COLLEGE PARK -- There were times over the past 20 months when University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams second-guessed his decision to leave Ohio State and return to his alma mater.
And there were times earlier this season when others second-guessed the move for him, with the Terrapins struggling and the once-beaten Buckeyes near the top of the national rankings.
But, today, with a more-than-respectable and often amazing 16-12 season behind him, Williams says the doubts have all but been erased. The focus is on the future.
"I wouldn't trade this season for anything," Williams, 46, said last week.
It was a season in which fans at Cole Field House showered the intense coach and his over-achieving players with applause, a season in which the Terps followed a championship in the ECAC Holiday Festival with five Atlantic Coast Conference victories, including a come-from-behind, 78-74 overtime win at Virginia in Saturday's finale.
"He has done as good a job as anybody in the country, under some very difficult circumstances, with his hands tied [because of NCAA probation]," Wake Forest coach Dave Odom said after Maryland rallied recently from 10 points down to beat the Demon Deacons.
While the record barely speaks of the accomplishment, or the obstacles Maryland had to overcome in order to get there, a winning season puts Williams ahead of schedule. As junior guard Walt Williams said recently, "You can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
It has made Gary Williams a legitimate candidate for ACC Coach of the Year and shortened what appeared to be an interminable road back to respectability for the Terps after they were put on three years' probation last March by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
"In time, I'll look at this year as the key year in rebuilding the program," said Williams, whose team is ineligible for postseason competition this season and next.
It is no small coincidence that Williams' happiness is tied to the arrival of athletic director Andy Geiger, who has taken decisive actions in the five months since he came from Stanford.
Though one of Geiger's first decisions was to delay the start of basketball practice five days as a result of Williams' and some staff members' watching informal workouts before the 1989-90 season, things have quieted noticeably.
"I wasn't happy last year," said Williams. "There were some unfortunate things that happened and some people who were not acting in Maryland's best interest."
As for Geiger, Williams said: "He's given the department, not just the basketball program, some stability. As he goes out and does the right thing, and as time goes by, it's going to be a top-flight athletic program. You can go for the quick fix and not do these things, but we're trying to do things for the long term."
Geiger would like to see Williams at Maryland for the long term as well, and said last week that he will sit down with his basketball coach sometime after the Final Four in about a month in hopes of ensuring the commitment is still there.
Williams has three years remaining on the five-year contract he signed at Maryland, and sources close to the program believe that he will get an extension, something he begrudgingly received at Ohio State only after Maryland showed some interest.
Said Geiger: "I'm very open and free about talking to coaches about their contracts. Both of us want a highly successful basketball program, and we meet every day trying to improve things. That's important. I want him to feel secure contractually."
For now, the contract is not as important to Maryland's future as getting some more players. The Terps, who already have letters of intent from guard Wayne Bristol of Beltsville and forward Geno Sato of Teaneck, N.J., have received an oral commitment from Johnny Rhodes of Washington and are in the running for two blue-chippers: forward Devin Gray of Baltimore and swingman Donyell Marshall of Reading, Pa.
And there is the matter of Walt Williams. Since he decided not to transfer after the NCAA sanctions were upheld last summer, there has been speculation that the junior point guard would make himself eligible for the National Basketball Association draft. Williams' stock rose dramatically at the Holiday Festival but dropped when he missed six weeks with a fractured leg.
"I haven't looked into the situation," said Williams, who finished the season with a 21-point, eight-rebound performance against the Cavaliers. "I don't have a timetable at all. But the injury definitely put it more on my mind."
If Walt Williams returns, and if Gary Williams can sign a couple of blue-chippers, it appears that Maryland will be back on a course to be more competitive in the ACC next season, and possibly a top-25 program by the time the sanctions are removed for the 1992-93 season. The Terps will be eligible for the ACC tournament and will be back on live television next season.
But the season past was a significant start.
"It's important that you don't waste time in a player's career, and that's what we tried not to do this season," said Gary Williams. "It wouldn't have been fair to guys like Cedric Lewis or Matt Roe if we said this was a rebuilding year. And, as you get older in coaching, you get more satisfaction from the effort a team gives than from wins or losses."
In terms of effort, the Terps were a lot like Ohio State. They almost finished the year undefeated.