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Play-by-play man Johnny Holliday offers an oral history of 40 years of Maryland men's basketball

Johnny Holliday acknowledges that he was a little nervous meeting Lefty Driesell as Maryland’s new play-by-play voice shortly before the start of the 1979-80 season.

Though he had been around more famous celebrities as a rock ’n’ roll disc jockey in Cleveland, San Francisco and New York, and once roomed with pro basketball star Rick Barry after both relocated to Washington for their respective careers, Holliday thought the Maryland men’s basketball coach was a bit intimidating.

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“He was larger than life,” Holliday recalled this week. “He was like a John Wayne character.”

Nearly forty years later, Holliday survived his initial meeting with the future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, developing the kind of relationship with the bombastic but well-meaning coach that remains typical of the team’s play-by-play man: equal parts chronicler, cheerleader and occasional therapist.

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Though Holliday’s relationships were all different with the four coaches who spanned his career — Driesell for the last seven years of his 17-year tenure with the Terps, three years with Bob Wade, all 22 seasons with another future Hall of Famer, Gary Williams, as well the past eight years with Mark Turgeon — his voice and vigor have been the common bond.

Holliday, 81, will be honored by the Maryland athletic program during Saturday’s Ohio State game, has brought Terps basketball and football fans a little closer to the action at Cole Field House and Xfinity Center, as well as Maryland Stadium, along with road venues in the Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten Conference.

While the outcomes of more than 1,200 basketball games are nearly all a blur, what Holliday remembers vividly are the coaches and players he has spent countless hours talking about. Here are some of his favorite memories:

1. Len Bias’ 35-point performance in leading the Terps to an overtime win at No. 1 North Carolina during the 1985-86 season

That game, which took place 33 years ago this week, proved to be the most iconic of Bias’ career, which was cut short when he died from a cocaine overdose four months later, as well as for Driesell, who would be forced to give up his coaching duties in College Park shortly before the following season began.

“I think the thing that stuck out was, everybody was always amazed and it was an intriguing thing to watch Bias play, the way he could jump, almost out of a gym,” Holliday said. "And how that night he was far and above the best player, without question, on the floor. And Carolina had some pretty good players.”

Holliday has a distinct memory of what happened after the Terps clinched the game in overtime, winning, 77-72, with a behind-the-head dunk by Bias and then Maryland guard Keith Gatlin throwing an inbounds pass off the back of Tar Heels guard Kenny Smith’s leg and scoring an easy layup.

“I remember how the Carolina big hitters who sit along the floor started leaving late in the game when Maryland went ahead,” Holliday said of the first-ever loss for North Carolina in what was affectionately known then as the Dean Dome.

2, Singing the Lord’s Prayer

A few days after Bias died in June 1985, his mother, Lonise Bias, asked Holliday whether he would sing at her son’s funeral, which was to be held in the university’s chapel.

“I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do that or not,’ ” Holliday recalled. “She said, ‘Well, you do theater.’ I said, ‘Theater’s a little bit different than singing at a funeral. I had done it at [former Washington Redskin] Jerry Smith’s funeral, I’ll do it for you.’ I’ll never ever forget how difficult it was. … I got through the song OK, but I was thinking of everything but to keep my mind off how emotional it was.”

Holliday kept his emotions in check until Lonise Bias followed the casket out.

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“She blows a kiss to me up in the balcony, and that’s when I went to pieces right there,” Holliday said.

3. Getting used to Gary

After three fairly uneventful years with Wade — one of the last recollections Holliday had was of the former Dunbar High coach being transported to a hospital in Atlanta suffering from high blood pressure following the bottom-seeded Terps beating No. 1 seed North Carolina State in 1989 at The Omni — Holliday had to get accustomed working with Williams.

“Like everybody else, I knew what I could say and I couldn’t say,” Holliday said. “I think you have to walk that fine line, and I think that I had to earn his trust that I was on his side. It was us against them, really, and it was. I found that common ground. I felt even if he lost that game, he was at his best."

Driesell liked to do his postgame radio shows on a remote feed from the locker room — on occasion asking Holliday in his familiar drawl, ‘Johnny, are you there?’ before the postgame interview began. Given the option, Williams did the interview courtside, usually with a live mic piped in on the PA system.

“I really enjoyed it, but it’s also dangerous, because it’s the emotion of the moment, and if they lost a game, it’s a tough interview,” Holliday said. “Gary was terrific, win or lose. He didn’t like people leaving the arena. He wanted them to stay until the very end. Gary would chastise them sometimes, ‘Hey, the folks that left, you missed a nice ending. We won the game. I want to thank all you people who[are still] with us. I appreciate that very much.’ ”

Williams could have have his tender side, too. It certainly showed toward the end of his career, such as carrying his first grandchild after the Terps won the NCAA title in 2002. Holliday saw it firsthand when Williams was inducted in the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2014.

After hosting a luncheon that afternoon, Holliday took his seat in Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass., to hear Williams speak after being introduced.

“During his acceptance speech he said he wanted to thank some people who helped him get there, and he mentioned me and I almost fell off my seat,” Holliday recalled. “Think of all the people he could have mentioned and he picks me and [longtime trainer] J.J. Bush. I was blown away by that.”

4. The Wizard’s streak of 30-point games

Much has been made of the importance Walt Williams had in helping Gary Williams rebuild the program. After Wade was fired, the Terps were put on NCAA probation, affecting the careers of Walt Williams and Jerrod Mustaf, who had just finished their respective freshman seasons.

Mustaf chose to leave after his sophomore year — which proved to be a mistake in what turned out to be a short-lived NBA career for the talented forward — but Walt Williams passed up offers from more high-profile programs, such as reigning champion Nevada-Las Vegas, to remain at Maryland.

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“I couldn’t believe it. They weren’t going anywhere postseason,” Holliday said. “They always talk about him [Walt Williams] saving the program, and he did. He had wanted to come to Maryland since he was a kid. I think that set the whole stage and other kids could say, ‘If I could be a good a player as he was, we’re going to think about playing at Maryland.”

The highlight for Holliday came during Williams’ senior year. After breaking his leg and missing a chunk of his junior year, Williams averaged an ACC-best and school-record 26.8 points, including a stretch of seven straight games of 30 points or more.

Holliday said he and color analyst Greg Manning, a former Maryland guard, would begin each game with a question — “Can he do it again?” Holliday recalled. “Greg would say, ‘I think he can.’ And he would. And he did. Of the seven straight, I think three or four were on the road.”

Iowa play-by-play announcer Gary Dolphin was suspended Friday for the rest of the season for referring to Maryland's Bruno Fernando as "King Kong" during a game.

5. Going to the Final Four … and winning the NCAA title

After being a surprise Sweet 16 team with freshman stars Joe Smith and Keith Booth in 1994, Maryland went to 11 straight NCAA tournaments. The Terps made the Sweet 16 seven times in that stretch, highlighted by the program’s first Final Four in 2001 and its only national championship in 2002.

Holliday has memories of Lonny Baxter outplaying the Collins twins of Stanford in picking up the first of two straight regional Most Valuable Player awards in Anaheim, Calif., in 2001, then Juan Dixon outdueling Connecticut’s Caron Butler in the regional final in Syracuse, N.Y., the following year en route to Maryland’s wins over Kansas and Indiana at the Final Four in Atlanta.

One of Holliday’s favorite off-court memories of the first Final Four run came in Anaheim, when a friend from his childhood in Miami called to see whether he could get him a ticket for the game. Since the game was a sellout, Holliday got his friend a media credential and a seat next to him on press row.

“My buddy from high school is Paul Gleason, he was Mr. Vernon, the principal in [the movie] ‘The Breakfast Club,’ ” Holliday said. “At the game, [sportscaster] Chick Hernandez walks by and kind of mouths to me, ‘Is that Mr. Vernon?’ ”

After the game, Holliday and Gleason were at dinner in the same restaurant with the Maryland cheerleaders.

“I say to Paul, ‘I'm going to go to the men’s room, I’ll be right back,’ ” Holliday said. “I stopped by the cheerleaders’ table and I tell them, ‘In a couple of minutes I want you come to my table’ and I point to Paul. They said, ‘Is that Mr. Vernon?’ I told them to come over and say, ‘Can we get a picture with you? And he’s going to stand up and say, ‘Absolutely.’ Then you say, ‘We don’t know who you are, we want to get a picture with Mr. Holliday.’ And they did. He almost fell off his chair.”

No. 24 Maryland's 66-65 victory over No. 21 Iowa Tuesday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena broke a 27-game losing streak to ranked teams on the road, but it didn't come easy after the Terps blew a 12-point lead in the second half.

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