Landing squarely in winner's circle

Maryland: Coach Gary Williams, who had been a Final Four spectator all these years, savors his first trip to college basketball's grand stage.

Ncaa Tournament

The Final Four

March 30, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - Gary Williams remembers the first time he watched one of his close friends coaching in the Final Four. It was in 1987, at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, and a much-maligned fellow named Jim Boeheim had just taken Syracuse to the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

"And I am up in Section S," Williams joked earlier this week.

Two years later, Williams was again watching another of his friends reach the pinnacle of their profession. This time it was P.J. Carlesimo, who had nearly been fired at Seton Hall a couple of years before, leading his team into the Kingdome in Seattle.

Though both Boeheim and Carlesimo would see their teams lose the championship game by a point in the final seconds - Syracuse on a corner jumper by Indiana's Keith Smart, Seton Hall in overtime on two free throws by Michigan's Rumeal Robinson - their careers were forever viewed in a different light.

It is now the same with Williams, who will give up what had been a seemingly permanent seat in the coaches' section for one on the bench (or at least the space right in front of it where he spends most of the game) here at the Metrodome.

Long removed from those years at American University and Boston College when he was considered one of college basketball's up-and-coming coaching stars, the 56-year-old Williams will finally take the stage that has eluded him when Maryland plays Duke in tomorrow's second semifinal game.

"In terms of coaching, I would not have judged myself differently if I had never gotten to a Final Four," Williams said in College Park last Monday, two days after the Terrapins beat top-seeded Stanford, 87-73, in the NCAA West Regional final in Anaheim, Calif.

"I've seen too many great coaches who I respected and I still respect never get to the Final Four."

Among those whom Williams puts on that list are former Iowa coach Tom Davis, who gave Williams his first coaching job at Lafayette and later brought him to Boston College, and Purdue coach Gene Keady, whom Williams coached against during his three years at Ohio State.

Some had put Williams on that list, since he had taken his teams to the NCAA tournament 11 times, including the last eight at Maryland. But until the Terrapins defeated Georgetown in this year's regional semifinals, none of Williams' teams had been past the Sweet 16.

"There are a lot of these guys [who coach in the Final Four] I've competed against for years, and you do ask yourself, 'Why can't I get there?' " Williams said. "It's one of those questions you can't answer. But now that I'm here, it's a great feeling. It's a tremendous feeling."

Boeheim, whose teams at Syracuse had made the NCAA tournament eight times in his first 10 years and lost five games in the first or second round, knows what Williams is experiencing. It's a different feeling than the one Boeheim experienced in 1996, when Syracuse lost to Kentucky in the championship game.

"You feel a great sense of relief and satisfaction," Boeheim said. "Whatever coaches say [who haven't been there] is usually very protective of what they're really feeling. It does give you a sense of peace. You don't have to hear that anymore [about not going]. You don't have to talk about it anymore."

Williams started hearing it when his teams at Maryland didn't even make the Sweet 16, and later when they did. The Terrapins lost to Santa Clara in the opening round in 1996 and to the College of Charleston in the opening round in 1997.

The criticism reached a crescendo when Maryland, led by Steve Francis, was thumped by St. John's in the Sweet 16 in 1999 and, with Francis gone, was demolished by UCLA in the second round last season."`I guess winning 28 games doesn't mean anything," Williams said, reacting to being ripped by the media after the St. John's game.

To his critics, it didn't matter that Williams had brought a program torn apart by tragedy (the death of All-American Len Bias in 1986) and overwhelmed by controversy (the tumultuous three-year tenure of former Dunbar coach Bob Wade that led to NCAA sanctions) back to respectability.

Much has been written recently about his demeanor changing on the sideline, about Williams taking a new approach with his players in the locker room and at practice. Mostly, Williams has altered only his body language and his team has finally been able to relax a little in March, just like their coach.

"While he's still a very intense guy, you can see himself physically stop and give himself a moment to think instead of just react," said fifth-year senior Mike Mardesich. "Any time you see a coach physically calm himself down, it has the same effect on his players."

Remarkable metamorphosis

"I used to say that they would play like scared rabbits in March," said Kristin Scott, Williams' daughter.

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