Baltimore tribute to Gary Williams describes the man under the Terrapin shell
Hippodrome event reminds the author of another passionate basketball coach he reveres: his father.
Above: The University of Maryland’s Gary Williams coaching the Terps.
Waiting for Gary Williams to address the press on Thursday night in Baltimore, before his induction into the Sports Legends Museum’s “Hall of Legends,” brought back memories of my childhood as the son of a college basketball coach and ardent Terrapin fan.
I remembered listening to my father answering questions in cinderblock hallways from the likes of reporters Bill Free and John Stewart when he coached at UMBC with Billy Jones—a teammate of Gary’s at Maryland. We’d end up at some greasy spoon reading stat sheets way past my bedtime.
Like Williams, my father had played point guard at his alma mater, the University of Baltimore, and returned to coach there. And, also much like Gary, he had spent the better part of a lifetime pursuing his passion for coaching.
The world might think of Williams as the archetypal towel-chewing, vein-popping picture of coaching intensity but my dad, who had been there, had a more nuanced view.
“Genuine and generous is who Gary is,” said Jim “Snuffy” Smith, my dad, when I asked him. “He’s funny, introverted, and calm—that is until he steps on the court.”
I loved hearing about Williams from my dad, but Thursday night at the Hippodrome Theatre, a diverse range of celebrities, from the sports world and beyond, gathered to offer their recollections of of the legendary Terps coach: among them Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, Maryland Congressman Steny H. Hoyer and journalists Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser and John Feinstein.
One thousand Terp fans, friends, former players, and some of the best college basketball coaches in the nation gathered and described a seldom-seen side of Coach Williams.
“He’ll do any thing for you,” said Tubby Smith, head coach at Minnesota. “He’s just a good guy. We were in Kuwait together coaching service men and women. You saw the passion Gary instilled in them. He’s come a long way from Camden, New Jersey to Camden Yards.”
What we didn’t see was the portrayal of a brooding and combustible madman on the sidelines willing his Terrapins to victory much the same way he played–with a ceaseless intensity. He wasn’t glaring at officials, berating assistants, or stomping his feat on the floor. That’s not to say people didn’t tease him about it.
“How does he dry clean those suits with all of that perspiration?” asked Tubby Smith.
My father had his moments too, especially with the officials, once putting his fist through a scorer’s table at James Madison University and receiving a technical foul. Dad stomped on towels and kicked chairs and his affinity with Williams comes more from being a kindred spirit than a Maryland fan. He knows exactly, down to the practice minutes, what it takes to accomplish what Gary has.
At 65, Gary Williams is one of the most successful coaches in college basketball today in arguably one of the most difficult basketball conferences to compete in—the Atlantic Coast Conference. Maryland has beaten more number one ranked teams during his coaching tenure than any other program. His 649 wins rank him as the fifth among active coaches in the nation and highlight an impressive resume.
“I don’t know how many I have left, but I still have some years. This time of year you can always tell,” Williams said. “You should never make a decision on how long you coach at the end of a season. This time of year, you have to feel the electricity and it’s there.”
Born in New Jersey, Williams scrapped as a point guard for Maryland, focusing on his role as floor general and playing tenacious defense. He brings that same level of competitive ferocity into the locker room as coach. Over the course of his career, he is at his best when embattled.
“I told my team, Maryland will never give up, they will never quit,” said Jay Wright, head coach of Villanova, before they played the Terrapins last season. “He came to the game with more intensity than I had that day and he showed up on the golf course the same way a few months later.”
The induction ceremony showcased the versatility of Coach Williams as a person–teacher, mentor, comedian, and loyal friend who supports many causes and communities around the area.
Williams also has a sensitive side.
“We’ve spent many nights on the phone when things aren’t going well,” said a soft-spoken Steve Bisciotti.
“In order to be a legend like you are tonight, you have to have detractors, and you’ve got to overcome them, and you have.”
Even as he was being enshrined in Maryland sports history, Williams sought to strike a note of humility and gratitude.
“I’ve been fortunate. I’ve always been able to be what I wanted to be. I’ve always coached,” said Williams. “I’ve always had a job. This is special. You don’t always get a chance to look back. It’s not only about winning a national championship. You want to do other good things in life too.”
Williams had many mentors along the way, including his high school coach John Smith who enrolled him in summer school to work on his Latin and his algebra.
“I wasn’t that good of a student. I wanted to play basketball, but he really pushed me,” said Williams. “You need people like that to have an effect on you because it gives you an idea that you can do the same for your players.”
Coaching Woodrow Wilson high school in New Jersey, Williams won a state championship.
“The most important person to me in terms of coaching in college was Tom Davis,” Williams said, citing his old mentor, who coached basketball at Lafayette College, Boston College, Stanford University, the University of Iowa, and Drake University from 1971-2007.
From Lafayette, Williams landed a job at American, then Boston College, Ohio State and finally, his alma mater.
Coming to Maryland 1989, he restored the basketball program to national prominence after the tragic death of Len Bias and a scandal that left the school on probation for two years.
“It was a very difficult time for me,” said Williams. “I left a good job at Ohio State and I wasn’t real happy. I needed help. My friend and assistant coach Billy Hahn helped me tough it out. I have many friends. Any successful coach needs to have them.”
He turned to Baltimore to help rebuild his program.
“When he showed up at Dunbar twenty years ago to recruit Keith Booth, I was there,” said Baltimore sportscaster Keith Mills. “I think about that wall that coming down between East Baltimore and College Park.”
Baltimoreans Rodney Elliot, Keith Booth, who is now an assistant coach, Juan Dixon, and junior Sean Moseley played major roles in the success of Maryland basketball.
In 2002, the Terps won the National Championship with a team of largely unheralded scrappy and tenacious role players like Dixon and Silver Spring’s Lonny Baxter.
They were guys who played like Gary.
“He still has the fire. There’s still something left in the tank,” said Dave Neal, the 6-7 swingman who went from role player in his first three seasons to being a major factor in getting the Terrapins into the postseason in 2008-09.
“It’s special to have this in Baltimore for Gary,” said Vicki Brick, the McDonough point guard who was instrumental in rebuilding the Maryland women’s basketball program. “The players are all my friends.”
Williams joins Babe Ruth, Johnny Unitas, Brooks Robinson, Art Modell, and Jim McKay in the inaugural class of “Hall of Legends” inductees — pretty good company.
“Despite what my players say, I did not know Babe Ruth,” Williams joked. “He couldn’t go to his right anyway.”
John Feinstein offered further insight into Gary’s sense of humor.
“A couple of years ago, Maryland was having an off year and playing in the 8 vs. 9 game in the ACC tournament,” said Feinstein.
Sitting courtside, Feinstein could see referee Duke Edsall laughing and wanted to know what was so funny. Williams had caught the long-time ACC official off guard with one of his patented remarks.
“He told Edsall, ‘We suck this year, and so do you for being chosen to referee this game.’”
An attentive and proud grandfather who once held up the team bus to return a Thomas the Tank engine to his grandson, the real Gary Williams also has a vulnerable side.
“For a long time there, I didn’t realize that I needed a family,” he said, choking back tears.
And then it was time for me to rejoin mine. But first, driving home through the final bands of torrential rain, my dad and I stopped to grab a sandwich like we did thirty years before. It was past my bedtime.