Williams opted to switch play call

UM officials admit surprise at earlier decision to skip NIT

March 14, 2006|By HEATHER A. DINICH | HEATHER A. DINICH,SUN REPORTER

The highest-ranking officials in the athletics department at the University of Maryland were caught off guard Sunday night by men's basketball coach Gary Williams' initial decision to turn down the National Invitation Tournament an hour before the Terps were expected to receive a bid on live television.

Williams said he was unaware Maryland had submitted paperwork to host the postseason games, a move that signaled the team's intent to play in the NIT in the event of failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Director of athletics Debbie Yow said the team would not have taken that step without the approval of the head coach.

"Departmental policy is that no such bid is submitted without the concurrence of the head coach," Yow said. "That's with any sport."

With a little persuasion from the NIT committee chair, Williams changed his mind and agreed to play in the tournament just before the bracket was scheduled to air at 9 p.m., but said yesterday that he has never committed to the NIT before the NCAA tournament bracket was revealed.

"In terms of agreeing to go to the NIT when we're going for the NCAA bid? No way," he said. "I've never talked about the NIT in any year until after you don't make the NCAA tournament. You don't talk about the NIT when you have a chance to go to the NCAA."

Following the 6 p.m. NCAA selection show, in which Maryland was not included in the NCAA tournament field of 65, Williams met with each team member individually to see if they wanted to play in the NIT.

None of them did.

Around 8 p.m., he informed Maryland athletic department officials of his decision. Yow was at home, waiting to hear Maryland's seed announced on ESPNU when she first heard about Williams' initial decision to decline. Dave Haglund, an associate athletic director in charge of championships and special events, was Maryland's point man for the NIT and in his office at Comcast Center. So was Larry Leckonby, a senior associate athletics director and the school's chief financial officer.

"Was I surprised they were disappointed and unhappy they didn't make the NCAA? No, I would've expected that from any highly competitive group, including Gary," Leckonby said. "Was I surprised he decided [Sunday] night he didn't want to play in the NIT? Yes, I was surprised. It didn't occur to anybody who had been working on it that we would not play. ... That's just the emotion of the coaches and the players more than anything else."

While Williams maintained he was never asked before Sunday night if he wanted to play in the NIT, Leckonby said yesterday that Maryland director of basketball operations Troy Wainwright was in every NIT planning meeting.

"He actively participated," Leckonby said. "I can't tell you what their relationship [he and Williams] or communication might be."

Wainwright was unavailable for comment.

Williams said there is no problem with the communication between him and his staff. Maryland did not have to accept the invitation, as there was no contractual agreement made.

"Bottom line is, at 8 o'clock, they didn't think they'd accept the invitation, which is fair and valid," Leckonby said. "You don't have to accept. You don't have to play."

That was Williams' intent until around 8:30 when he received a call from NIT committee chair C.M. Newton, who expressed his displeasure with the school's decision. Newton explained the revamped format, which for the first time includes seeding and bracketing. That, combined with Williams' respect for the Hall of Famers like Dean Smith on the committee, changed his mind.

"The thing I expressed to him was how important it was that Maryland play, that this was a new era of the NIT, and the six of us ex-coaches are trying to make it a real basketball event," Newton said. "Plus, I reminded him that the university had committed, that if they were selected, they would play. I don't know if he was aware of that.

"The one thing we didn't need in this whole new approach was to have one of our top seeds not play. When I told him that, he said, `We're there.' I'm very appreciative, both personally and professionally."

Maryland, a No. 1 seed, is scheduled to play at 11 a.m. Saturday at Comcast Center against the winner of tonight's Manhattan-Fairleigh Dickinson game.

It didn't hurt that the Terps had a few days to heal senior forward Nik Caner-Medley's sprained ankle, or that they now have the opportunity to make more than $80,000 for hosting three home games.

"It helps," Leckonby said. "It's more than soccer or lacrosse can bring in the whole year. We count on men's basketball and football to carry 27 sports. We need them to be successful to carry our budget."

Tickets will be sold for $25, which is $1 fewer than Maryland charges for preseason games. Last year, Maryland had crowds of 7,406, 10,618 and 12,126.

"If we can average 10-12,000, we'll be fine whether we go to New York or not," Leckonby said.

The NCAA, which purchased the rights to the NIT, will give each participating school a percentage of the overall profit for each game it plays. There is no huge television contract, but Maryland's game on Saturday will be televised by ESPN.

"As an athletic department, our overriding focus is how to get back to the NCAA tournament after missing it after two consecutive years," Yow said. "The conversation about the logistics for the NIT is a very secondary issue."

heather.dinich@baltsun.com

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