COLLEGE PARK, Md. — I will admit that I had an almost child-like nature about me after learning the news that iconic University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams had decided to retire after 22 seasons.
“Honestly, can Maryland basketball really exist without Gary Williams” I thought to myself.
It was a humorously honest response on my part. Like many others throughout Baltimore and Washington, the name Gary Williams has become synonymous with the existence of Maryland basketball for me.
As news trickled out about Williams’ retirement, I was relieved to hear that the former Terps guard intended to stay on as an Assistant Athletic Director and Special Assistant to Athletic Director Kevin Anderson.
In my mind, Maryland basketball still couldn’t go on without Williams-but could go on as long as he stayed in the picture. But “staying in the picture” only lasted as long as the first question I asked Williams Friday in front of 2,500 fans at Comcast Center.
“You’re not gonna see me a lot around here specifically” the potential future Hall of Famer told me. “The new coach-this is his deal now.”
Williams would later explain that his new role with the school was more “consultant” than actual position.
All of this meant Maryland basketball really might have to go on without Williams. I wasn’t certain it was possible.
You see, I was born only 27 years (and eight months if you’re scoring at home) ago. I think I might remember there being a coach at the school before Williams came along, but the words “Bob Wade Era” really don’t mean anything to me no matter how many times I hear them.
I’ve watched the “Amen Chorus” to end the 1984 ACC Championship Game probably a million times on YouTube. It’s tangible proof that my alma mater once really did employ a man named Lefty Driesell in the same role.
Given the number of times I’ve listened to Williams describe himself playing basketball for a man named Bud Millikan, I feel compelled to believe there was once another head coach of the Terrapins. Checking the school’s media guide (or perhaps just their Wikipedia page), there are allegations that men named Burton Shipley, Flucie Stewart and Frank Fellows held control of the same basketball program.
I say “allegations” because I never saw it with my own eyes.
With my own eyes, I’ve only ever really seen one head coach in College Park. The same coach that has snapped at me on more than one occasion in a post-game press conference.
My first memories of Terps hoops surround players like Walt Williams, Evers Burns and Kevin McLinton. I’m told Derrick Lewis was a good player before that; and players like Len Bias, John Lucas, Adrian Branch and Len Elmore were even better, but I never watched any of those players take the floor for as much as a single game.
For me, there has really only ever been one coach in Maryland basketball history. The coach that lead the team to their first (and second) trips to the Final Four, their first NCAA Championship and countless other accomplishments over 22 seasons.
For me, I’m not completely certain a basketball game is even legally allowed to begin in College Park without at least a trademark fist pump. I mean, will the new coach do that to?
(I’m kidding, of course.)
That coach appeared to be quite at peace with his decision to step away Friday.
“You can take it back to 2002 when I thought about it briefly after winning the National Championship” said Williams. “I remember how (Al) McGuire quit after Marquette won, and I thought it was a great thing to leave after winning the National Championship. Then I checked my bank account.”
“My players this year were great players” added Williams, “and we tried to do everything we (could) to win as many games as we (could). It was great coaching them. It’s not about that. It’s about you as a Person whether you’ll get the opportunity in those number of days. You never know what this time in your life is or where you are with the time in your life. I feel healthy. I’ve got great people around me, new wife…and we’ll see what happens.”
If Williams is peaceful about his decision, not all Maryland fans share his easiness. A number of fans have pointed to turmoil in the athletic department over the last year. In the last 12 months, changes have been at men’s lacrosse coach (John Tillman replaced Dave Cottle), Athletic Director (Anderson replaced Debbie Yow), football coach (Randy Edsall replaced Ralph Friedgen) and now men’s basketball coach.
Of those departing, Williams is the longest-tenured and clearly the most successful. So successful that a generation of fans in the area knows little to nothing about the program that doesn’t involve Williams.
Maryland will ultimately hire a new basketball coach. In fact, the process might happen very quickly. Arizona’s Sean Miller, Pittsburgh’s Jamie Dixon and Villanova’s Jay Wright have been named as popular candidates to replace Williams.
Whoever gets the job will become just the second man to enter the basketball coaches’ office at Comcast Center (Williams admitted he had nearly “ten years worth of junk” to clear out before leaving). That man will also inherit a generation of fans that knows nothing more than wild success without NCAA investigation under the guidance of an alum.
It will certainly be a daunting task for any coach to take on. Even more daunting if Anderson and School President Wallace Loh are successful in their plan to convince the school’s board of regents to put Williams’ name on the Comcast Center floor.
As daunting as the task of replacing the legend will be for the next head man at Maryland, simply accepting a new head coach will be uncomfortable for those of us who are not familiar with the idea that anyone besides Williams can stand on the home bench in College Park.
For those of us struggling with that thought, Williams offered some hope that he’ll still be around the program from time to time.
“There is a little visibility that comes with coaching, but I’ve never been one to go hide somewhere. You make choices. I like people. I like talking to people about basketball-things like that. That part of it never bothered me.”
With that in mind, we can hope that Williams won’t hide from the Maryland program. He’d be badly missed. But no more than by those of us who are still in a bit of disbelief that the University really is named “Maryland.”
For a long time, I’ve been much more of the opinion that the school had legally accepted the moniker “Garyland.”
Perhaps they should have.