A Few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about ten things you would or should see in 2009. One of those things was that 2009 should be Gary Williams’ last season at Maryland. Mind you, I did say that he had been a great coach and they should build a statue for him outside of the Comcast Center. It should also be noted that I proposed his departure BEFORE they dumped one to Morgan State, let alone before the lost to Duke by 41.
This viewpoint has nothing to do with his sideline antics or the way he sweats through his suits. I don’t really care how much a coach sweats. It also has nothing to do with his graduation rate, or lack there of. I think graduation rates should matter, but it’s been made very clear to me that Maryland fans could care less. Bob Haynie once told me “I don’t care if the guys can read, as long as they can play,” and from my time around Baltimore, listening to fans and alumnae, I think most people agree with Bob.
No, this viewpoint comes from one very simple fact. Gary has been at Maryland 20 years, which is a long time to coach at one place, in any high profile sport. He took a program that was in very bad shape, carried it to the top of the mountain, and then quickly slid down the other side. He certainly hasn’t returned the program to the level where he found it, but it’s still safe to say that right now, in January of 2009, the program is at its lowest point in the last 15 years.
So my question to you is this. Name me any other coach, in any other sport, who has been at one place for a long time, built the team/program to an elite level, let the team/program slide quickly thereafter, and then regrouped, re-energized, and returned his team to its once lofty status? Go ahead, take some time and think about that. I can think of one coach. I’ll tell you him later.
There are two things about the Gary/Maryland basketball debate that surprise me. The first is fans are usually very quick to want to fire the coach. Once fans get a taste of winning, they usually want to continue winning. Every time Joe Torre didn’t win a World Series, some Yankee fans called for his head. Raven fans wanted to run Brian Billick out of town on a rail, even though he did bring a Super Bowl to Baltimore. But with Gary, they don’t complain. I guess I shouldn’t say that. The complaints are definitely getting louder, but relatively speaking, the last four years have been rather quiet considering how many NIT’s the Terps have played in.
The second surprise is, when seeing how far the Orioles have fallen, I would think fans would be scared of a similar situation in College Park. It seems as if the fans feel Maryland basketball will never get to a point of being a consistent 6-10 or 5-11 ACC team, even though I’m sure that six years ago, these same fans never thought the Terps would be a consistent NIT team. I remember in the mid to late 90’s Allen McCallum and I were having a discussion about the O’s. He predicted a future of peril. I said, “they will always draw way too many fans and have too much money to spend for things to ever get realty bad.” How do you say, “Whoops”? I guess I was a little wrong with that one.
Why can’t the same thing happen to Maryland basketball? If football schools like Virginia Tech, Miami and Florida State can have pretty good basketball teams, why can’t Georgia Tech, and Virginia rebound? And if Georgia Tech and Virginia rebound, what will that do to the Terps?
Here’s my next question, after you’ve finished answering the earlier one about the coaches. Where do you think Maryland basketball will be in three years? In January of 2012, if Gary Williams is still the coach, do you think they will be ranked? Do you think they’ll be a shoe-in for an at large bid? Do you think they’ll have made a tournament between now and then? And if you think the program will be better in three years, why? Do you think he’ll recruit harder? Even the most ardent Gary supporters will tell you that he’s not a strong recruiter. Can he turn it on, now, in his sixties? Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Can he get this program back up the mountaintop? I don’t know if he can or not, but I don’t think he will.
I know there are other issues at play. Someone, I think it was Drew, wrote about the amount of money he would be owed. That’s significant in any economy, let alone this one. And believe me, I know first hand what it’s like to see someone kept on simply because he had money owed to him. My brother would have never gotten to throw one pitch for the Yankees in 2008 had he not already been under contract for eleven million dollars. The Yankees figured since they had to pay him anyway, they might as well try to get something for their money. It turns out they got 20 wins. But as people reported all summer, Mike succeeded because he re-invented himself. He improved his two-seam fastball and became much more of a sinkerballer. He also perfected a big, slow “old man’s” curveball that he could dump in for strikes to get ahead in the count, and then snap off his biting curveball when he needed it. What improvement is Gary going to make? How is he going to re-invent himself?
There comes a time in many programs when the historic coach has to move on for the good of the program. Look at John Thompson at Georgetown, or Denny Crum at Louisville. Even Tom Landry with the Cowboys. Gary wouldn’t be the first legend to have great success somewhere, but actually improve things by leaving. I’m not saying things would definitely improve, but it has happened at other places, with coaches much more legendary than Gary Williams.
I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before, just ask Mr. McCallum. But if Gary wants this talk to go away, there’s no better way than to win. Losing this week, in either of these home games, will not help his cause in any way. I’ve long made the argument, that with the advent of March Madness, the other months of the season are rendered almost meaningless. This week is far from meaningless for Maryland basketball. I’d go as far as to say it’s huge!
By the way, the other old coach who brought his team back from the brink was Joe Paterno. A few years ago, the Nittany Lions went almost two years without even winning a game in the Big Ten. This year, if not for a one point loss at Iowa, they would have played for the National Title. However, it should also be noted that JoePa spent almost the entire season up in the box due to injury, and many people think he’s a figurehead who has only moderate in game input.