Not too far from the massive arena called the Comcast Center on the University of Maryland-College Park campus lies a mural above a small bridge and creek.
There, images of cheerleaders, neat graffiti, Testudo (the school’s mascot, a turtle) and the school’s basketball head coach rest on a wall, below the emblazoned word of “GARYLAND,” in all caps, red and white.
If you’ve ever been lucky to witness that site, consider yourself partially wrapped up in the lore of a mid-Atlantic college basketball program that has stayed afloat because of the feisty, gray-haired man at the helm.
When Maryland plays their archrival Duke at home tonight at the Comcast Center on ESPN, win or lose, the Terrapins will most likely show up later this month in March Madness.
The NCAA Tournament Committee will surely not snub Maryland on Selection Sunday, because despite the struggles of earning a spot into the NCAAs late last season, Williams has found a team (ranked No. 22 in the Top 25) able to gel even better than last year’s squad, sporting an impressive record of 21 wins and 7 losses, 11-3 in the ACC (including a profound 92-71 thumping of UNC!).
Unlike his contemporaries in the ACC, particularly Duke’s Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams, who can easily dispose of three to four players to the NBA and start anew with five more McDonald’s All-Americans coming out of high school, Williams has had to do the very best in his 21-year career here with the bare minimum.
Not too long after the stench and heavy sanctions placed on Maryland resulting from the 1986 death of one of the all-time best Terps, Len Bias, Williams was given the chance to coach his alma mater with the bare minimum in 1989, going to the NIT Tournment (and not making any tournament at all three straight years after that).
However, he gradually regained the confidence of the university, athletic department, student body, region and recruits all over by winning and pushing his coachable players to their ultimate potential since being hired.
That started with one of his first-ever recruits Walt Williams (no relation), and continued with players like Xree Hipp, Duane Simpkins, and of course, the big man who put himself and Maryland back on the NCAA national map—Joe Smith.
After Smith departed, there was a big void that was hard to fill for years (even with the short stint of junior-college transfer Steve Francis, in the late 1990s). This wasn’t completed until Williams regrouped with virtual unknowns or less recruited talent like Taj Holden, Chris Wilcox, Byron Mouton, Lonnie Baxter, Steve Blake, and—simply one of the best little two-guards to play college ball in the 21st century—Juan Dixon.
Despite reaching the first- and the Sweet 16 rounds of the March tournament a few times with Smith and Francis, Williams was able to reach even higher with Dixon.
Williams’ resilient team, with Dixon as the shining star, went toe-to-toe with Duke in four instant-classic games during the 2000-2001 season—winning a shocker of a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Shane Battier’s final regular season home game, losing to the Blue Devils at Cole Field House, once during the ACC Tournament, and again at the 2001 Final Four semifinal game in Minneapolis.
Thanks in part to the departure of Shane Battier the next year (and the Jay Williams-led Blue Devils not in the Final Four), but also due to the perseverance and stick-to-itiveness of Williams, his coaching staff, Dixon and his teammates, the Terps won over 30 games (32-4, 15-1 ACC) and took home the title in Atlanta against Indiana, after beating schools like UConn and Kansas in 2002—an unprecedented feat.
Like all colleges and universities dealing with turnovers though, Williams had to rebound and thought he was getting quality players to replace Dixon and Baxter once he brought All-Americans like Nic Caner-Medley, John Gilchrist and Chris McCray (D.J. Strawberry and Ekene Ibekwe, too).
Despite winning the ACC Tournament in 2004 over Duke, that trio never materialized into much, with Gilchrist at odds with Williams and thus leaving the team in his junior year.
Fast-forward to this season, which has seen a team led by the emotional and most talented player, Greivis Vasquez of Venezuela, No. 21. This is a team that Williams has fondly compared to the 2001-02 team of Dixon, et al.—scrappy, strong-willed, tough-minded and always finds a way to win.
This is a true reflection of the man (Williams) himself, former captain and starting point guard for the Terps back in the 1960s, winner of over 400 games as head coach at Maryland.
In the 6'6" guard Vasquez, you have a leader who has been overlooked by many media members in the DC area as well as nationally, but yet whose numbers don’t lie: first-ever player in the ACC to put up 600 rebounds, 700 assists and 2,000 points.
He also became the third player in Maryland’s history with a triple-double on Feb. 21, and put up 41 points against VA Tech in double-overtime last month.
Two other good players on the Terps are workhorse swingman Landon Milbourne and point guard Eric Hayes, who is shooting impressive career percentages in three-pointers and free throws, 40.3 percent and 86.6 percent, respectively.
Again, who knows if Maryland will upset Duke tonight and share a piece of the regular season title in the ACC, or how well it does in the 2010 ACC and NCAA tournaments in a few weeks.
But we could all thank Gary Williams (and athletic director Debbie Yow for not firing him when the team wasn’t too hot) for staying as a strong presence in an area that all Marylanders in the area still welcome as Garyland.