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Entering 20th season with Terps, Williams stands ground against growing chorus of critics, defends coaching record

November 08, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

COLLEGE PARK - The forecasts for the season have been discouraging. His critics have gained strength, in their numbers and their intensity. Is this really a good way to celebrate a 20th anniversary?

At age 63, Gary Williams doesn't think it is fair for a coach who has won a national championship and 604 games to be put into this uncomfortable position of having to defend his record.

Yet there he is, doing just that.

"We've won on a consistent basis. I'm proud of that. I'm proud of building this place - men's basketball built this place," Williams said, sitting in his office at the 6-year-old Comcast Center.

"I'm proud of taking a program that was the lowest of any [established] Division I program in the country and leapfrogged a lot of teams in the ACC to get to where we could win a national championship. Those are facts."

But as the memory of those two straight Final Four appearances and the program's first national title in 2002 begin to fade, another fact is constantly brought up: The Terps have gone to the National Invitation Tournament in three of the past four seasons.

What's worse, many believe they won't even get that far this season.

"They [critics] have every right to give their opinion, but it's just an opinion," said Williams, whose team will play a preseason game today against Northwood University (Fla.), a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school, at Comcast Center and open the regular season Friday at home against Bucknell. "We have the right to play games and prove how good we are."

Asked where the program is headed going into the 2008-09 season, Williams doesn't blink.

"We tied for fifth [at 8-8] in a very tough conference last year; that's where we are until we play another game," he said. "People forget two years ago we won 25 games, we beat Davidson in the first round of the NCAA. People forget that, because everyone has dwelled on the NIT."

With the Terps picked to finish in the bottom half of the Atlantic Coast Conference - one publication had them as low as 11th out of 12 teams - the graduation of frontcourt stalwarts James Gist and Bambale Osby will turn Maryland into a perimeter team that will have to rely on its defense and quickness.

Of the top eight players, seven are guards, including junior Greivis Vasquez, who led the Terps in scoring, as well as the ACC in assists and turnovers.

"I think you have to look at your talent and how to get your best players on the court," Williams said. "That is something I am definitely looking at, and I've played that way [with three guards or more] for quite a bit of my career. We have to figure out what is best for our team."

Doug Gottlieb, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, points out Maryland is one of a handful of programs - including Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Oklahoma State, where Gottlieb finished his career - that didn't build on going to the Final Four or winning a national championship.

"The past few years, Maryland just hasn't been a relevant program - they went from being one of the uber-elite, just outside the top five programs of all time, to now being an afterthought," Gottlieb said. "It's kind of sad and amazing, and it can make you angry all at once."

What infuriates Williams is how many have forgotten what kind of shape the program was in when he returned to his alma mater from Ohio State in the spring of 1989. The season before he arrived, the Terps went 1-13 in the ACC under Bob Wade, who was fired amid an NCAA investigation that led to a three-year probation.

"We had the most severe sanction given by the NCAA from that point forward; that's how hard it was," Williams said. "There are a lot of short memories out there. That was much harder [than what is happening now]; it's not even close."

Still, that was 20 years ago, a lifetime in a coach's career, and Williams then was still considered one of the game's up-and-comers. Now at an age when many contemplate retirement, Williams is firm about his own future.

There are no plans for walking away, with a contract that runs through June 2012.

"I've never given any thought on when to quit," said Williams, who holds the school record for wins with 397. "The one thing I know is that I don't want to cheat the game. The game has been good to me, and I wouldn't want to be in a situation where I thought I wasn't any good to this program and school."

Junior guard Eric Hayes said of Williams: "What he's done for this school and this program, I don't see how they could have any pressure on his job security at all."

There was a three-week span last spring when some wondered whether Williams might have reached the breaking point. It came when junior college transfer Tyree Evans asked out of his commitment after his history of problems with the law surfaced and Gus Gilchrist left (later resurfacing at South Florida) without having ever played a game.

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