At UMES, nowhere to go but up New coach Williams faces formidable rebuilding job

November 22, 1996|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

If Lonnie Williams, a native of New York, had retained all his frequent-flier miles since 1978 while making basketball pit stops as a player and coach in Wyoming, Washington, Florida, California, North Carolina and Alabama, he would probably never have to buy another ticket for the rest of his life.

At 39, he has landed at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, which has proved a graveyard for coaches over the past two decades.

Since 1982, the Fighting Hawks have gone through seven coaches while winning 96 games and losing 263. Only fiery Rob Chavez, who went 16-12 in 1993-94, enjoyed a winning season. He quickly packed his bags and headed for Portland State, his home turf.

But Williams, who compiled a 151-123 record at South Florida Community College, Florida Atlantic, Cal State-Davis and Tuskegee, where he spent the past four years, was not dissuaded by UMES' depressing basketball history.

"This is a great opportunity for me," he said. "I've been preparing myself for a long time to become a Division I head coach, and every move I've made has been a positive one."

On his new job since July, Williams talks optimistically of rebuilding the Hawks into a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference contender that can challenge Coppin State and South Carolina State and, by next year, fill the new 6,000-seat campus arena presently under construction.

"What I especially like here is that we're the only game in town," he said. "There is no football, so the community really supports the basketball program. Now all we have to do is win."

And Williams does not think of his job as "Mission Impossible."

"There were probably a lot of different reasons why these other coaches weren't successful and why they left," he said. "But I know what I'm capable of doing. I started from scratch at South Florida and Florida Atlantic, and built winning programs.

"The first step is to elevate the level of talent. Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program. And then, the next step is getting everyone to play hard and up to their potential."

Williams inherited three starters from Jeff Menday -- junior guard Crythen Langhorne and junior forward William Wright, whom he named co-captains, and junior forward Ron Christian.

The only reserves with solid experience are Dunbar product Alexander Mobley, a physical, post-up player; forwards Lawrence Garrison and Bram Reynolds, and sophomore guard Cliff Ligon.

Given little time to recruit, Williams believes he landed a blue-chipper in 6-8 Mark Peters-Marshall, a Canadian who played junior college ball in Vermont last year.

"We got to scout him," Williams said. "Before long, he could be a starter for us. He's a workaholic on the boards with a mean streak."

Marshall and Mobley, both 6-8, are the Hawks' biggest inside players.

"We'll have to make up for our lack of size by playing full court instead of half court, forcing the action," he said.

The Hawks have already put their new uptempo offense to a good test, handily beating the D.C. Explorers and Lithuanian national team in exhibition games.

And Williams expects his team to improve when Wright returns in several weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery.

"Wright leads by example," said Williams. "Nothing has been given to him. He started out as the team manager and made it as a walk-on last year."

Said Wright, "I didn't even think of playing basketball when I came here. It was really just for the academics.

"I was more of a football player in high school [Central in Upper Marlboro]. I was a tailback and had some college scouts looking at me until I tore up my knee my junior year."

He more than held his own working out with the varsity last year and was encouraged to try out for the team.

His tough defensive play impressed Menday, who promoted him to a starter by the end of last season.

Watching the team practice and play the past few weeks while recuperating, Wright sees a positive change in attitude.

"We started 9-5 last year, but we were a very young team, and coach Menday's constant pressuring to motivate the freshmen wore them down mentally," said Wright.

"Coach Williams is more patient. He takes time to explain and correct the mistakes of the underclassmen.

"It's made us a much closer team. It's got us believing we can only get better this season."

The Hawks will be tested early with road games against such major-league programs as New Mexico State, Alabama-Birmingham, Iowa State and Syracuse.

"It's natural for an athlete to want to play against the best competition," said Williams.

"Our guys weren't recruited by Kentucky or Syracuse. But they want to test themselves against the blue-chippers. It can only make them better prepared for our conference play."

UMES at a glance

Coach: Lonnie Williams, first year.

Affiliation: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

1995-96 record: 11-16 overall, 6-11 in MEAC.

Arena: Tawes Gymnasium (1,500)

Radio: WESM (960 AM)

Tickets: $6

Starters lost: Aaron McKinney, John Woods, Willie Grady.

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