A House Divided

In a frustrating Terps season, Williams remains a flash point

March 12, 2009|By Kevin Van Valkenburg and Jeff Barker | Kevin Van Valkenburg and Jeff Barker,kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com and jeff.barker@baltsun.com

There are two truths one must be willing to concede before beginning any argument about the state of Maryland men's basketball.

The first is that Gary Williams, more than any other person, is responsible for the university's most important athletic achievement, the 2002 NCAA championship. It was Williams who helped erase the bitter memories of Len Bias' death and the NCAA rules violations committed shortly before his 1989 arrival. It was Williams who elevated Maryland, once again, to a national basketball power. He has raised millions of dollars for the university, and, at the height of his powers, he earned not just the respect of his peers but also a fan base's love.

The second truth is that, right now, all is not well in the House That Gary Built. Barring an impressive run in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament - which begins tonight in Atlanta with the Terps facing N.C. State - Maryland will likely miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years. In that period, Williams has seen a succession of high-profile area players enroll at other schools and, in his 20th season guiding the program, Maryland fans have become a house divided.

Williams' supporters are not shy in defending him. Many of them are the power brokers and captains of industry whose checkbooks help build Maryland athletics. They are people such as Harry Geller, a McLean, Va., businessman and major donor who says flatly that Williams should remain "until he's ready to leave." Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is the most prominent such booster, in addition to being one of Williams' friends and confidants. He is frank about where his loyalties lie: with Williams more so than Maryland.

"My commitment to them came through my friendship with Gary," says Bisciotti, who graduated from Salisbury State but has given more than $1 million to Maryland athletics. "I'd rather reference my relationship as a great supporter of Gary Williams than a great supporter of Maryland basketball."

Bisciotti says Williams has earned every right to finish his career on his terms.

"The advice I keep telling him is to be a little like Bob Knight and tell his critics where to kiss him," Bisciotti says. "Gary loves his alma mater, Gary runs a clean program and it hurts Gary to be criticized. I just wish it didn't hurt him as much as it does."

But frustration that many fans feel isn't going away, barring a return to prominence. Miles Resnick, a longtime television news director who once worked at CBS for former anchorman Walter Cronkite, has followed Maryland basketball since graduating from the school in 1969, and says winning a national title raised the bar.

"I am spoiled. I want another championship," said Resnick, who lives in Beaumont, Texas, and whose license plate reads TERPS. "I love Gary, but I don't know if time passed him by or not. I am sick and tired of losing to Duke. I am sick and tired of losing to Virginia at Virginia. I am sick and tired of going to the NIT. Where are the residuals of winning the national championship? What did it do for national recruiting?"

Most of Williams' critics aren't quite so bold when it comes to expressing their opinion, at least publicly. But the anonymity of Internet message boards has created a culture where emotions can be expressed passionately with little accountability. It's a culture that seems to frustrate Williams, who occasionally makes snide remarks about criticism on recruiting and other topics. "There are fans who seem to care more about recruiting than who actually wins games in competition," the coach told The Baltimore Sun in an e-mail. He only agreed to answer questions for this story via e-mail.

But it's also a reality of college sports and it's not going away. While Williams has online defenders, in recent years they have been out-numbered by those fed up with the Terps missing the NCAAs.

The man who is the lightning rod for all those emotions turned 64 this past week. Regardless of what happens this season, he will almost certainly be back next year. His contract pays $1.65 million a year, excluding incentives, and could extend his tenure through May 2013. He remains as stubborn as ever, snarling at his players and his assistant coaches during games, and defending his team at every opportunity. But he is as loyal to his alma mater and as emotional about it as the day he held his first news conference in College Park, in June 1989. Back then, his hair had more brown in it than gray, and he got choked up, fighting off tears, while talking about how lucky he was, as a 1968 graduate, to have the opportunity to coach at a school he truly loved.

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