Game of risk

With new recruit, Williams seems to be writing himself new rules

On Maryland Basketball

May 09, 2008

If only this were really about second chances.

I have little doubt that Maryland's athletic director and its men's basketball coach spend most of their time operating on the same page. They both want to win. They want athletes in class. They want them to stay out of trouble.

For the better part of 14 years, whatever battles they had remained relatively minor. As long as shared goals, expectations and standards remained consistent, life at Comcast Center rolled on.

But what we have this week doesn't feel like a simple misunderstanding or just another blip in the relationship. The needle isn't quivering in College Park right now; it's spinning wildly.

On the surface, the apparent rift surrounds recruit Tyree Evans, who was offered a scholarship by Williams despite having a criminal background. Even Bob Huggins had to take a pass on this one.

In 19 years at Maryland, Williams had never offered a scholarship to such a recruit. He seems to think that's justification for doing it this one time. In fact, it's a big part of the reason this one time reflects so poorly on Williams and his embattled program.

The bigger conflict isn't really about whether Evans belongs on campus; it's how Williams has gone about bringing him there and what it means that the coach is suddenly eager to take such a risk.

In an e-mail response to questions from The Sun this week, athletic director Debbie Yow sure made it sound like Williams is playing cowboy with this one. The coach climbed out to the edge of a very thin branch.

Yow said Williams pursued Evans without sharing his entire history with her office. Generally speaking, when a coach in College Park has a recruit with questionable grades or a questionable background, there's a meeting with someone in the athletic department. Football coach Ralph Friedgen can tell you there's usually an agreement that there might be another recruit out there who's a better fit.

Williams isn't new in town. He knows the procedure, and he surely realized he was juggling with fire. Williams even brought Evans before the admissions department. They talked grades but chose not to divulge his criminal past -- which includes an allegation of rape and separate misdemeanor convictions for assault and drugs.

It was a silly decision, because the information was bound to come out eventually. At some point, Evans will fill out an admission application, and he'll have to check a box that acknowledges his past. That will trigger a process that includes formal review from the Office of Student Discipline. It`s anyone`s guess how that turns out and whether Evans is ultimately admitted.

According to its last annual report, the Office of Student Discipline handled 239 reviews from the admissions office in the last academic year. It's not clear how many of those were ultimately admitted, but 160 were recommended for admission.

By keeping his boss in the dark about Evans' recruitment, Williams showed his propensity to flaunt authority, and in comments Yow and Williams have made in the days since, it's clear they're not on the same page with this one. Sure, Yow expects to be briefed on such recruits -- a perfectly reasonable request -- but what's more telling is that they seem to be at odds over what happens next.

Yow said Williams indicated he'll personally mentor Evans, but Williams said Evans doesn't require such attention. When the Office of Student Discipline decides Evans` fate, you can bet this discrepancy will be noted.

It's almost as if Williams is operating under his own rulebook. Even when circumstances change, standards must remain consistent. The team could miss the NCAA tournament a dozen times in a row, but the program's standards -- and those of the school and the athletic department -- cannot become fluid.

For years, Williams managed just fine without recruiting athletes carrying this type of baggage. Suddenly, the team is struggling competitively and Williams decides he's the second-chance fairy? This isn't hope or faith or compassion at work; it's an act of desperation.

Williams has done himself no favors by potentially alienating Yow and other administrators. Despite what he may think, Williams isn't an army of one. This period of Terps basketball shouldn't be about a power struggle or aligning boosters and fans on one side or the other. It should be about banding together to fix a program that has slipped noticeably since the 2002 national championship. How could anyone argue that this is the best way to do that?

Yesterday Williams didn't need this type of athlete; today he thinks he does. Which means the rulebook has changed.

I wish this were about saving a kid, but it feels much more like self-preservation. And it looks much more like someone grasping at driftwood.

All the while, the gap between expectations and reality, between the past and present and possibly between a basketball coach and an athletic director widens considerably.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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