A season Williams can savor Terps: Coaching a team he identifies with has helped Maryland's Gary Williams turn a corner in his approach to the game and his players.

March 07, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- He was sitting in a lounge next to the locker room at Cole Field House an hour or so after his team's recent loss to North Carolina, his gray hair a bit disheveled, his white dress shirt drenched with sweat, his face drained of whatever color it had a couple of hours before.

Gary Williams leaned on a couch, more than a bit concerned about the way the season seemed to be turning out. He talked about his Maryland Terrapins getting back the hunger and chemistry that they had demonstrated earlier in the season, when they were ranked as high as fifth in the country.

His team won 17 of its first 19 games, but was in the midst of losing seven of its last 10 in the regular season. Could the Terps find their second wind going into the postseason? Williams smiled.

"That's my job," he said. "That's what I'm paid to do."

Beginning today in Greensboro, N.C., when 22nd-ranked Maryland plays No. 13 Clemson in the quarterfinals of this year's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Williams hopes to have found some of the answers that have eluded the Terrapins over the past five weeks.

If not, then the coach will try to prepare his team for its first game in the NCAA tournament. Whatever happens will not detract from what Maryland, picked to finish eighth in the ACC, has accomplished; or from what many consider to be perhaps Williams' best coaching job in his 19-year Division I career.

Not that Williams, who turned 52 on Tuesday, has had much time to enjoy it.

"You don't get a chance," he said in his one of his few relaxed moments recently, sitting in his office before practice one afternoon last week.

"I don't allow it. The most fun I have is on the plane rides back from the big games we win, like Wake Forest or Carolina. But by the next day, I'm thinking about the next game."

Williams has been down this seemingly bumpy road before. Two years ago, he watched a young and tired team struggle to make the NCAA tournament after a surprisingly hot start. With freshmen Keith Booth and Joe Smith, along with three sophomores, Maryland won six of its first eight ACC games, but lost six of its last eight as well as an opening-round game in the ACC tournament, to Virginia.

Then, the Terrapins made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed.

"I really felt playing in the ACC tournament, even though we lost to Virginia, helped that team get used to everything in the NCAA tournament, and I think that will happen for this year's team, too," said Williams, who has to remind himself and others that Maryland starts three sophomores and only one senior, first-team All-ACC player Booth.

"If we didn't, I don't know if we would have beaten Saint Louis [in the opening round]. You never know how a team is going to react. Sometimes, you get re-energized. Sometimes you don't."

Questions at start

Before this season began, some wondered whether Williams' eighth year at Maryland might be his last coaching his alma mater. There was the constant swirl of controversy that surrounded the Terrapins through an up-and-down 17-13 season year ago, one that ended with a first-round upset loss to Santa Clara in the NCAA tournament.

There was the fiasco involving unpaid parking tickets by several players, most notably senior guard Duane Simpkins. There was friction between the seniors and freshmen. There was an incident during the ACC tournament in which Williams got into a verbal confrontation with a couple of fans behind his team's bench. And there was the firing last spring of longtime assistant coach Art Perry, the man credited with bringing Smith to Maryland.

"There was a time when I was into a bit of self-pity," said Williams. "I was disappointed that people didn't understand what we had done the last three years by going to the NCAA tournament. I knew what Joe had done for us. He took a lot of pressure off us. I thought we played well just to make it to the NCAAs, but a lot of people around here didn't."

When the Terrapins failed to land a single Top 50 recruit, the radio talk shows were flooded with calls from angry and frustrated fans who thought the Maryland program was in

decline.

When the 10-year anniversary of the death of former star Len Bias was marked by stories about a continued lack of attention to academics, there were rumors that a fed-up Williams was looking to get out or that school officials were looking for a way to force him to leave.

"Last year was tough for two reasons," said Don McCartney, Williams' attorney and friend. "It was tough for him to put up with a team that didn't play hard every game and then to have the talk shows descend on him after the season. I think all that took their toll. To have this year's team be more the prototype of what his teams have been about makes it special. The contrast is there for everyone to see."

'That's my personality'

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