Terps' storybook season goes on the line tonight

Maryland's faithful proud to see program at the top of its game

Final Four

April 01, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - Every day since the University of Maryland basketball team arrived here last week for this year's Final Four, the bus carrying the Terrapins back to their airport hotel has taken the same exit off Interstate 85.

It's the exit that reads, "Virginia Avenue, College Park."

Though Gary Williams is not a superstitious coach, the routine is one of many signs that point to Maryland winning its first NCAA men's basketball championship. The Terrapins will get that opportunity when they meet Indiana tonight at the Georgia Dome.

It also marks the first time Maryland will play in the NCAA tournament championship game, pitted against a storied Hoosiers program that has won five national titles, most recently in 1987.

For some Maryland fans, it's a game they never thought they would see.

"I always hoped that we would go to a major bowl game and to the Final Four in the same year, and figured that would be the end for me," said Jack Heise, 77, a Bethesda lawyer who saw his first Maryland game in 1941 and served as team manager after returning from World War II. "Fortunately, it's not the end."

With its football team concluding a 10-2 season in the Orange Bowl and its basketball team reaching its second straight Final Four after never having gone before, the Terrapins suddenly have become a significant player in intercollegiate athletics.

"We're all thrilled and happy to reach this level of success," said athletic director Debbie Yow as she stood among photo-snapping well-wishers at the team's hotel yesterday afternoon. "I also believe that once you reach this level and enjoy it, your appetite for it increases."

That appetite has pushed up the demand for and the price of tickets going into tonight's game. Many Maryland fans who weren't here on Saturday began driving and flying to Atlanta after the Terrapins defeated Kansas, 97-88, in the second semifinal game. Indiana reached the final by beating Oklahoma, 73-64.

Dan Rockind, a 1998 Maryland graduate, flew from New York yesterday without game tickets, which were reportedly fetching as much as $4,500 for a courtside seat.

"I never felt we'd be at this level," said Rockind, recalling some disappointing postseason losses when he was in College Park.

Maryland has been trying to get to this level - and this game - for more than three decades.

Ever since Lefty Driesell arrived on campus in 1969, promising to turn Maryland into the "UCLA of the East," the Terrapins have perennially fallen short. Until last year, the program had held the dubious distinction of making the most NCAA tournament appearances, 17, without reaching the Final Four.

By the time Williams was hired in 1989, Maryland was in the process of falling into an abyss.

It began with the cocaine-induced death of All-American Len Bias in June 1986. It continued with the forced resignation of Driesell that fall, and the tumultuous three years under Bob Wade that resulted in the Terrapins' being hit with NCAA sanctions after Williams' first season.

Asked yesterday to recall what he thought when he heard that Bias died, Williams said: "I knew it would hurt the University of Maryland. I didn't realize how much it hurt, not just the athletic department, because there was a feeling that the basketball program had hurt the university's academic standing in a lot of things.

"All those things had to be done before we could become a good program again. No other program had gone through that, so no one knew how to react to the situation. I had to learn myself, just to try to do the best job I could to make sure people understood we were going to have a good program with good people."

The program began to turn around during the 1993-1994 season, when freshmen Joe Smith and Keith Booth led the Terrapins to their first NCAA tournament in six years. That year, Maryland reached the Sweet 16, the first of six times in nine seasons that the Terrapins advanced past the second round.

Williams recently called Booth, who played at Dunbar, "the single most important recruit we've had in my 13 years."

Booth, who would become an All-American his senior year and see his jersey number retired in Cole Field House, reopened the recruiting doors in Baltimore that were closed when Ernest Graham left Maryland without a degree in 1981 (one he later earned) and locked after the acrimonious firing of Wade, a former Dunbar coach.

"Until we got those back-to-back recruiting classes there with Joe Smith and Keith Booth [and a previous class that included high school All-American Duane Simpkins], there was probably some doubt in my mind that we could do it," said Williams, 57, who had previous coaching successes at American, Boston College and Ohio State.

A 1968 Maryland graduate, Williams persevered.

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