My parents met at the University of Maryland in the early 1970′s; I came along four years after they got married. That’s good family planning, huh?! Nevertheless, I spent a lot of autumn afternoons at Byrd Stadium, and many winter days and nights at Cole Field House rooting on the Terps. I have only a few memories of the final years of Lefty Drisell, however the coach that I’ve known and loved for most of my life has been Gary Williams. I’ve been involved in sports in various capacities since I was a small child in that I’ve played, coached, and most importantly been a fan. I’ve met my share of sports figures (current and retired), but there are few that would literally make me get nervous when I met them. Coach Gary Williams falls into that category, as probably do Cal Ripken Jr, and Coach Joe Gibbs. On September 30th Gary Williams will be honored by being inducted into the Hall of Legends in Baltimore, joining such notable figures such as Johnny Unitas, Art Modell, and Brooks Robinson.
There’s no question that this is an honor that is well-deserved on Gary’s part. We all know his story, so I won’t bore you with the specific details. However needless to say he’s won 649 career games as a head coach (American University, Boston College, Ohio State, and Maryland), a national title, and an ACC crown. But perhaps more importantly than that, he picked up a program that was very near and dear to his heart when it was down and forgotten. In 1989 when he took the job, who would have thought that Maryland would be the 2002 National Champions? We all know that Gary’s a big time yeller on the sidelines during the games, and that he takes his team very seriously. How many times have we seen him scream at guys on the bench for something that happened on the court? How many times have we seen him go after officials after a bad call against the Terps? This is all part of the Gary Williams lore, and there’s no question that the program wouldn’t be where it is today if not for all of those aspects.
I don’t know Gary Williams personally, but I have met him twice in my life. The first time he was kind enough to sign my copy of his book, Sweet Redemption. However it was the second time I spoke with him (approximately a year later) that told me a lot about what kind of person he really is. At the time, my father was undergoing chemotherapy during cancer treatments. Gary Williams was doing an appearance at a local restaurant, and I asked if he wouldn’t mind signing a new Terp hat that I had bought; I asked him to make it out to my father, who was getting chemo at the time. I could see his entire demeanor change, and he spoke to me for the better part of five minutes about my Dad, and how he felt bad for our family to have to go through this and so forth. I’ve known for a long time that he was heavily involved in Coaches vs. Cancer and so forth, but I could tell that he was very genuine in his comments about my father, and that meant a lot to me. He finished the conversation by telling me that he’d keep my Dad in his thoughts and that the team would include him in a special prayer that they would do before the Coaches vs. Cancer game that season. I’m not big on public displays of emotion, but I had to go in the bathroom and “compose” myself, because that really meant a lot to me.
Gary Williams has been written off more times than I’d care to mention, and yet he’s always proved his critics wrong. How often was Grevis Vasquez criticized during his stint at Maryland, and thus how often was Gary criticized by extentsion? When most people think back on Gary’s career at Maryland, they’ll probably think about the national title, or perhaps even the ACC title. I think that when it’s all said and done with, I’ll probably remember one specific memory. As we remember in 2008-2009, the Washington Post did a series of articles outlining Gary’s shortcomings as a recruiter. At the time, he was very much on the hot seat. However Maryland rattled off win after win after win (including a Grevis Vasquez-inspirined victory against UNC which will probably always be one of Williams’ biggest wins at Maryland), propelling them into the NCAA tournament. As a result, I firmly believe that the team came back much stronger in 200-2010, and ultimately won a share of the ACC title. That was clinched on the last day of the regular season with a victory at Virginia. I’ll never forget at the end of the game, the cameras caught a shot of Gary Williams calmly walking off the court. And I think that’s how I’ll remember him when it’s over; just sort of walking away, victory in hand.
In my mind, being inducted into the Hall of Legends is well deserved for a coach who hasn’t gotten nearly the accolades that he should. Maryland has always been a program that’s unfortunately had trouble getting out of the shadow of Duke and Carolina, but Gary Williams brought that dream to reality in winning the title in 2002. If there’s one thing you can never do, it’s count out a Gary Williams-led team, or the man himself. His defeated critics line the road down which he’s walked in order to get to where he is today. Also lining that route are the thousands upon thousands of grateful Maryland Terrapin fans.