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Maryland's Gary Williams motivated by past, focused on future

On the walls of his office hang poster-sized magazine covers and other reminders of Final Fours and four decades of basketball victories. But Gary Williams — as driven and intense as ever — still sometimes wears the haunted look of a man who coaches a sport in which an NCAA tournament game can be lost on a buzzer beater because an opposing player ducked.

At 65, the Maryland coach — who is being inducted Thursday night into the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards' "Hall of Legends" — has a memory full of the sort of detailed basketball information that all but coaches and fantasy leaguers might consider arcane. He can name, in order, the four players — including Kevin Garnett — that former Maryland star Joe Smith was selected ahead of in the 1995 NBA draft. He can tell you the spot on the floor where Steve Blake missed a buzzer-beating, 3-pointer in the 2003 NCAA tournament.

It says something about Williams — perhaps about all such passionate coaches — that he best remembers the shots that cost him games. Those recollections remain with him like hundreds of tiny scars. They torture him, frustrate him — and perhaps motivate him.

In a 45-minute interview with The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday, Williams discussed his most vivid basketball memories as well as his well-known intensity ("I know I'm Type-A."), the origin of his pre-game fist pump ("I didn't even plan it, really."), Maryland's new athletic director ("You get gut feelings about people."), a particular chant by Duke fans ("They have to be a little more original than that.") and his most excruciating loss (Michigan State last season, in which a Spartans player ducked to avoid a pass headed for the team's buzzer-beating shooter).

Williams is coming off a memorable season in which he was named Atlantic Coast Conference coach of the year after the Terps tied soon-to-be national champion Duke atop the regular-season, ACC standings. He's now led Maryland to 14 NCAA tournament berths in the past 17 seasons.

Williams, who is divorced with a daughter and three grandchildren, will be honored Thursday by former players Steve Francis, Juan Dixon, Johnny Rhodes and about a dozen others — as well as NCAA coaching colleagues Jay Wright of Villanova, Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and others.

"When he sees all these people coming back. I think he'll be moved," said Terps broadcaster Johnny Holliday, a longtime friend. "I think it'll be emotional for him."

Said Williams of the event: "The thing in coaching is it's always the next season, the next game, the next recruit. So whatever you do the past year, you never look back at it. This is a little unique in that it is looking back."

Even as he focuses on integrating six scholarship newcomers — half the squad — into the 2010-11 team, Williams is too competitive to let go of the memory of last season's 85-83 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament's second round.

"The Michigan State game was the toughest there ever is," the coach said after naming other agonizing defeats such as the 2001 Final Four loss to Duke in which the Terps blew a 22-point-lead. "Part of it was that we came back [against Michigan State]. You're usually not going to be able to make up 16 points."

Maryland lost on a rainbow 3-pointer by backup Spartans guard Korie Lucious. On the pass to Lucious, Michigan State's Delvon Roe had to duck to keep the ball from hitting his head.

"Just the idea that the guy ducked on the pass," said the silver-haired Williams as he sat in his Comcast Center office surrounded by memorabilia from the 2002 national championship.

"I'll live with that forever, you know? Because you don't duck. It's reflexes. A pass goes here in basketball," Williams said, raising a hand to his face. "You put up your hand to try to catch it. Guy from Michigan State ducked and it got to the shooter. "

Williams hopes to use the game as a teachable moment. The 2001 Final Four loss, he said, was crushing at the time but taught the Terps "how hard you have to work to win. That probably allowed us to win the national championship game the next year."

Said Dixon, Maryland's career leading scorer: "I knew we'd win it the next year — or have a great opportunity. We knew what it took to get back and had pretty much the same team back except Terence Morris."

Williams, a former Terps point guard, began his career at a New Jersey high school before becoming head coach at American, Boston College and Ohio State. Arriving at Maryland in 1989, he helped the school emerge from NCAA sanctions arising from rules violations committed shortly before his arrival.

Fans often notice Williams' sideline behavior. He's known for verbally working over assistant coaches and players on the bench during the game. He's also known for his pre-game fist pump, which he said occurred spontaneously because he wanted to show the student section at Cole Field House he appreciated them.

Williams doesn't apologize for his behavior near the bench, saying he's making points to his players — and staying true to himself. "I'm Type A, I understand that. There's a lot of coaches I started coaching with and — three stomach operations later — they just sit there on the bench and hold everything inside or they're not coaching anymore. The one thing you have to do is coach your personality."

Former Terp Tahj Holden, now a Monmouth assistant, said Williams "has calmed down a lot from when I got there to now. I think that Coach Williams is one of the best teachers in the game."

Holden, who planned to attend Thursday's induction, recalled experiencing Williams' wrath. "Chris [Wilcox] and Lonny [Baxter] would mess up in the game and he'd yell at me and Ryan Randle" because they were next to the coach on the bench. "And I'd want to say, 'Coach, then why don't you put me in?'" Holden said.

Said Rhodes of his former coach: "He likes to get the guys fired up, man."

Like all Maryland coaches, Williams has a new boss. Army's Kevin Anderson takes over as athletic director this week, replacing Debbie Yow. Williams said he has a "gut feeling" that Anderson will be a good communicator and be well liked.

Williams said he is looking ahead to the season that begins Nov. 8 against Seattle University.

The Terps visit defending national champion Duke on Jan.9, and the Blue Devils come to Comcast Center on Feb. 2. Duke fans typically serenade Williams with a chorus of "Sweat, Gary, sweat."

"They have to be a little more original than that," Williams said. "You know, I'm a little disappointed they didn't have more creativity."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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