The (inevitable) Gary Williams debate

March 10, 2008 | Drew Forrester

It’s becoming more of a season-ending discussion than it should be.  And, that could spell trouble for Gary Williams down at College Park.

If Maryland doesn’t pull some kind of 3-win rabbit out of their hat in the upcoming ACC Tournament, fans of Terps basketball are going to kick-start their seemingly annual “Gary Needs To Go!” campaign.

This time around, those cries might be worthy of attention.

I’m not here to say Gary Williams should be fired.  Let’s get that out of the way now so no one is led to believe I think the Terps should make a coaching change.

In general, I think firing your Head Coach is a last resort type of thing.  I don’t see Maryland basketball being in a critical state just yet.  To borrow a hospital phrase, I’d say the condition of Maryland’s basketball program is “guarded”.  How else would you describe it when your team is on the verge of missing out on the NCAA tourney for the 3rd time in 4 years?

Greivis Vasquez detractors can insert their “guarded” joke here, I suppose.

Anyway, firing Williams at season’s end is not the answer.  

But, sitting down with Gary-land and having a heart-to-heart with him about the direction of the program is certainly within the rights of Athletic Director Debbie Yow.  

Gary’s style – high-energy at its low point and maniacal most other times – has yielded great results in 19 years at Maryland.  He’s won 65% of the games he’s coached while at College Park and is 3rd on the ACC’s all-time wins list with 165.  That’s what happens when you’re at the same school for nearly two decades - the records pile up.

Forget for a second that the Terps won the NCAA title in 2002.  That really is old news at this point.  Honestly, it is.  His reward for that accomplishment has long ago been handed out – in the form of new contracts, more money and, a series of “free passes” which should accompany any coach of Williams’ stature. 

What’s gone wrong at Maryland over the last four years is just as much about the world of college basketball than it is Gary Williams suddenly losing his ability to win games.  Teams in the ACC are getting better, high school recruits have more schools to choose from and, generally, it’s getting harder and harder to win every year.  That’s just a fact.

But, and here’s the catch-22 facing Williams: If you’re the guy that gets the new contract, the pay raise, the better desk and new carpeting in your office when the team wins, you’re also the guy that gets put on the hot seat when the program you’re running falls on hard times and misses out on the NCAA tournament three times in four years.

Maryland’s ’07-08 season isn’t over yet — and if Gary & Company somehow string together a slew of weekend wins in Charlotte and make the big dance, an argument can be made it might be one of Gary’s biggest accomplishments yet.

This team, right now, appears ready to go one and done in the ACC tourney.  They all but quit in the last 10 minutes of Sunday’s game against Virginia and even though Gary recruited those players, I’m sure he didn’t realize they’d go gutless on him in the final game of the ’07-08 campaign when their life was on the line.

You can recruit skill.  Heart?  It’s not always easy to make that call on an 18 or 19 year old.

Assuming that Maryland will NOT make the field of 65 when it’s announced next Sunday night, where does that leave Gary Williams?

I think it leaves him with a virtual “must-make” ’08-09 campaign.  Call it whatever you want…”hot seat”, “do or die”, “put up or shut up”.  Whatever your term for it is, I think it would be very fair of Debbie Yow to have a sit-down with Gary next week and tell him – without making it an obvious ultimatum – that his tenure at Maryland could come to a halt if they go another season without securing a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Next year’s team looks reasonably similar – if not a little better – to this year’s, actually.  Sure, Osby and Gist are gone, but as both of those guys proved over the last 4-6 weeks, it’s one thing to have two really good players (which, both could be, at times) and it’s another thing to have two really good players that show up every game.  Based on what I’ve seen this year, Adrian Bowie, Jerome Burney and Cliff Tucker are all capable of playing prominent roles next season.  If incoming freshman Sean Mosely keeps his grades in order and qualifies for the ’08-09 campaign, he could step in and make an impact right away. 

No one knows what’s going through Vasquez’s mind right now (including him, most likely), but there’s no doubt the team is better WITH him than WITHOUT him next season.  I’m not sure I’d say the same thing about Eric Hayes right now, in all honesty.  But, if Vasquez and Hayes are both back to anchor the backcourt, their experience alone gives the Terps a .500 season at a minimum and that’s without anyone else stepping in and playing a key supporting role.

This is Gary’s team.  It was his team when they won in ’01-02 and it’s his team in ’07-08 when they look like a NIT entry at best. 

Give him one more year to get things straightened out. 

If, this time next March, we’re faced with the same situation as the one we’re currently in, it might be time for Debbie Yow to call Steve Bisciotti and get some tips on how to fire a coach.

On second thought, maybe that’s not a good idea.

(I meant the Bisciotti part — not the part about firing Gary if things don’t turn around.)

The seat is warm in Gary’s office.  The only way it cools off is the old fashioned way — winning games.

Maryland better do a lot of that in ’08-09.