With a final fist pump and cry of "Beat Duke!" retired Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams said goodbye to graduating seniors Thursday, just before their degrees were conferred at commencement.
A tearful Williams said his players had told him this year's graduating class was great. "So I decided to go out with you," he said.
College Park students took Williams' rising fist as a cue to flip the tassels on their graduation caps.
The state's flagship university graduated 7,475 students Thursday, handing out 5,545 bachelor's degrees and 1,930 graduate degrees. They serenaded Williams with one last chant of "Gary! Gary!" as he rose to address them.
Williams slightly upstaged keynote speaker DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association and a major player in the league's current labor standoff.
"We want football!" a group of students chanted as Smith took the podium.
"I want football, too!" he shouted, donning a red Terps hat before he began his speech about living with courage and a commitment to fairness.
Smith, who grew up rooting for the Terps, said he was thrilled to share the stage with Williams. In fact, he offered the coach his spot as the official commencement speaker.
Smith credited Williams with making the Comcast Center a rare place where "you can absolutely get swept up in utter delirious passion."
Change at the top of the athletic department was a theme at College Park this year and, perhaps appropriately, the commencement at Comcast carried a strong sports flavor.
Williams was a late addition to the day's program after hundreds of students drafted a Facebook petition prompting President Wallace D. Loh to ask the retired coach to speak.
"They were here for four years for our games," Williams said of the students. "It's always their university, so I'm glad President Loh said it was OK."
Though he will remain a university employee, Williams reiterated that he will cede the spotlight to successor Mark Turgeon. He implied that Thursday's public goodbye might be his last. "It was hard to put it into words," he said of his feelings during an interview after his speech. "It was probably one of the toughest speeches I've ever given."
Williams, who briefly recounted his rise from UM student to coach, told the students that his best decision was sticking with a pursuit that stirred his passions.
"If you have passion, it doesn't become a job all the time," he said. "It becomes something you want to do."
Williams' presence, just two weeks after his surprise retirement, was a reminder of the wild year in Maryland athletics. Since Loh took over in August, the university has hired a new athletic director, new football coach and Williams' replacement.
"I'm not sure any new president has ever had such a short honeymoon period," university system Chancellor William E. Kirwan said jokingly in his introductory remarks. "This would be enough to occupy most presidents for their full time in office."
"Maybe you'll consider giving me combat pay," Loh replied.
For all of the change at College Park, Smith has been at the center of even greater tumult as the players' lead voice in the NFL labor dispute.
Smith was a Washington trial attorney before his March 2009 election as leader of the players union. He quickly set a more aggressive tone than his predecessor, Gene Upshaw, preparing the players to take bold actions to protect their piece of the league's $9 billion in annual revenues.
"There are many who would like to myopically reduce the last few years, my leadership, into the sound bite of just getting a new contract done," Smith told the students. "But the larger decision in March of 2009 was to stand before the players and ask a simple question: 'Do we care enough about who we are and who we want to be?' … The decision to pursue and if necessary fight for what is fair is a vastly different frame of mind than simply being content with 'shut up and play.'"
He praised former Maryland football players Domonique Foxworth and Boomer Esiason for their resolve on labor issues, remembering how Esiason once sat in front of a bus to block the arrival of replacement players.
"Had they listened to all those people saying, 'You will fail,'" he said, "they lose, and we all lose."
He turned that sentiment into advice, arguing that the graduates should live boldly.
"For anyone who believes passion is cheap and futile," he told them, "I have two words for you: You suck."
With a lockout looming earlier this year, players disbanded the union so they could take the dispute to court. The owners locked players out on March 11.
On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis granted the owners a stay that allowed the lockout to continue, at least until a June 3 appeals hearing. The scheduled start of training camp is about two months away.
Smith declined to discuss the specific impact of the decision. "For the last two years, we have talked about what was on the horizon," he said. "We don't live and die, rise and fall for things that make good media sound bites. Obviously, the players want to play. Our fans want football. So do I."