Williams never quit shouting

Posted: Tuesday, April 02, 2002

He was shouting instructions until the very end.

Maryland was ahead by a dozen points, there weren't five full ticks left on the clock and Indiana had the ball for one meaningless last possession. But Gary Williams wasn't taking any chances.

His tie crooked, eyes bulging, arms extended and palms turned up in one final plea, Williams couldn't help himself any more than he could in the dozens of close games where one gesture, one shout, one moment of eye contact might have made all the difference. And so there he stood on the sideline, gasping, flailing, like a puppet being jerked around on a string once again.

Coach for nearly half your life, move like a gypsy from town to town in search of the perfect job, then wait 23 years to reach the Final Four and another year to make it into the title game, and maybe you wouldn't take any chances, either.

''But he took a chance on me,'' Terrapins star Juan Dixon said Monday night, standing alongside his coach when Maryland's 64-52 result was in the books. ''I love him for that.''

Maryland took a chance on Williams, too, and he never forgot that, either. He played basketball there, and he can still remember the night during his sophomore year when he knew his life's calling would be as a coach and not a player. It was against North Carolina and he found himself eye-to-eye with the sneakers being worn by Billy Cunningham.

''I figured then that college was probably going to be it for me as far as playing,'' Williams recalled on the eve of the championship game. ''That's when I really started to look at the game a little differently.''

He couldn't have known then how it would turn out, how he would make detours at American University, Boston College and Ohio State learning the trade, winning lots of games along the way, but never the most important ones.

And there was something else Williams couldn't have known: that when his alma mater finally called him home in 1989, his first season would end under the cloud of probation because of recruiting violations by his predecessor, Bob Wade.

And that was just three years after Len Bias, the greatest player Maryland had ever produced, died of a cocaine overdose.

Williams called his first few seasons back at the school his ''fence-mending'' period. He had to repair relationships with high school coaches who had learned not to trust Maryland, then get the Terrapins up off the floor of the perennially tough Atlantic Coast Conference with recruits who would be lucky to be equipment managers at regal programs like Duke and North Carolina.

He had to find a way to keep the stands packed and the students and alums interested, even though sanctions made reaching the NCAA tournament little more than a pipe dream. But it figured, somehow, that Williams would remember the darkest moments when the spotlight on him shined the brightest.

''I hate to even think about those days now because there was so much mistrust, so much doubt about the place of basketball at the university,'' he said. ''We had to work those things out before we could anything else.''

In quick succession, a few of the names from those days rolled off his tongue.

''I'll always remember them,'' Williams said, ''as well as these guys.''

This team will be impossible to forget, but not just because of the elusive championship it finally secured for one of the most popular, though tightly wound, members of the coaching fraternity. It will be remembered for overcoming adversity and surviving struggles, both individually and as a group, and for sticking together longer than talented teams do in this day of the quick-buck NBA draft.

Dixon, one of three seniors, lost both his parents to AIDS complications while he was still in high school, and was supposed to be too slight for the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference. Byron Mouton, another of the seniors, lost a brother in a drive-by shooting earlier in the season and found a team full of surrogate brothers ready to wrap their arms around him.

Williams had to know when to push and when to pull, when to let his ambition drive these kids and when to appeal to their pride to motivate themselves.

''He worked us hard all year,'' Chris Wilcox said. ''He got on us. We did some things he didn't like and he did some things we didn't like.

''But we worked together and we all came through this together,'' he added. ''We just got a national championship and I know he's happy about that.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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