Week before grand finale, Williams focused on routine

Emotions in check, coach warded off distractions for Terps - and himself

Cole Field House

The Final Game

March 04, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - This week was as different as any Gary Williams had experienced during his 13 seasons coaching at the University of Maryland. More emotional. More exhausting. And, in the end, perhaps more satisfying.

Winning the school's first ACC championship in 22 years can do that.

Closing down Cole Field House can do that, too.

"I was just glad that I had the team that I have," Williams said after last night's 112-92 victory over Virginia. "I knew there would be a lot of distractions for this for me, but for the players, too. I've been doing this for a while. My job was to ensure that I didn't get distracted, and do the job I was supposed to do."

Williams tried to keep everything as normal as possible by not changing the way his team prepared for Wednesday's road game at Florida State - a contest Williams thought was dangerous given that both Duke and Virginia both lost in Tallahassee this season - and for the finale at Cole.

But Cleo Thomas saw something in her boss that she had never witnessed in the 12 years she has worked for Williams.

"He was a lot more secluded than I've seen him before any big game, and he was a lot more emotional," said Thomas, who has been Williams' personal assistant since his second year at Maryland. "I think he was aware of his players seeing him a certain way and he wanted to disguise his feelings."

Don McCartney, who has worked as Williams' attorney for several years, recalled a short conversation they had late last week.

"He was just focused on the team and the game," said McCartney, sitting in his seat behind the Maryland bench. "At the same time, he'll have his memories of this after the season ends. He just wants to take care of business."

Joe Harrington, who played with Williams at Maryland and remains one of his closest friends, saw the extent of Williams' tunnel vision while the coach was making an appearance Saturday night at a Laurel sports bar for a function celebrating the last game at Cole.

"There were guys who were there that I don't think he ever saw, like Jay McMillen," said Harrington. "He was all business. The only reason I think he saw me was that I was in his line of vision when he walked out."

Tahj Holden saw the same thing at practice, before and after the victory at Florida State.

"He can separate basketball from the rest of the world," said Holden, a junior forward.

But all that changed when Williams took his customary march out to courtside a few minutes before tip-off. Normally, Williams will give a quick, tight pump of his fist to the crowd. Last night, Williams raised the fist a little higher and held it a lot longer.

"I did," he said after the game. "It was the last one."

By the time game started, things were back to normal for Williams.

He was in his typical crouch from the start, getting upset when Steve Blake's lob pass on Maryland's second possession sailed over Chris Wilcox's head and out of bounds, applauding the way his team passed the ball for easy baskets in the second half, and quieting the crowd when it directed a derisive "NIT ... NIT" chant at the Cavaliers.

But even Williams could relax as his team's sluggish start gave way to a comfortable lead early in the second half, and eventually led to another blowout victory in what has the makings of the most memorable season in Maryland history.

As the final buzzer sounded to begin the post-game celebration of his team and some of the former players whose mere presence brought more several standing ovations, Williams was there to give each of them a handshake and some, like former Dunbar star Keith Booth, a hug.

"This is a nice birthday present for Gary," said McCartney.

Williams, who turns 57 today, credited his current team with helping him get through the week.

"It's difficult, because obviously this place means a lot to me," he said.

Williams shared one special memory with the crowd during his post-game radio show. In this case, it had nothing to do with any game he played in or coached.

"Someone asked me what the happiest thing to happen to me in this building," he said to the crowd. "The happiest thing was up there in Section 2 when I passed two final exams. I was happy to get out of here."

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