Behind hot Terps, a milder Williams

Fiery coach learning to keep his cool - and Maryland responding

March 06, 2001|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- He has just turned 56, is remarkably trim and sports a healthy head of gray hair that provides an obvious hint of advancing middle age. And the old dog, who happens to be Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams, is still capable of producing a new trick.

For those who have been too captivated lately by the resurgent play of the nation's hottest team to notice, a conspicuous change has taken place on the Maryland sideline.

Williams is no longer a constant threat to erupt in volcano-like fashion, and No. 11-ranked Maryland is a better team for it.

No, Williams has not mellowed. He still creates signature, made-for-television rants -- be they directed at officials, his players, his staff or opposing coaches.

The fiery competitor is very much alive. At halftime of last week's come-from-behind 91-80 victory at Duke, did you see Williams square off nose-to-nose and exchange expletives with Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski at midcourt, where referee John Clougherty had to break it up?

Take another look at these Terps, who have reversed a 1-5 collapse with a dominant five-game winning streak, capped by Saturday's 102-67 crushing of Virginia to complete the regular season.

Notice how composed Maryland has looked, while performing with a controlled, reckless abandon and a dose of intimidation. What makes this third-seeded team so dangerous as it prepares for this weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament is that the Terps (20-9), full of obvious talent all along, appear so loose and unflappable.

And it's no coincidence that a toned-down Williams is driving them.

"When it comes down to a huge game or a high-pressure situation, it makes a difference whether the guy on the sideline is keeping his cool or losing his cool," senior backup center Mike Mardesich said.

"The players are a reflection of their coach. If you look over at the sideline and your coach is leading the way cool and collected, it gives you a lot of confidence. You can't be successful if you're always looking over your shoulder, afraid to make a mistake. You can't play that way."

Leave it to the pupils to observe the teacher. Leave it to fifth-year senior LaRon Cephas, a backup forward who barely plays, a co-captain who has become a locker room policeman and has watched Williams evolve.

"When we were in our little slump, I was surprised at the way [Williams] handled himself. He was very calm, didn't yell a lot, and I think that's one of the things that gave us our spirit back," Cephas said.

"No one likes to be yelled at. It makes you shaky and nervous. One of the things I really admired about him was the way he kept his composure during the slump. There definitely has been a change in attitude. I think he searched within himself to make some changes."

Contrary to popular belief, Williams did not change radically after Maryland hit bottom on Feb. 14 by losing at home to last-place Florida State. And the Terps did not reverse course because Ravens coach Brian Billick gave them a pep talk before they blew out North Carolina State six nights later.

Williams has been lightening up for some time. The trend goes back to last season, when Maryland started three sophomores, a freshman and no seniors and became one of Williams' more likeable, unselfish squads. There were numerous moments, such as last year's upset victory at Duke, when Williams drew much praise for his calm bench demeanor."[Williams] knew he had to nurture a young team," Mardesich said. "At times, I've wanted him to tear into some guys, and he doesn't.

"I can tell when he catches himself. His face will get red, and you can see the veins popping in his head. But he takes a deep breath and his response is more positive. You can't expect him to change his personality. He just picks his spots better now."

In the old days, Williams' jacket would be off within minutes during any game, and the ranting would begin and never stop. Daily practices typically featured a tongue-lashing. The popular notion still is that Williams wears down his teams by March, rendering them too fatigued to go far in the NCAA tournament.

The Terps have never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 under Williams.

"It has been at high volume so much that it sometimes goes in one ear and out the other," Cephas said. "You listen better when it becomes low volume. Different pitch and tone really help."

Williams has shown a relaxed, confident touch all year. After the Terps opened the season by losing two of three games in the Maui Invitational, he didn't berate them, as he rarely has done this season. His jacket has come off only once, when he unraveled during that fateful loss to Florida State, which created a defining moment for Maryland.

After that loss, which dropped the Terps to 15-9, put their eighth straight NCAA tournament bid in doubt and turned the home crowd against them, Williams gave the team a simple message:

No one can dig out of this mess but us. Now go do it, and enjoy playing your favorite game.

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