Coach Coronary

Off-court he may be Mr. Nice Guy. But on-court, Maryland basketball's Gary Williams knows only one way to go: All out.

March 09, 2000|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Gary Williams is going nuts.

This is not exactly stop-the-presses news here in Cole Field House. His tailored Daniel Hechter suit is soaked through with sweat, as if someone had sprayed him with a garden hose, and now he is simultaneously screaming at his players and barking at the referees, stalking the sidelines like some half-mad Rasputin in Italian loafers.

And here is the beautiful thing, of course: His team is winning!

The scoreboard says Maryland 47, Florida State 42. But, see, his team is not playing hard. To Gary Williams' way of thinking, his players may as well be lounging on lawn chairs out there.

So during a time-out, an enraged Williams shoves a player and assistant coach out of the way, wades into his team's huddle and delivers a blistering, profane lecture on the need to, um, improve team intensity.

At another point, after a Terrapins' steal draws what he feels is a tepid response from the crowd, he leaps to his feet, waves his hands at the stands and screams: "YOU'RE ALL FLAT!"

Tonight, a crowd of 14,474 is squeezed into Cole, which, as usual, has the same airy feel as downtown Jakarta. And many of these fans are alternately appalled and amused watching Gary Williams flip out.

He can feel the eyes on him, especially the disapproving ones, but he doesn't care. This is how he has to do it. It's the only way he knows how to coach: scrap and sweat and scream for 40 minutes and leave a piece of your heart -- or a lung, or something -- out there.

He learned long ago: You don't pay attention to the fans, even the wits at Wake Forest who taunted him with: "Hey, Gary, know any words that don't begin with `f'?"

The fans God, there's so much about him they don't know.

They don't know how choked up he gets thinking about his silky-smooth sophomore guard Juan Dixon, whose parents were both heroin addicts who did time in the slammer, and then both died of AIDS, 16 months apart.

"Here's a kid who could have packed it in," he told his daughter Kristin, tears in his eyes, when Dixon gagged on his college boards, then hung in there, retook them and got into Maryland.

The fans don't see him two hours before the North Carolina game, smiling and playing with his 3-month-old grandson, David. Or after the game, on his radio show, earnestly thanking the students for coming out, even the nerdy freshmen with red M's spray-painted on their naked, bony chests who took their first slugs of Bud Ice two hours earlier in the inky darkness of a Cole parking lot.

They don't hear Dick Paparo, a longtime referee, talk about him like he's running for Congress: "Gary Williams is one of the fairest and best people I've ever met."

They don't see Williams 45 minutes after a game, graciously submitting to his umpteenth interview, and as the reporter's cell phone starts beeping, joke: "Gimme two pepperoni pizzas, OK? And a quart of milk."

The fans only see this: Gary Williams, pale, scowling, barking plays, sweating like he has malaria, whipping his team to another win, in this case, 85-70 over the Seminoles for a record ninth straight win in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference.

And that's too bad, says Johnny Holliday, the longtime radio voice of the Terps. Because "with Gary Williams," he says, "what you see is not necessarily what you get."

Intense presence

"At American University, I was young then, 32, and they said: `You're crazy, you're going to die of a heart attack.' Hasn't happened yet."

-- Gary Williams

In his 11th season at Maryland, Gary Williams, 55, remains one of the most intense presences on the sidelines of college basketball.

Gene Keady at Purdue used to go thermonuclear if the PA guy mispronounced his name, but age has toned down his act. Indiana's Bobby Knight is still a head case, but at least he can actually sit quietly on the bench at times -- when he's not flinging chairs across the court.

But watch Williams tomorrow when the Terps play in the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, N.C.

Watch him bounce lightly on his toes during the player introductions, like a boxer trying to stay loose before the bell rings. Watch him crouch on the sidelines, inches from the players as they race up the court, almost willing himself into the game.

This isn't a man dying to scribble X's and O's on a chalkboard, or jaw with officials about the rules. This is a man dying to play the game again, play it as joyfully as he did as a skinny, heady guard for Maryland back in the mid-'60s.

"I'd much rather be a player than a coach," he said last week, a wistful look crossing his face. "Playing is special. College basketball is cruel in a way. Because no matter how good it is, it's done after four years.

"And what's sad about it sometimes when you're 18 to 22 years old, is that the player doesn't know it doesn't get any better than this for the rest of [his] life."

But coaching at the Division 1 level is a rush, too. You can see it in Williams' eyes, in his body language, in the way his chest heaves during time-outs, the way he works, the way he sweats.

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