After trip, perspective returns for Williams

June 03, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

College Park -- On his trip to the Middle East last week with a college basketball coaches' goodwill tour, Gary Williams got some much-needed inspiration and perspective. As he talked about it yesterday in the press box at Byrd Stadium, he made special mention of a soldier from near Cumberland, who claimed he would wear the Maryland T-shirt he'd received under his gear when he went into battle.

Still, the way Williams sounded later, as he talked about the rocky spring his program has undergone, he wasn't sure how much support he was getting here at home.

"Going to Kuwait was good," he said with a sigh, "because those guys ... they're just happy to be part of the United States." He paused, grimaced, then added, "Why people enjoy trying to tear things down, I'll never understand."

Contrary to Williams' mood at that moment, the occasion was a joyous one. Another thaw was taking place: For the first time in 20 years, since the fallout from Len Bias' death, there is a Driesell coaching basketball on campus. With Lefty's son Chuck filling the opening on Williams' staff, a tunnel was built from successful past to successful present, through the ugliness in between.

That hiring settled an immediate problem, the latest assistant-coaching vacancy spurred by an early departure, this time Rob Moxley's. But it also brought to mind the series of small and mid-sized issues arising since the middle of last season that have amassed to form an unpleasant perception: that there's big trouble in Garyland.

Whether there is or isn't won't be known until the 2006-07 season starts. It doesn't look particularly good now, not with the sudden indecisiveness and questioning by a pair of recruits - including the key to this year's freshman class, Eric Hayes - coming in the wake of what is still fair to call a debacle of a season, despite the 19 wins.

Chuck Driesell, like his predecessors on the Terps' staff, yearns to be a head coach someday. But you have to figure that his passion for his alma mater, and his father's former stomping grounds, will keep him around a little while. Maybe long enough to be the next Driesell in the gig, whatever decade that opening might happen.

Williams, of course, isn't going anywhere anytime soon. He is far too consumed with shutting up the skeptics who have reacted to the two straight NIT trips and the unexpected wave of player flakiness with demands that he get things back on track, or else.

Yet Williams does understand where it comes from: "We set the bar. The bar was the national championship. Anything below that isn't a successful season in a lot of people's minds."

The people's rebuttal: No, it's not. Especially not a season like this last one.

Terps fans wouldn't be the first to suffer from short-term memory loss after seeing the nets cut down. Maybe that will be another benefit of adding a Driesell, as a reminder of a previous era of almost-but-not-quites.

As for the benefits of the Kuwait trip, it didn't hurt Williams to be around a couple of coaches who really endure fan impatience (Tubby Smith, whose one title at Kentucky hasn't satisfied anybody there yet) and whose programs are really in trouble (Kelvin Sampson, getting both Oklahoma and Indiana in the NCAA doghouse).

Compared to that, two NIT trips, the staff's revolving door and a recruit's second-guessing father don't compare. And if everyone's forgotten what a real program in crisis looks like ... again, look no further than the new assistant, his dad and his All-America teammate from two decades ago.

There's enough perspective to go around for everybody. It would be a more peaceful summer if everybody, inside the program and out, swallowed a dose. It would also be a big upset if that ever happened.

The only real cure for it all is winning - getting off the bubble and back into the NCAAs. The younger Driesell wouldn't get a job at Maryland or anywhere else if he couldn't do the job - but if, as part of the package, he brings good karma to the Terps' program, that's a bonus.

"Familiarity, a recollection, a memory," Driesell said of the reaction to his name over the years. "You and I both know, in this day and age, relationships are the key to any successful business, and if that [name] can strike up a conversation or a sense of connection, it's an advantage ... So I'm very fortunate that I have that on my side."

Maryland is fortunate, too. Williams certainly is glad to hear someone excited about his program. He sounds like someone who isn't sure how many friends he has around here.

Halfway around the world, though, no problem.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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