UM's Williams makes the grade, even if most of his players don't

December 21, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

The University of Maryland picked an interesting day to announce that basketball coach Gary Williams was getting a $300,000 raise.

The school released the news Monday morning, hours before the NCAA released its inaugural Graduation Success Rates report, in which the Terps ranked last in the Atlantic Coast Conference and well behind each of the state's other Division I programs.

I might be a hopeless conspiracy theorist, but I think athletic director Debbie Yow knew what the NCAA report was going to say and announced the raise to show support for Williams.

Put it this way: If she didn't do it on purpose (she knew various news outlets were getting close to breaking the raise story), she certainly knew what the timing would imply.

Williams' Terps seldom shine in academic reports, and this one was no different, but when the coach is rewarded with a raise and an extension - albeit one tied to academic achievement as well as on-court success - the school's position on the subject is clear: It is happy with Williams and his program, and willing to tolerate some tough NCAA report numbers.

Does the administration wish those numbers were better? No question. When Yow told The Sun's Heather Dinich she believed "Coach Williams is up for the challenge of continuing to improve the academic results," she was effectively saying she recognized the problem and hoped things would get better.

But she also was saying she accepted Williams' version of events - that an effort is being made, and that the Terps' academic performance isn't as bad as the report suggests.

Such matters are anything but trivial at a school that has steadily raised its general academic standards over the past two decades. Gains of that ilk can be undermined when those standards are grossly compromised for the sake of winning ballgames.

But Williams and his academic staff spent Monday vigorously defending their effort and disputing the perception created by the low numbers, offering specific defenses: the fact that the NCAA report included students who entered school a decade ago; the fact that several former players listed as non-graduates in the report had, in fact, come back and earned their degrees - just too late to be counted; and the fact that Williams' players had already surpassed the NCAA criteria for a passing academic grade in 2006.

As always, it's hard to gauge just how well things are going - as opposed to, say, Wake Forest, where the men's basketball team earned a perfect graduation score; or at Navy, which had the highest score among the state's Division I teams.

When your scores are high, you don't have to spin or explain.

Here's hoping Williams genuinely cares about raising his scores, for that's the only real chink in a program otherwise now regarded as one of the nation's best. It was anything but that when Williams arrived in 1989 with the Terps on probation for violations committed while Bob Wade was their coach, but Williams has remade the downtrodden program into a consistent winner that delivered a national title. And you're wondering why the administration has his back?

If Williams had not taken the scandal-ridden Terps and turned them into this state's most popular wintertime obsession, Yow never could have successfully convinced the state legislature that the school needed a new arena, which she did, resulting in the building of the splendid Comcast Center.

The school's athletic circumstances have undergone a complete financial and competitive turnaround since the sad cries of the Len Bias scandal were echoing, and it can be argued that the turnaround started with Williams and his basketball team.

His $300,000 raise - which pushes his annual base salary to $1.6 million - is being given for a job continually well done, the difficulty of which can be appreciated when his program is compared with the struggles that have struck Ralph Friedgen's football program. Friedgen started brilliantly but has leveled off with two straight losing seasons. Williams missed the Big Dance last season for the first time since 1994, but he is back in the Top 25 this year.

Moreover, he has received verbal commitments from two juniors, 6-foot-7 Braxton Dupree of Calvert Hall and 6-8 Dino Gregory of Mount St. Joseph, who would be the first Baltimore City kids since Juan Dixon to play for the Terps. Obviously, new assistant coach Keith Booth, the former Dunbar star, could have quite an impact on recruiting.

Williams is on a roll, has been for a while. Should he strive to raise his graduation numbers? Absolutely - for the sake of his legacy, if anything. But he's the big man on campus for a reason. He's a grinder, instinctively able to persist and thrive. And so he will.

American@No. 16 Maryland

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