IN GARY WILLIAMS' previous incarnation at the University of Maryland, his basketball coach, H.A. "Bud" Millikan, awoke one frosty College Park morning to find himself hanging in effigy from a bare lonesome tree in front of the Arts and Sciences building.
Williams, who has gone through life with his eyes wide open, took a lesson from the hanging. Coaches are expendable. In Cole Field House, where the basketball team played before thousands of empty seats, those fans who showed up stifled yawns. The games' highlight was invariably a halftime race between two custodians in overalls who pushed mops up and down the court. The winner received the evening's only standing ovation.
Millikan was one of the last coaches in America still running a slowdown offense. All that energy, all that exuberance spilling out of the adolescent college athlete, was bottled up. Control was everything. From this, Williams learned another lesson: Let the kids run, and teach them at a faster pace.
Maryland's athletic director back then, one William Cobey, fretted over lost money. Other basketball teams were embracing television contracts. Maryland was thankful to have a local radio outlet, in case anybody cared to listen. Thus, it fell on the football team's revenues to support the rest of the school's athletic program, an unworkable situation.
Williams was the starting guard on those basketball teams. One day a kid who played behind him, Junius "Pete" Johnson, wondered why. Johnson, out of Seat Pleasant, had an ability to leap into the air and linger there for a beat before lofting deadly jump shots. Nobody around College Park had ever seen such defiance of gravity, a glimpse of the game's future.
"What am I doing, playing behind that guy?" Johnson asked. He meant Williams, whose playing skills were not immediately discernible. He had no jump shot. He wasn't particularly fast. He was intense as hell, a hint of the future coach who would perspire his way not only through his shirt but sports coat, too.
But 30 years after he played his last basketball game for Maryland, you can examine the Terrapin media guide, page after page of statistics on those who made their mark in scoring, in rebounding and assisting, and find his name absolutely nowhere.
Which means: There ought to be a separate category for intangibles, for those who study the game and learn all its secret places, for those whose iron will under pressure wins them a starting spot as a player and, as a coach, a spot in the nation's Sweet 16 NCAA tournament that arrives this week.
Nobody hangs Gary Williams in effigy, or even imagines such sacrilege. His Maryland team is 28-5 and favored to beat St. John's in the opening round of the South Regionals on Thursday. There will be millions watching on television, generating huge money for the school's athletic department. Nobody remembers the slowdown game from Williams' playing era, because his ballclubs race up and down the court like greyhounds before packed houses where the roar of fans is simply thunderous.
It's taken a long time to rescue the College Park basketball program from itself. When Williams graduated, Coach Millikan left, too, unceremoniously fired for trying to hold onto the last threads of the game's stuttery slowdown past.
The Maryland program was in tatters. In the next two years, the team won 16 games and lost 34. Then followed the Lefty Driesell years, all triumphs forever tarnished by the night Len Bias wrapped his massive hands around a quantity of cocaine and wrongly imagined he was indestructible.
The Bias death seemed to plunge the program into an endless alley of troubles: academic revelations that led to NCAA basketball sanctions, the hiring and abrupt firing of Baltimore's Bob Wade, the hiring of Williams and more NCAA sanctions. After successful coaching stints at American University, Boston College and Ohio State, there were nights when Williams wondered why he'd ever come back to College Park.
But not lately. Now he looks at his team and sees the marvelous Steve Francis, who makes people imagine Michael Jordan. He reads the newspaper sports pages and sees his team ranked No. 5 in the nation. He arrives at college basketball's Sweet 16 for the second straight year and the fourth time since 1994.
He was an unremarkable player who made himself into a remarkable coach. He has been a constant learner from those dismal days when the game still kept its kids' skills bottled up, to an era when they run like greyhounds, so fast now that Gary Williams can practically see the finish line from here.
Pub Date: 3/16/99