On sidelines, almost twins, really friends

Ncaa Tournament

March 20, 2004

DENVER - They are so much alike in a sense, Gary Williams and Jim Boeheim, that they actually like each other. They are both cynical and basically loners, but these two grumpy major college basketball coaches really share a mutual respect and friendship.

So when No. 4 seed Maryland (20-11) takes on No. 5 Syracuse (22-7) today in the second round of the NCAA tournament, it will pit two old-hand coaches who have become legends at their respective institutions.

"I knew Jim a little bit, not well, when I was an assistant at Lafayette, and he was an assistant at Syracuse," said Williams, 59, of Boeheim, also 59. "Then we played against each other when we were younger in the Big East. The Big East was like the wild, wild west back then.

"It was unbelievable with Rollie Massimino, P.J. Carlesimo, Lou Carnesecca, the John Thompsons, all of those guys coaching at the same time," said Williams, who coached at Boston College. "That's where you get to know people on a competitive basis. We had some great games, I remember losing to Pearl Washington throwing in a shot at half court at the Dome. Great stuff."

Tonight's game might be a great game, but not filled with great players because both coaches are rebuilding after having won recent national championships, the Terps in 2002 and Syracuse last year.

You'll be able to tell the difference between the two from the sidelines. Boeheim has often been accused of being the game's biggest whiner and working officials. His one pose is a classic, the one where his arms are outstretched and the palms opened as to say to the referees, why me?

Williams is usually in motion, directing, yelling and screaming. Williams will be in the custom-designed suit. Boeheim has a closet full of gray pants and navy jackets.

Those wide-framed glasses of Boeheim's could use an update, too.

"Over the years, a coach starts to mellow, except for Gary. I don't think he'll ever mellow," Boeheim said. "He's the only golfer to fire his caddie on the second green. But the coaches I like are the ones who compete against each other as hard as they can, then go out and play golf with each other, or eat dinner, and there are no excuses, no snide comments."

They have too much respect for each other to offer excuses. When Syracuse failed to make the NCAA tournament two years ago, Boeheim was rooting for Williams to win the title. When the Terps got knocked out in the Sweet 16 last season, Williams became one of Boeheim's, and the Orangemen's, top fans.

They don't exchange Christmas cards or call each other often, but maybe there is a bond because both Boeheim and Williams were once put in the same club. Both were branded with "can't coach, can't win the big game" labels earlier in their careers. It took Boeheim 27 years to win a championship, and Williams 24, but they aren't about to ignore some of their peers who haven't.

Williams says Temple's John Chaney is a great coach, and so is Purdue's Gene Keady. Boeheim likes Pete Carrill.

"One of the best coaches I've ever seen was Pete Carrill," said Boeheim. "Did he win a national championship? No. Did he have the players? No. I had the reputation of being a great recruiter, but couldn't win big games. There aren't that many people who can judge who are great coaches. I'm not sure I can do."

Boeheim has a 675-233 record in 28 seasons. Williams is 541-303 in 26. Williams likes to play a lot of full-court, pressure defense, and pound the ball inside to his big men on offense. Boeheim runs a lot of motion and screens, and his zone defense has become a trademark throughout the country.

Underneath the strategy are basically two blue-collar coaches. Boeheim still angers his wife, Juli, by snorting into microphones to clear allergies, or burping during his radio show. He has a Jaguar but prefers to drive around in a big, old Bonneville.

Williams is a Jersey street fighter. He has made millions from coaching, occasionally rides in limousines and belongs to three country clubs, but he really doesn't fit. This man has the personality of a tough, old inner-city basketball coach who cares just as much as about setting a screen as he does averaging 20 points or more.

He has an in-your-face style with a chip on the shoulder. When he faces Boeheim today, there will be a lot of snarling, gritting teeth and a lot of respect.

"I try not to think about it," said Boeheim of facing his friend. "When the game starts, I worry about John Gilchrist and those guys. I've coached against a lot of guys who are good friends of mind. I just coach against the team and think of it that way."

Whoever wins the game, it won't be mentioned on the golf course. The two friends play several times a summer, and basketball is no longer a topic of conversation.

"When you're younger, you get together and talk about basketball," said Boeheim. "Now, when you get older, you don't talk about it so much. It can consume you so much you don't want to talk about it. Golf allows you to leave it all behind. When we finish playing this basketball game, I think we can put it to rest. Friends can do that."

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