Coach walked this way once

Williams' Terrapins evoke first title team

Teams: In 1970, Gary Williams won his only championship with a high school squad largely composed, like his Terps, of skilled veterans.

March 30, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Gary Williams had just graduated from the University of Maryland, having spent the year after his basketball career ended assisting with the freshman team and finishing up his credits. It was the summer of 1968, and Williams figured he was going to be drafted.

"Not the NBA draft," the Terrapins coach recalled with a laugh, days before heading out for his second appearance in the NCAA's Final Four.

Williams, then 23, went home to Collingswood, N.J., where he met up with a former high school teammate whose father had some advice. He urged Williams to join him in teaching at an urban school in Camden.

"You could get a deferment [from military service] if you were willing to go into areas where a lot of people wouldn't teach," said Williams, who, like many others, wanted to avoid going to Vietnam.

Woodrow Wilson High School hired him to teach business and coach the junior varsity. After one season, Williams replaced the school's longtime varsity coach, who had taken another job. Little did anyone know that the promotion would launch the career of one of college basketball's most respected coaches.

But there was a hint.

Woodrow Wilson finished the 1969-70 season undefeated at 27-0 and won the state championship.

It remains the only championship Williams has won.

After more than three decades on the college level as an assistant and a head coach, eight trips to the Sweet 16 or beyond, and 12 NCAA appearances including nine straight at Maryland, Williams is again on the brink of a championship.

As Williams, 57, prepares this year's Maryland team for its national semifinal game against Kansas tonight at the Georgia Dome, those who played for and coached with him in Camden see similarities between his situation now and then.

Like this year's Terps, the Wilson team was a veteran group. In fact, the seven players who were part of Williams' rotation were all seniors who as juniors had finished 14-11. "We were decent, but we were small," recalled Derek Brown, then the team's point guard and now the women's basketball coach at Coppin State College.

A talented cast

Just as he has noted of this year's Maryland players, Williams points to the talent at Wilson for his immediate success as a head coach.

"We had five players who got Division I scholarships," said Williams, going on to praise his predecessor, Art DiPatri, as "a great fundamental coach."

"So the players knew what they were doing," he said. "And we had a [6-foot, 8-inch] kid from, of all places, Columbus, Ohio, move in that summer."

Williams smiled at the memory of Harold Sullinger's arrival. "He moved," Williams said, "to our side of town."

Had Sullinger moved into the Camden High district, that perennial powerhouse would have become even stronger. Instead, Wilson beat its main rival twice that season. Sullinger became a high school All-American who attracted big-time college coaches to the school.

He almost went to Maryland as part of a recruiting class with Tom McMillen and Len Elmore before signing with Iowa.

"Lefty Driesell and [assistant coach] George Raveling were in the gym all the time," recalled Stan Pawlak, who was Williams' assistant and the school's junior varsity coach.

Team hardly challenged

Those who watched Wilson play saw a team that was barely challenged. The average margin of victory during the season was nearly 28 points a game, with Wilson winning one game by 61 and another by 68. The closest game was a 1-point win over Catholic powerhouse Bishop Eustace from Pennsauken.

Throughout what became a magical season, Pawlak said that he and Williams "just kept looking at each other and saying, `How is this happening?' and `Is it really this easy?'"

Off the court, it was a different story. It had been a tumultuous couple of years in Camden, as it had been throughout the country. Wilson, once a predominantly white school, had a police command post stationed in the building to prevent race riots such as those in other parts of the city.

Williams, only a few years older than his players, was often asked by the principal to talk to students to ease tensions.

"He was like a big brother to us," said Sullinger, now a real estate developer for the state of Ohio.

Along with Pawlak, Williams played in scrimmages at practice, bringing in older players from the area (including future Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell) to help get the team ready for its competition. The games were physical.

"We couldn't call fouls on them," said Barry Smith, one of Wilson's starting forwards and now a community organizer and developer in Camden. "Gary wanted us to be strong mentally in the games. They beat you up, and there was nothing you could do about it."

If Williams was the coach on the bench, then Brown was the coach on the floor. As a junior, he averaged about 18 points a game. But when Sullinger joined the team, Brown was content to be a playmaker and run the team's vaunted fast break. And he made his new coach's job a lot easier.

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