At UM, a pride of Terrapins Basketball: Maryland's rise means recalling tough times and players who endured before the team's rebound.

December 12, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- When Dave Dickerson graduated from the University of Maryland in 1989, he put his class ring in a drawer and his Terrapins basketball uniform in the closet. He went to work as a college coach, hoping to improve on the experience he had here as a player during one of the most tumultuous and tragic periods in school history.

The feeling of embarrassment that stayed with Dickerson in his stops at Gardner-Webb, James Madison and Radford has been replaced by a sense of pride. As as an assistant coach to Gary Williams, he has a perspective few hold in watching the No. 2 Terrapins ascend to their highest ranking in 22 years.

"I can appreciate where the program was and where it is now, especially having been here during the time of the situation with Len Bias and then with Bob Wade," Dickerson, now in his third season as a coach at his alma mater, said this week. "The biggest compliment I could pay the University of Maryland is that I wish I could go out and play against Kentucky on Saturday."

Dickerson will be wearing a suit to tonight's game against the defending national champions at Rupp Arena in Lexington. In fact, the number Dickerson wore during a four-year career that included the death of Bias from cocaine intoxication, as well as the resignations of coaches Lefty Driesell and Bob Wade, was not worn until this year.

The number -- 23 -- is now on the back of Steve Francis, the junior college transfer from Takoma Park who in 10 games has become one of college basketball's most-talked-about players. In doing so, he has turned the Terrapins into one of the country's most-talked-about teams.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Gary Williams, who is in his 10th season as coach at his alma mater and recently signed a contract that could keep him here for another decade. "We've only played one conference game so far. People are talking about weird things -- like the Final Four. I hope they're still talking about it in March."

There has been this kind of March Madness-like buzz at other times in recent years, but this time there is a difference in its excess. Maryland is being thought of as a legitimate contender for what has been uncharted territory: the Final Four. Just the other night, college basketball television analyst Dick Vitale hyped the Terrapins as "the best team I've seen this year."

Getting to St. Petersburg, Fla., for this season's NCAA tournament semifinals won't be easy.

A long journey

But getting back to this rarefied place among college basketball's elite was even more difficult.

It has been a journey that lasted more than a dozen years.

Beginning with the death of Bias in June 1986, the journey included the subsequent resignation of Driesell, who brought the program to national prominence in a sometimes-controversial 17-year tenure. It included Wade, the former Dunbar legend, going largely unsupported before his forced resignation three years later.

And it led to the arrival of Williams, a former Terrapins team captain, from Ohio State. His return in May 1989 came as Maryland was about to be sanctioned by the NCAA. The Terrapins received a stiff three-year penalty that included two years with no postseason participation.

"There were times when I wasn't sure if we would turn this around," Williams said earlier this year. The black cloud stayed until the arrival in fall 1993 of a relatively unknown high school player with the most nondescript of names. Joe Smith led the Terrapins to their first NCAA tournament appearance in six years and to two straight Sweet 16s before departing after his sophomore season. He left as the Atlantic Coast Conference and national Player of the Year, as well as the No. 1 pick overall in the NBA draft.

But without some of the players who preceded Smith, Maryland basketball might have fallen into the kind of abyss that has swallowed up other top programs.

Walt Williams stayed in College Park during the NCAA probation period when other players transferred and one, Jerrod Mustaf, left for the pros. Duane Simpkins followed Walt Williams here, choosing to play for the Terrapins when every other high school All-American went elsewhere.

"With Maryland coming off probation, and being the first player to commit, everyone close to me told me not to come," said Simpkins, a former star at DeMatha who has played professionally the past two years in Europe. "That was a big gamble, but it paid off. You take pride in the fact that whether people know it or not, you did a good job when you were there."

The 1992 recruiting class, which included Simpkins, became the first of several that helped turn around the program. Next up were Smith and former Dunbar star Keith Booth, both of whom became All-Americans and saw their jersey numbers hung from the rafters of Cole Field House. Then came the current senior class of Obinna Ekezie, Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes, all of whom start for this season's team.

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