Chris Knoche and Keith Neff were with Gary Williams on Wednesday night at a Terrapin Club function in Columbia. The mood was upbeat, despite the news that sophomore star Jordan Williams had signed with an agent and was making himself eligible for the NBA draft.
At no time did Williams give any indication of his sudden retirement plans to Knoche, who played for Williams at American and has been the radio analyst on Maryland games for the past 11 years. The same was true for Neff, one of Williams' closest friends since he came back to College Park in 1989.
"I couldn't believe how vibrant and vital he was [at the Terrapin Club event]," said Knoche, who also coached at American. "He commanded the room. He did a great job. He was talking about how important it is not just to be a football fan or a basketball fan, but to be a fan of the athletic department."
Both Knoche and Neff, along with others close to the longtime Maryland coach, were stunned — but not totally surprised — by Thursday's announcement that Williams, at age 66, would hold a news conference to officially end his coaching career.
"He's 66 and he's been at it forever, so you're never really surprised when it happens," Knoche said. "Anybody who saw Gary coach his last game and saw the vigor with which he approached every practice, that surprises you. I don't know if surprised is the right word. I don't know what is."
Said Neff, "It's the end of an era. It's time for him to enjoy life a little more. He's accomplished everything. He's going to walk away having done it his way. He outlived Debbie [Yow, the former athletic director now at North Carolina State.]"
Neff said he didn't know about Williams' plans until he got to Florida on Thursday and received several phone calls and text messages. He said he spoke to Williams to confirm the news, and that the coach was emotional.
"Emotionally it's going to be hard," Neff said. "I think that he's an emotional guy and he puts it all out there on his shirtsleeves and telling his friends is going to be awfully difficult. For him not to tell me last night — and if he knew for sure — that's definitely a surprise."
But Ed Tapscott, who coached under and later succeeded Williams at American and remains a close friend, said that Williams had "left clues" during their conversations over the past year.
"I of course said that he should coach until they pry the cold, dead fingers off his clipboard, simply because that's what I know him as," Tapscott said. "But he asked me, 'What do you think I'd do if I wasn't coaching? Can you see me doing an analyst job? How much longer do you think it's appropriate for me to coach?' What seem to be off-hand questions is really a process of evaluation and Gary has always been a very thoughtful guy and always very thorough in making his decisions. If Gary made this decision, Gary thought it through thoroughly."
Asked if he thought it could be a health issue, Knoche said, "I don't think it's a health issue. I guess we'll find out more tomorrow."
Nor does Knoche believe Jordan Williams' decision was the impetus for Gary Williams' decision.
"I think he's more competitive and more of a fighter than that," Knoche said before going to another Terrapin Club function in Edgewater on Thursday night, one at which Gary Williams was originally scheduled to appear. "There was a lot of attrition in this thing in terms of being worn down by the time and the process and a lot of things involved in college coaching these days."
Knoche said that last season's disappointing finish was among the more difficult during Williams' 22-year career at his alma mater.
"Of the 11 I've been through with him, it had to be one of the toughest," Knoche said. "It had to be up there with the year he lost [Chris] McCray and the year he battled with John Gilchrist. All those things sort of took a cumulative toll on him."
A longtime associate, who asked not to be identified, said that last weekend's recruiting visit by Kansas State transfer Wally Judge might have pushed Williams over the edge. The friend said that Williams has known about Jordan Williams not returning for at least a month.
"Gary went through that this weekend [with Judge] and probably thought, 'Who's butt do I have to kiss? This kid should want to come. Here I am playing this game that I have no desire to play.' I think that's a portion of it," the friend said.
Said another close friend, "I think he's tired of kissing kids' tails and AAU coaches' tails."
Dave Dickerson, a former Maryland player under Lefty Driesell and Bob Wade who returned as an assistant under Williams as the Terps were at the height of their success that led to two straight Final Fours and a national championship in 2002, disagreed.
"I don't think recruiting should be part of this," said Dickerson, who left Maryland to become a head coach at Tulane and is now an assistant at Ohio State. "My focus is Gary Williams. I'm excited for him, I'm excited for his family, his daughter. I'm excited for the coaches he coached with and the players that he coached. Gary Williams is a legend. I look forward to being at his Hall of Fame induction."
Dickerson added, "With what Gary has done and the legacy he has left, Maryland is a national job now. I've always thought that Maryland is one of the best jobs in the country and Gary in his 22 years has made it even better. Maryland could attract some of the best coaches that are out there in the country."