Williams' focus took more effort, emotion

Not wanting to distract Terps, now No. 2, coach kept quiet father's death

College Basketball

February 19, 2002|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Over the course of 24 seasons as a college basketball coach, Gary Williams has become quite adept at pushing aside game-day distractions, but this one was the toughest.

Like his Maryland Terrapins did while dismantling top-ranked Duke, 87-73, at sold-out Cole Field House on Sunday, Williams maintained his focus for two of the sweetest hours in school history, not to mention his career that includes 470 victories. Then, Williams began to choke up before a post-game radio interview, and these tears were not all about joy.

For about 36 hours, Williams had known that his father, William, 85, had died of heart failure.

Amid a raucous celebration in which fist-pumping, towel-waving Terp forward Chris Wilcox leaped onto the scorer's tables as students swarmed the floor, Williams' mind was drifting three hours north to his hometown of Collingswood, N.J.

Soon, it would be time to drive there to for his father's funeral.

"It was a good feeling to win the game. I was happy for the team and the school, but at the same time the thoughts of your father are always in the back of your mind. I couldn't separate the two," Williams said. "It made it harder [to enjoy]. Your life is never completely the way you want it, no matter what your position is."

Williams got the news from his older brother, who phoned him from North Carolina at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning. His father had been hospitalized for four days.

Williams decided not to tell his players at the team's final pre-Duke practice or before the game, so as to avoid a distraction. After the victory, which made Maryland the nation's No. 2 team just behind Kansas and just ahead of the Blue Devils, Williams did not wish to spoil the party.

He met with the players yesterday before missing practice to travel to New Jersey. Williams planned to return to College Park after attending this morning's funeral and then accompany the Terps to Clemson, where they play tomorrow night.

"We weren't as close probably as some fathers and sons are. He had his principles. He was a very stubborn person. He didn't compromise," Williams said. "I respected that, and he respected the fact that I was a coach.

"He was amazing, really independent. ... He could walk three miles at a good pace when he was 83 years old. He started to feel bad probably a month ago. His heart just stopped."

Williams said he was determined to keep the Terps moving in the right direction, and this team is no stranger to facing adversity.

Over two months ago, senior forward Byron Mouton left the Terps for a week when his brother died in a shooting incident in Houston. A year ago, Maryland nearly disintegrated while losing five of six games - beginning with a last-minute collapse against Duke at Cole Field House - but rebounded to win 10 of its last 12 and reach the first men's Final Four in school history.

This time around, Maryland (21-3, 11-1) has first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, an eight-game winning streak and a half-game lead on Duke with four games left. The Terps are near their first outright ACC regular-season title ever under Williams and Maryland's first since 1980.

Barring a highly unlikely meltdown, Maryland has secured its first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, which begins on March 14. The Terps will have to wait at least another week for a chance at their first top ranking.

"It would be great to be No. 1, but I can see why Kansas was voted No. 1," Williams said. "We have to work hard because we're not No. 1, and maybe that's a good thing this time of year. We're not there yet, but we still have a chance to get there."

Next for Terps

Opponent: Clemson

Site: Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson, S.C.

When: Tomorrow, 9 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 54, 50/WBAL (1090 AM)

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