an NBA career. Beilein saw three starters with remaining eligibility — Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ignas Brazdeikis — contemplate doing the same this year.
Gary Williams understands the timing of Beilein’s announcement could make things difficult for Michigan, given that most college coaches are starting to get ready for their teams to return for summer workouts in early June.
But he also understands it from the coach’s perspective.
“This is right around the same time [that Williams retired],” Williams said, “but you don’t want to make a decision the week after the season is over because every year, unless you win a national championship, you feel like the world came down and you lost your last game, whatever.
“I think it’s easier to [find a replacement] the earlier you can do it, in terms of the end of the season. At the same time, things have changed with the NBA draft. … I don’t think coaches are sure of who’s coming back yet. The graduate transfer rule has really changed the world of recruiting. There’s still top-20 programs in flux. It might be easier for a [college] coach to take over a program right now than it was eight years ago.”
The only time Williams had talked with an NBA team came early in his tenure at Maryland, when the Terps were in the middle of severe NCAA sanctions leveled against the program for violations committed under former coach Bob Wade.
Former Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt, a close friend and mentor, had become the Boston Celtics CEO and offered Williams a job as one of the team’s top assistant coaches. That might have put Williams on a path to becoming an NBA coach.
“I considered it, but I just thought of myself as a college coach at that point,” Williams recalled. “By then, you just dig your heels in and try to make it work at Maryland.”
Had the opportunity to coach in the NBA at age 66 presented itself — and if he was not ready to retire — Williams said he could have done it.
“I really do,” Williams said. “People say, ‘The way you were on the sideline and all that.’ I coached a long time, I watched a lot of programs, I know what you have to do to coach. Billy Donovan was much more demonstrative on the sideline at Florida than he is where he is now [with the Oklahoma City Thunder]. You’re managing players more so in the pros and there are different ways to motivate them. You hire people around you to help you figure it out.”