A final fist pump, and lots of memories

Williams says goodbye to Maryland

May 07, 2011|Kevin Cowherd

COLLEGE PARK — The crowd of students at Comcast Center chanted his name and he threw one last fist pump that would have taken out Manny Pacquiao, and so began the retirement ceremony Friday for Gary Williams.

Twenty-two years as the iconic coach of Maryland. A school-record 441 wins, including a national championship in 2002. A total of 668 wins in 33 years as a head coach, the fifth-most wins among active Division I coaches.

Some of this was surely going through his mind as he bounced into the arena with that odd, rolling gait that always reminded me of an amped-up fighter entering the ring.

Gary stalking to the bench with a big scowl in the moments before a big ACC game — that was always one of the great sights in college basketball. I always thought he should have worn a boxer's robe on those occasions, seeing as how he did everything but roll his neck and throw punches.

But even before he reached the podium Friday, Williams' eyes were welling with tears.

"Welcome to the house that Gary built," intoned his old friend, Johnny Holliday, the longtime radio voice of the Terrapins a few minutes later. "Today marks the end of an era."

It sure did. Twenty-four hours after word first broke that Williams was stepping down as Maryland's coach at age 66, Terrapin Nation was still reeling from the shock.

Walt Williams, the great guard who played for Maryland in the late '80s and early '90s and was on hand for the ceremony, was asked if he could ever imagine his old coach retiring. Williams smiled and shook his head.

"No," he said. "You know it's coming sooner or later. You can't have a 70-year-old guy squatting down and yelling and screaming with the same intensity that he had 20 years ago when I played for him.

"[But] you see him doing that at a high level at [his] age and you think, 'Man, he's gonna do this forever.' So it's definitely shocking to see this day come."

But the day came nonetheless, and Maryland put together a classy program to say goodbye to its old coach.

School President Wallace D. Loh called Williams "someone who represents the heart and soul of this university" and announced his intention to name the Comcast court after him.

Athletic director Kevin Anderson said, "Gary has made it great to be a Terp." Then a video played on the overhead scoreboard, with old high school photos of Williams and footage of his college head-coaching career at American, Boston College, Ohio State and Maryland — all to the tune of the Bob Seger classic "Like a Rock."

Sure, it was kind of schmaltzy. I kept looking around, wondering if a Chevy commercial was about to break out. But it was stirring and sad and poignant, too, as these things always are.

Gary didn't watch the video much. Maybe it was getting all too emotional for him. Whatever the reason, he sat through most of it with his eyes staring straight ahead and his arms folded, occasionally whispering to Anderson.

When it was time for him to take the microphone, Williams was by turns reflective, funny, pensive and defiant, which he'll be to his grave.

He said it was "the right time" to be stepping down, and that it was his decision, and only his decision, to do so.

He said the decision wasn't made quickly, and that he'd been thinking about it for a while, thinking about doing something else with the rest of his life.

"I thought about quitting when we won the national championship" in 2002, he joked. "Then I checked my bank account."

He said he wouldn't be involved in Maryland's search for his successor, adding that it was a job for someone else, even though he planned to stay on as assistant athletic director and prominent fundraiser.

And he answered one of the questions that was on everyone's lips: Had the decision of sophomore big man Jordan Williams to sign with an agent and turn pro pushed him into retirement?

"Jordan Williams had no effect on my decision," he said emphatically, adding that he wished the kid well in the NBA.

"I feel like I can still coach," Gary Williams said. "But you realize there are other things out there."

And then it was over. But now Gary Williams doesn't have to fight anymore. Now he gets to relax if he wants to. God knows he's earned it.

Williams waved to the crowd and there was one more chant of "Gary! Gary!" and then he was off to do some TV interviews. As Holliday said, it was the end of an era.

The last person I saw as I left the the Comcast Center was Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, on hand to lend support to Williams, a good friend of his.

We talked about Gary's legacy for a moment, with Bisciotti saying, "I'm more proud of the integrity with which he ran the program than the national championship."

And we talked about how both of us would always remember Gary Williams as the ultimate chip-on-the-shoulder guy, someone who took every nasty thing people said about him — whether it was the jeering Dookies or jealous coaches or the jackals in the media — and used it as motivation.

"Other people get distracted by detractors," Bisciotti said. "Gary will never admit it, but the haters drove him as much as the lovers. When I heard [people say] bad things about him, I used to just smile and think, 'God help the next team he plays.'

"It's like at the point he's saying, '[Bleep] you,' he's also saying: 'Thank you. Thank you for that slight.'"

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays from 4p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM Sports.

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