Editors note: This is the story I originally did following Gary's retirement press conference last year. Given that this is the game they're dedicating the court after Gary, we thought it would be appropriate to re-run it today. If you haven't read it, I hope you enjoy doing so. If you have read it, I hope you enjoy reading it again. Maryland basketball will always be Garyland to me. Thanks for everything, coach!
One of the hardest parts about being a fan of college basketball is growing attached to a player on your team, because no matter how good they are or how much they personify your school and its fan base, you know that in a few shorts years, they’ll be gone. The NCAA grants us just a brief, four-year window to form a bond with a player in college and once that window of eligibility closes, you’re forced to move on, whether you want to or not. But as a Maryland fan, there has always been one thing that’s made the departure of some of my favorite Terps’ players sting a little less; you knew Gary Williams would still be on the sideline the following season. Knowing that gave most Maryland basketball fans a sense of comfort and ease, even after losing some of the program’s most accomplished players to graduation and careers in the NBA; fear not, for we have Gary Williams at the helm! With each new season and the new players and coaches that came with it, the one face that didn’t change was that of Gary Williams.
Since I started following college basketball, Gary Williams has been the only coach I’ve known. Aside from Coach K at Duke, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Jim Calhoun at UConn, few coaches today are as associated with their programs as Gary Williams is to Maryland. When someone says Maryland basketball, Gary’s antics on the sideline and sweat-soaked suits are some of the first things that pop into your mind. You think of a man who left a great job at Ohio State to return to his dream job at his alma mater in June of 1989. You also remember the hardships and struggles he endured when the dark clouds of NCAA sanctions resided over College Park for several years, shaking both his coaching abilities and desires to the core. Who could forget that despite those sanctions, despite the ban from playing on TV and appearing in the post season, Gary stuck it out. He didn’t bolt; he didn’t make excuses; he quietly rebuilt this basketball program from the shadows of Len Bias’ death and the NCAA’s "death penalty" into one that annually achieved national prominence, culminating in a National Championship in 2002.
Through all of those trials and tribulations, he did it his way and without cheating or bending the rules. He did it because he cared about Maryland basketball and about the players that suited up for him. He cared about his Alma Mater and about making sure his assistant coaches would one day have the opportunity to do the same thing.
When his team achieved a milestone, you saw just how much Gary Williams cared about his players and his program. You saw it time and again when he spoke about his players, always beamed with pride as if he was a father talking about his own son. How many times have you seen Gary fight back tears after a big win? How many times has Gary deflected criticism away from his own players and assistant coaches and steered it toward himself? When you saw all of those things from a fan’s perspective, it made you just beam with pride. Gary captured the Maryland fan mantra of "us against the world" and capitalized on it like few could. You got a sense that he often willed his team to victory and convinced them that, despite what anyone said, they are capable of winning this game. Undersized? Who cares? Less experience? Doesn’t matter. If Gary was your coach, he convinced you that you were capable of winning if you played your best and gave it everything you had. Maybe that’s why he’s tied for the most wins all-time against #1 ranked teams? When Gary was on the sideline, you knew Maryland always had a chance. I think that’s part of the allure that drew me into Maryland basketball and why, no matter what, I always tuned in to watch.
I knew I would one day have to deal with the fact that Gary Williams couldn’t coach forever. I knew there would be a time when I’d go to the Comcast Center and no longer eagerly await Gary’s emergence from the tunnel, gleefully anticipating that fist pump to the student sections that always indicated "It’s on! Let’s go!" But trying to think about Maryland basketball without Gary Williams is like trying to think about what life would be like without someone in your immediate family; you know everyone can’t live forever, but at the same time, it’s nearly impossible to contemplate what life would be like without them. Thus, a Gary-less Maryland was always something that I tried to keep suppressed in the back of my mind. It was like one of those problems you always put off dealing with, one of those mundane tasks that you know you'll eventually have to suck up and do, but you constantly come up with ways to avoid even talking about until it ultimately slaps you right in the face, regardless of whether or not you were ready for it. That smack to the face came yesterday and as is often the case when you lose a loved one in your family, it seemingly came out of left field, catching us all by surprise and pulling hard at our hearts.
The good news for us is that Gary is stepping away on his terms; he’s staying on with the Athletic department and will continue to be a face and voice for Maryland basketball that we see in both College Park and nationally. That gave me a little sense of relief and the more I thought about it, the better I felt. What really helped me deal with all of this was equating the situation to an old western movie script. Gary was the new sheriff hired in 1989 to restore order to his hometown, which had recently been rocked by a tragic death and had just ousted a corrupt sheriff. Shortly after taking over, the town was decimated to the foundation by the evil NCAA and many weren’t sure if the town and their people would be able to survive or if they should bother rebuilding. But Sheriff Gary stuck around and rallied the town to slowly rebuild that basketball program town out of the rubble. He some how convinced new, talented citizens that they should come help rebuild, despite the grim outlook. Eventually, the town was able to reestablish itself, with Garyland eventually becoming the best town around. Now, after years of rebuilding and achievements, it’s time for the sheriff to move on down the road. He knows the town needs a new direction and a new sheriff to bring in the people to again make Garyland the best of the best. But the foundation of the town he built is and will always be there, awaiting its new sheriff to take it to new heights. So while Gary will no longer be patrolling the sidelines of Garyland, the new sheriff, whoever that ends up being, will still be working in the town that he built. Maryland basketball will always be Garyland, regardless of who’s carrying that sheriff badge, and all of us citizens who’ve lived through the ups and downs over the last 22 years owe a heartfelt tip of the cap to sheriff Williams and can rest assured that, despite his retirement, the town he built still remains.
Thanks for the memories, Gary. Thanks for caring. Thanks for having so much pride in our basketball program and university, and thanks for sticking it out, even in the worst of times. I wouldn’t be a Maryland basketball fan if it weren’t for you and I might not have even attended the University of Maryland.
In his introductory press conference in June of 1989, Gary got choked up as he spoke about the opportunity to return to his alma mater to coach. Fighting back tears he said "I never thought I'd have the opportunity to come back and coach at Maryland because....(fighting back tears)....you very rarely get the opportunity to do that."
Maryland fans everywhere are sure glad you did, Gary. College Park will always be Garyland to us.