Williams finding peace in this trip to Final Four

April 01, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd

GARY WILLIAMS will be in the stands in San Antonio this weekend for college basketball's big dance, the Final Four. But he won't be pacing nervously in front of his seat and sweating through his clothes and wheeling around to the hot dog vendor to scream: "Why the #$%&@ aren't they boxing out?!"

In fact, Williams will be so serene you might think he just came from a yoga class.

This is because, for one of the few times in his coaching career, Gary Williams actually seems at peace.

And why not? He took a young Maryland team full of holes and willed it to 20 wins and a totally improbable ACC championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament for the 11th year in a row, in what many say was his best coaching job ever.

So when freshman guard D.J. Strawberry's last-second put-back attempt failed and Syracuse knocked Maryland out of the tournament with a 72-70 win, Williams didn't go home and sit in the dark with a bottle of gin in his lap.

"Oh, you want to be there every year," he said of a Final Four berth. "But you know what this team did this year. And you're not going to get there every year, or else more coaches would have won the thing.

"So there's really a sense of pride going [to San Antonio], rather than a sense of regret."

He said this the other night at Piv's Pub in Timonium, where Maryland's head coach was doing the season finale of The Gary Williams Show on WBAL radio with Johnny Holliday, the long-time voice of the Terrapins.

Even off the court, you'll be shocked to know, Williams is not exactly warm and cuddly.

In a room full of back-slapping, beer-drinking Terps fans who basically viewed him as Gary of Nazareth, he still looked like he might bolt for the door at any minute.

Even when the calls came in - Kathy in Baltimore, Kelly from Pasadena, Jim from Glen Burnie - offering congratulations for another wonderful season, Williams sat there with the kind of expression you might wear filling out tax forms.

"He doesn't like praise," Holliday said before the show. "He doesn't like any kind of accolades. And he'll just fluff it off and go to another subject."

The truth is, Gary Williams is a lot more fun to watch on the sidelines of a Maryland game than he is sitting there with a pair of headphones and doing a talk show.

For 40 minutes, he stomps up and down in front of the Maryland bench, screaming at his players and cursing and turning red with rage - and that's when the Terps are winning.

When they're losing, forget it: He's a walking Three Mile Island.

Do yourself a favor and read Rick Reilly's piece in Sports Illustrated last week about what it was like to sit behind the Maryland bench during the loss to Syracuse and watch Wacko in action - Wacko being the affectionate nickname Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has pinned on his golf buddy.

Williams, to his credit, makes no apologies for his intensity on the sidelines.

He is what he is. He's not a phony, he's not an alibi guy. He knows the cursing looks terrible at times - especially when the TV cameras show him F-bombing the referee or his players in the huddle during a time-out.

But Williams knows only one way to lead a basketball team: You put your heart and soul into it. And your liver and spleen, too, if that'll get it done.

What Reilly and college basketball fans across the nation are finding out is what Terrapin fans have known for years: that Gary Williams, at 59, might be the most passionate coach in men's college basketball today.

When this was mentioned to Williams at Piv's, he looked like a man who'd just been told his car was stolen.

"Well, I don't know," he said. "You have to coach your personality. And there are coaches who are very passionate about their team that just don't show it. I probably show it more than some coaches.

"But I've always felt that's what you do, that's your job. You're supposed to get the most out of your team. You get them to the best level they can. So whatever it takes, I'm willing to do."

And if it leaves you pale and sweating and looking like you belong on an autopsy table when it's over, well, that's the price you pay.

If there's a snapshot of Williams that Terp fans will remember from this season, it's of him celebrating seconds after the Terps beat Virginia in their last regular-season game - a win that virtually assured their 11th NCAA tournament appearance in Williams' 15 seasons.

First he let out a Howard Dean shriek.

Then came the ugliest victory dance you ever saw, a jerky, erratic two-step that ended with Coach punching the air over and over again - big, roundhouse swings that seemed aimed at all the critics who said the Terps would go nowhere this season.

"I don't usually do that," he said, reliving the moment at Piv's Pub and looking embarrassed. "I just walk down and shake the other coach's hand."

Too bad this guy won't be coaching in San Antonio this weekend, in the shadow of the Alamo.

He would have felt right at home.

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