He's A Walking Squawking

'Psycho Terp' He's Got The Walk, He's Got The Talk' He's Got The Sweat-stained Suit And The Stare To Boot

March 07, 1993|By Curry Kirkpatrick

Once an enfant Terp terrible, always one?

At a recent Maryland basketball practice, as a couple of reporters discussed the possibility that 47-year-old coach Gary Williams was easing up in his dotage, from his mouth exploded a burst of four-letter expletives. As his face reddened, Williams grabbed the practice schedule from his back pocket and slammed it to the court.

"Unbelievable!" he screamed at an embarrassed Terp. "I did not see that ball go through your hands! Didn't happen! Physically impossible! Will you for once get coordinated!"

Accompanying all of this was, of course, the stalk. Forget Williams' blasphemy and his frozen-eyed stare following a Maryland transgression -- or, more often, a referee's. The coach's hunched-shoulders, clenched-hands, pigeon-toed, giant-strides pace is enough in itself to give a strong, young college athlete a case of horrifying night tremors.

Johnny Rhodes, this year's freshman star who Williams desperately needed to resuscitate the Maryland program, was only momentarily put off by the vision of this well-groomed, pleasant-faced mentor turning into Psycho Terp.

"When I started coming to Maryland games and watching Coach Williams yelling at guys and doing that walk," Rhodes says, "I wasn't sure if I wanted to be in this situation. But he was sweating through his shirts and his suits and everything. That was the sign of a good coach to me."

"Intense" is the word always used to describe Williams. But that's hardly close. Three Mile Island was intense. Kuwait was intense. About Williams, the word "maniacal" is closer.

"Yeah, OK, I'm a maniac . . . sometime," Williams says, laughing with that ever-present edge to his voice. "But I'm much more mature about it now. And I never get out of control."

In other words, gone are the days of the Williams Whirl, a 360-degree jump and spin occasioned by what he felt to be an outrageously incorrect official's whistle.

Way back when the Wacko (only his best friends in coaching call him this) was earning his reputation, during an American University game one of these dazzling pirouettes seemed to summon donations of money. The reality was that dozens of $1 bills -- the team's meal stipend -- had come flying out of Williams' suit pocket and onto the court as he was in midspin.

Then, in 1983, during the very first Big East game he coached (for Boston College vs. Villanova University), Williams ripped the league banner from its moorings at the scorers' table. Not deliberately, of course. "Aw, that's exaggerated. I just pounded the table and the damn thing fell off," he says today.

In the 1990-91 season, his second at Maryland, when his team fell behind at South Florida by 17 points, Williams stomped off the court at halftime, threatening some hecklers in the Sun Dome stands.

"Gary's always thinking and that time we needed to turn the arena atmosphere around," says Maryland assistant coach Billy Hahn. "It was amazing how he channeled the energy in that place so the crowd all got on him and not on our players." The Terps won the game, 87-81. Just as surprising, Williams didn't get punched out. "All of us in this business have to have incredible drive and spirit. All of us hate to lose," says Hahn. "But, competitive-wise, this guy's on another planet."

Williams can't help but have passed along this trait. His 22-year-old daughter, Kristin, who was graduated from Miami University of Ohio last spring, teaches high school outside of Columbus, Ohio. "I always enjoyed being around the atmosphere my father created," she says. "I saw his passion and the long hours he put in. At school I get upset when the kids screw up. I stress pride in the work they do. I guess I teach like he coaches. All my students comment how fired up I get. 'We know where that comes from,' they say."

"My intensity that everybody talks about," Williams says, "whatever it is, it comes from my high school years."

He was a skinny kid, a quintessential gym rat who came out of the Philadelphia suburb of Collingswood, N.J. His father worked the night shift at a Federal Reserve Bank, his mother was a secretary in a car dealership. Williams was the middle brother of three in a strong Presbyterian family -- "We lived at church on Sundays," he says. But after his parents divorced and his mother later moved to California, 14-year-old Gary was devastated. In those days, divorce was a stigma, and his family, including the brothers, never got close again.

Once an honor-society student, Williams lost interest in school. He dove into basketball. "Under those circumstances, a kid takes refuge in whatever he feels is most comfortable," he says. His dad "always thought basketball was a waste of time," so Williams gravitated toward his high school coaches, one of whom, John Smith, and his wife, Olive, fed him and then forced him to go to summer school when his grades were falling out of sight.

He became the first from his family to go to college.

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