Final measure of coach? To Williams, it adds up to more than four

November 13, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

At 53, he is growing philosophical. Gary Williams has never been to the Final Four, and might never get there. What do you expect him to say, that his life has no meaning?

This is his 10th season at Maryland. Ten years, twice as long as many anticipated. Ten years of excitement. Ten years of triumph. Ten years of revival.

But no Final Fours.

Fairly or not, that's how college basketball coaches are measured these days. Williams is a good coach, admired and respected. But true reverence is assured for only those who play on the final Saturday of the season.

It's an exclusive club, but not that exclusive. Illinois' Lou Henson is a member (New Mexico State, 1970). So is Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins (1990).

Then again, look at the other side.

Mount St. Mary's Jim Phelan has never been to the Final Four, but is he a failure when he leads all active coaches with 785 victories? How about Missouri's Norm Stewart (711)? Or Temple's John Chaney (581)?

Those are the questions Williams asks himself now.

His own record is 371-240 (.607). He's as competitive as ever, still sweating, still screaming, still stalking the sideline. But he insists he doesn't need a Final Four to validate his career.

"It's not like there's a lot of guys that get there," Williams said. "I want to make it to the Final Four. If I don't, it won't be one of those things that is going to haunt me."

Is that really Gary Williams talking?

Is it a coach rationalizing his inability to make the Elite Eight, much less the Final Four, in his 20 years at American, Boston College, Ohio State and Maryland?

Or is it a coach coming to terms with just how difficult it is to reach college basketball's championship event, even with a team ranked No. 6 in the country?

Probably both.

Bud Millikan never took Maryland to the Final Four. Lefty Driesell never took Maryland to the Final Four. No coach has ever taken Maryland to the Final Four, which tells you, right off, the difficulty of Williams' task.

"There are different situations in coaching. Some schools have certain advantages over other schools," Williams said. "You want to get your program to where it consistently is now. Then you have a chance to get to the Final Four."

His team has reached the Sweet 16 in three of the past five seasons, falling to Michigan in 1994, Connecticut in '95 and Arizona in '98. Of those losses, Williams said the only one that still bothers him is Connecticut, a 99-89 defeat in Joe Smith's final game.

Still, how much can he dwell even on that day?

The Terps lost to a better team, led by the Milwaukee Bucks' Ray Allen. And even if they had prevailed, their next opponent would have been eventual national champion UCLA.

pTC Such is life in the NCAA tournament, where one off-night can doom a season. After a while, even successful coaches erect defense mechanisms. Too much can happen in a 64-team free-for-all. Too much can go wrong.

"When you're young, you look at that as stamping you as a great coach," Williams said of the Final Four. "But being here 10 years now, I realize the way to have a great career record is not to leave a school after three or four years. It's to stay in one place.

"You build a program, get good, then go for as long as you can run it out. Look at the guys with great records -- Dean Smith, [Adolph] Rupp, [Bob] Knight, now [Mike] Krzyzewski. They were all at their schools a long time."

And now Williams has been at Maryland a long time, too. Once, he was considered a hot young coach. Now, he's the third-oldest coach in the ACC -- two years older than Krzyzewski, who has been to seven Final Fours.

Krzyzewski took over a program coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons. Williams took over a program that was hit by two years of NCAA sanctions after his first season -- "the worst penalties in college basketball the last 10 years," he said.

Williams talks at length about that turbulent period when prompted -- the resurrection of his alma mater is perhaps his greatest career accomplishment.

Yet, for many fans, it still isn't enough.

The Final Four, they want the Final Four.

Driesell led Maryland to No. 2 rankings four straight seasons from 1972 to '75, but never advanced past the Elite Eight. Williams' teams have produced some terrific moments, but not the four straight victories they've needed in March.

"You learn as you get older -- nothing is automatic," Williams said. "I won 24 games my third year at American. I thought that was just the way it was going to be."

Alas, it's not that easy, but Williams still has time. Arizona's Lute Olson won his first national championship at age 62. Maybe Williams isn't good enough to get to the Final Four. Or maybe he just hasn't caught the right breaks.

Close your eyes, and you can almost picture him talking to CBS' Billy Packer after winning a regional final, growing emotional as he describes all his years of hard work, culminating in one shining moment.

Only Williams doesn't see it that way.

"I know too many coaches who haven't made the Final Four," he said. "Tom Davis is one. He got me into college coaching. He has coached at Boston College, Stanford and Iowa. And he has won everywhere he has been.

"Does not making the Final Four mean he hasn't done a great job in some really tough conferences? Just to survive that is quite an accomplishment."

His perspective is refreshing. His respect for his peers is admirable. But if you know Gary Williams, you know this: He didn't get into this game to be a survivor.

Pub Date: 11/13/98

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