THIS WAS the messiest divorce the Maryland basketball program has experienced since Gary Williams arrived on campus. No counseling, no trial separation, just a ragged, contentious split. John Gilchrist wanted out, and nobody ran to block the door - in fact, it appears, people were lining up to hold it open for him.
The fairy tale authored by Gilchrist and the Terps in the 2004 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament should have had a happier ending. Then again, from the looks of things, it had exactly the ending it should have had, with bridges in full flame.
FOR THE RECORD - In a sports column in yesterday's editions, it was incorrectly reported that the University of Maryland was eliminated in the second round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament during Steve Francis' one season with the team in 1998-1999. Maryland actually reached the regional semifinals that season.
The Sun regrets the error.
Gilchrist struck the final match with remarks in Saturday's Washington Post, made while preparing for this week's NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago and, later this month, the draft itself. The junior point guard painted himself as hero and victim, studiously ignoring the old saying about how, when you point a finger at someone, three are pointing back at you.
Since the underwhelming finish to the season - that National Invitation Tournament flag will look mighty small next to all the NCAA banners - Williams has taken as high a road as he can manage, wishing Gilchrist well and defending the reputation of greatness the program has developed over the years (partly, he acknowledges, with Gilchrist's help that blissful weekend). The constant theme? "We're moving on. We wish him the best."
These two headstrong men a generation apart had been heading in opposite directions long before this season reached its unsatisfying climax. It never would have made sense to sell Gilchrist or Williams on extending their relationship one season longer, even to boost Gilchrist's draft stock, repair his reputation and atone for all that went wrong last season.
If ever there was a parting by mutual consent, this was it.
Still, Williams' top players have never left in this sort of huff, with the program quietly celebrating their departure. It was sad to see. After all, Gilchrist does hold a unique place in the history of the school, particularly if you buy the notion that the ACC title means more than the national championship two years earlier.
No one's going to usurp Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Lonny Baxter and the rest in the hearts of the Maryland faithful, but by putting the Terps on his shoulders for three days in March '04, Gilchrist positioned himself to enter the pantheon. Just one more season at something close to that level, and Gilchrist would be getting a virtual ticker-tape parade out of College Park, with tears and thanks and fond memories and, eventually, a spot in the rafters for his jersey.
Hey, Steve Francis got that much for just one great year that ended in the NCAA's second round. When Chris Wilcox passed up his junior year to go pro in the aftermath of the national title, Williams has pointed out, no one had a cross word to say.
No college player, regardless of his act on or off the court, ought to be talked out of making a financial decision to take care of himself and his family, and Williams never has been that type. On the other hand, no one wants to exit with the entire program singing, "How can we miss you if you won't go away?"
Any reconciliation between player and coach (and program and teammates) is certainly delayed now that Gilchrist has, at long last, vented.
In the Post, he skewered his fellow Terps for "disrespecting the game" and not practicing as hard or as seriously as he did. He said he grew tired of being blamed for everything that went wrong with the team. He acknowledged his relationship with Williams his final season was all but nonexistent and the coach put "too much on me [and] felt I could take it."
Finally, the suspicions about him raging all season became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Said Gilchrist: "It got to the point where I thought, `It is almost over.' ... No matter what, I wasn't coming back."
Wonder if that point coincided with the point at which Maryland's season imploded with four straight losses that left its NCAA tournament hopes in ashes?
None of this is helping his draft hopes, reportedly. Yet he might be one of those players who was just a bad fit for college ball who reach their potential away from it and in the pros.
Nevertheless, it's a shame the Gilchrist era at Maryland ended this way after its heart-pounding, soul-stirring birth just 15 months ago.
The breakup was painful, bitter and apparently inevitable. But they'll always have Greensboro.