Jay Wright, the well-coiffed, nattily attired Villanova men's basketball coach whose fashion sense has inspired a Twitter account (@JayWrightsSuit) and a too-perfect nickname ("GQ Jay"), saw Gary Williams on Monday. They had only a few minutes together before media obligations intervened, but Wright came to reporters afterward feeling, well, a little embarrassed.
"He looks better than everybody, and he's retired and supposed to be the old guy," Wright said of the Hall of Famer. "He looks amazing."
It was fitting: the former Maryland men's basketball coach never looking better on a day when the NCAA acknowledged that it has perhaps never looked worse. In Washington, at a meeting of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, NCAA president Mark Emmert said a recent poll conducted for college sports' governing body found that 79 percent of Americans believe schools put financial interests ahead of their student-athletes. More than half called the NCAA part of the problem.
I wasn’t going to come along and hurt the game.
Gary Williams, former Maryland men's basketball coach, on his decision to remain on the level
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Forty-five miles up the road, at the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation's "College Season Tip-Off" event in Baltimore, Williams made some of his first public comments on the FBI investigation that has implicated a handful of the nation's most prominent programs. He called the ongoing corruption scandal a "shame" but nothing new.
"If changes can be made in a positive way, I think a lot of things are going to be looked at that weren't going to be looked at until this happened," said Williams, who was long commended but often criticized over his coaching career for an unwillingness to engage some of the sport's shady power brokers. "Hopefully, for the people involved, they can get it worked out where it doesn't mess up their lives, but get the message that we can't go on like this. …
"It's a completely different world there, and for a long time, no one wanted to admit that. We treat all our student-athletes the same. Well, maybe you can't do that. Maybe that's a long-ago doctrine."
Former Loyola Maryland coach Jimmy Patsos, now the coach at Siena, served as an assistant for 13 years under Williams, a close friend whom he called a "squeaky-clean guy." It was one thing to recruit against Duke and North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Patsos said Monday. It was another to battle for high school stars against programs that "maybe were doing something wrong."
Patsos still remembers some of the red-flag, blue-chip recruits he encountered. He knew them well enough that he visited them in their homes, came to see them at their schools. A few even made it to the NBA, but not via Maryland. Those reasons were good and obvious, Patsos said.
"Let's just say there were times you'd get down to the nitty-gritty, and they didn't want to hear about the arts-and-humanities program or the engineering program or our fine business school at Maryland," he said. "And some third party came in and said, 'So, let's talk business.' I'm like, 'Oh, the business school.' And they're like, 'No, business.' And I'm like, 'Oh, well … you know where there's a good diner around here?' And out we went."
Federal corruption and fraud charges brought last month have roiled programs as big as Louisville's. On Oct. 16, facing allegations that top Cardinals recruit Brian Bowen and his family had received $100,000 in payments from Adidas, the school fired Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, and then its athletic director two days later.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said the public revelations of the sport's long-private ugliness illuminate the context of Williams' career but do not adequately explain its accomplishments. Williams didn't recruit the Bowens of his era. He didn't need to, either, Bilas said.
"Gary was and still is one of the greatest coaches ever in the game, and I used to kind of laugh when people would complain about recruiting," he said. "You're saying, well, if Gary's not getting the highest-level recruits, he must be one incredible coach to win at the high level that he did with quote-unquote lesser recruits. So it's one or the other. And in fact, it was both, because he chose the players that fit his system best."
Williams said his decision to remain on the level was out of respect for the sport. Basketball got him to Maryland and then into coaching, “so I wasn’t going to come along and hurt the game,” he said. He acknowledged his recruiting strategy cost him “some good players, there’s no doubt about it,” but that was his way of coaching, and coaches, he said, should be true to themselves.
Williams’ desire for the four-year player who, by his senior year, would be as good as any freshman — it came from a philosophy of scouting, recruiting and development that Patsos distilled into a John Wooden-inspired credo: “Better people, better players.”
"Now that's old school, I understand that," Williams said. "But that's the way I like to do it."
Notes: Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said he has offered a few suggestions for reform to Jim Haney, who as National Association of Basketball Coaches executive director will work with a new commission formed by the NCAA to study the inner workings of college basketball. Turgeon declined to disclose his proposals. … Wright said Wildcats guard Phil Booth (Mount Saint Joseph) is healthy after his promising junior season was derailed by pain and swelling in his right knee. Booth, who appeared in Villanova’s first three games last season before being sidelined, is “going to be a big factor on this team,” Wright said. “He's going to make a big impact.”