This is that ranting maniac from TV? It's 10 a.m. and Coach Gary Williams is sitting in his office at Cole Field House, an hour before he's to review game tape for an upcoming match against Clemson. He's dressed casually in sweatpants and a polo shirt, his legs stretched out in front of him, his trophies arranged behind him. He looks the way he does on TV—with his not-quite-neat gray hair and impudent nose—part street pugilist, part corporate raider. But he's talking about his team—his very, very talented Maryland Terps basketball team, ranked in the top five for most of the year—and he seems to have all the answers. He's savvy. He's confident.
Where's the Gary Williams we've all seen going ballistic on the sidelines of University of Maryland games—sweating through his suit and tie, pacing like an expectant father on uppers, chewing out the kids on the bench, pleading with the heavens?
And where's the Gary Williams we've heard shaking down callers on his weekly WBAL radio show? ("If you're such a big Coach K fan," he recently barked to one listener, a reference to the poker-faced Mike Krzyzewski, coach of dreaded ACC rival Duke University, "why don't you go down to Duke and watch their games?") The public Gary Williams is the opposite of cool—he's out of control, a heart attack waiting to happen.
"He's one of the most intense coaches in all of college basketball," says Greg Manning, an ex-Terp who now does color commentary for the team's radio broadcasts.
"Oh yes, he is quite intense," agrees Duane Simpkins, who played point guard for Williams during the '93 to '96 seasons.
But today, Gary Williams is the Fonz. He just has that swagger about him. He's a man at the top of his game. Heck, he's even able to laugh about his sideline temper tantrums.
"If I didn't act that way," he says, "the kids would wonder what was wrong."
And he rationally explains those radio outbursts: "If I were a brain surgeon, nobody would tell me how to do my job. If somebody wants to get specific about something, and they have facts—fine. If they don't, I'm going to tell them as such."
It all seems so reasonable. But don't be fooled.
"Gary's a different person during the game," explains John Feinstein, the author of A March to Madness, an account of the intense pressures of basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference. "He wears his tension on his sleeve. You simply can't take personally anything he says during those two hours. He's apt to say anything. He once reamed out assistant coach Dave Dickerson because he wasn't sweating enough."
Say what you will about Gary Williams. But you can never say that he doesn't sweat enough.
There's no other way no put this: Gary's sweat has taken on a life of its own. It's become legendary. Commentators do long monologues on his drycleaning bill. Sweat status reports are routinely given throughout the game:
"His shirt is drenched, but not the tie."
"Oh, there goes the tie!"
Indeed, Williams gets so worked up on the sidelines, he looks like he just played 40 minutes of pressure defense.
So where does this intensity come from? No one else in Gary's family is even remotely involved in sports. Not even his two brothers. Why is Gary Williams so driven to win?
"I think it came from my grandfather," offers Williams, clearly not sure himself. "He was a very competitive man."
But, then again, how can one explain that level of desire? How can one explain a competitive drive that is all-consuming? Every person interviewed for this story used the same catch phrase to describe him: "Gary lives basketball."
Not lives for basketball. Lives it. Like it's part of his blood. Like he feeds off of it, which maybe he does.
It has cost him a lot, this living basketball. His marriage. (He divorced his wife in 1988, a year before coming to Maryland.) His health. (A bout with pneumonia during the 1994-95 season nearly killed him.) His privacy. (Because of his status, an embarrassing DWI arrest in 1990 was plastered all over the local newspapers.) But, despite all of the sacrifice, when Williams lives basketball, he's also living his dream.
Have you been to a basketball game at Cole Field House lately? It's intense. 14,500 spectators—stomping, chanting, screaming, sweating. If It were any more frenzied, it would be classified as a riot. And at the center of all this mania is Coach Williams. They call the place Garyland.
"Ga-ry! Ga-ry! Ga-ry!" they chant, every time Coach Williams steps on the floor.
This point can not be emphasized enough. At University of Maryland, Coach Williams is the man. He's a folk hero. He's a savior. He's Moses in a (drenched) Armani suit.
It wasn't always like this—packed houses, ESPN cameras, talk of a national title. Ten years ago, when Williams—a University of Maryland alumnus who played point guard for the team in the mid '60s—took over as coach, the program was in shambles. Three years earlier, Len Bias, the brilliantly talented forward, had died of a much-publicized cocaine overdose. Two of his Terps teammates were indicted for possession of cocaine and obstruction of justice. The team was under investigation by the NCAA for numerous league violations. The season Williams arrived, the program was hit with NCAA sanctions—it would lose two scholarships, and be banned from both television and the NCAA tournament for two years.
"I was told it was going to be a slap on the wrist," Williams was quoted as saying of the sanctions. "The slap on the wrist became a knockout."
No TV. No tournament. That's the whole reason kids play on Division 1 basketball reams. Now what?
Somehow, Williams was able to recruit kids. To motivate his team. To revive the program.
"He always found reasons for us to keep going on " says Kevin McLinton, who played point guard for Williams from 1990 to 1993. "He got us pumped up. It was us against them."
The Terps were a long way from dominating the ACC. Those honors belonged to the venerable Coach Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina and an amazingly accomplished young star at Duke named Mike Krzyzewski. Bur the Terps were competitive. And in 1994, two years after the sanctions were lifted, Williams brought his first Maryland team to the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, attendance was steadily rising, from an average of 10,300 per game in 1989 to over 14,000 today.
The fans love Gary's feisty style—and the fact that he's one of them.
"He's always been very good at learning to speak the kids' language, whatever it may be," says author John Feinstein. "He doesn't talk down to them. He's clearly the authority figure. But he talks in a language that they can understand. "
Case in point: Earlier this season, the fans were getting a bit too rowdy for primetime. In particular, they were embellishing the popular arena song "Rock & Roll Part II" with a lusty "You suck!" on the off-beats. Gary was instructed by the school's administration to have a word with the fans about their behavior.
"I realize that I'm the last person on earth who should be telling you guys this," he said, standing with a mike on the court, wearing a sheepish grin. "But could you cut down on the profanity during games?"
The crowd laughed. But they listened.
It cannot be a pleasant experience to sit on the bench for Gary Williams. Some guy on the court screws up—makes an errant pass, or commits a ticky-tack foul and it's you, the innocent bystander, who gets an earful.
"I was always like, 'Coach, I'm not out there!'" chuckles Kevin McLinton recalling the time he got reamed out on the bench. "It wasn't me!"
"It never really bothered me," says Duane Simpkins, who nonetheless made a point of sitting as far away from Coach on the bench as possible. '''Cause I knew he was just venting his frustration."
Two years ago, Williams got tossed out of a game for cursing at a referee. Later, he protested to the press that he shouldn't have gotten the boot. Why? He wasn't cursing at the refs, see—he was cursing at one of his kids.
You'd think all of Gary's sideline histrionics would make it impossible for the players to concentrate on the game, but, according to John Feinstein, they learn to tune it out.
"It's sort of like the pep band to them," he cracks. "It's just there, part of the scenery. They know he's going to yell and say things that make no sense. In the huddle, it's different. That's where he's instructing. But when he's screaming on the sidelines, he's just raving at the world."
Mind you, it's not just during the game. Williams is equally volatile during practice. Even when he's teaching, he gets in kids' faces. He can be downright nasty.
"It can upset you," says Duane Simpkins. "But after a while, when you've gone through it enough, you learn to take in the instruction—listen to what he says and not how he says it."
"You have to have a thick skin," agrees Kevin McLinton. "But he takes your game to another level. I wasn't highly recruited out of high school. He took what I had and he put his intelligence and his coaching ability into it and he got the most out of me. You have to respect that."
And the kids do.
What's more, Gary is fiercely loyal to his players. If they play hard for him, he will back them up completely. Take Terrell Stokes, the senior point guard—a solid but unspectacular player—has been much maligned by fans and the press, Williams could've succumbed to pressure this year by playing junior transfer phenom Steve Francis in his stead. Instead, he stuck with Stokes. In fact, lately he's been talking up Stokes to the media as a future coach. And Stokes is playing some of the best basketball of his career.
"I've been accused of being too loyal," says Gary. "That's a great thing to be accused of."
Dealing with Steve Francis has been a unique challenge. The prodigiously talented guard, who transferred from Allegany Community College this year, is known for "hot-dogging"—high-step dribbles, thunderous dunks, no-look passes. This is the kind of thing that less secure (or more conservative) coaches can't stand, because it emphasizes individual skill over a coach's game plan. But Williams intuitively understands that these theatrical moves are part of what makes Francis great, part of why the kid's so passionate about the sport. So as long as Francis sticks to fundamentally sound, team-oriented play, he can make the occasional showboat move.
Of course, there is a limit. In a tight game against Georgia Tech this January, Francis had an open shot. Instead, he chose to go for the extra-spectacular move—a backboard pass to high-flying teammate Laron Profit. Almost inevitably, Profit missed the dunk. Francis was immediately benched. And if Profit had made the basket?
"He still comes out of the game," assures Williams. "It was the wrong play."
That's one of the greatest challenges of coaching, Williams says. To convince the kids to play in an unselfish way. In a world of ESPN highlights and NBA recruiters in the stands, it's getting harder and harder to get players to focus on the team. But Williams has a strategy.
"You just sell winning," he says. "A guy that scores 30 points a game in a school with a losing record, nobody hears about. I mean, everybody wants to score in basketball. It's great. But if you're going to win, you have to play good defense, you have to rebound. You have to do all the little things that don't necessarily make the highlight reels. There is a lot of hype, especially this year. But that's my job. To make sure the players keep their heads in a good spot where they can play together as a team."
There's a buzz on campus. 1999 might be the year. The year the Terps break through—go from a solid team to one of basketball's true elite. They are locked and loaded—senior leadership, a deep bench, and athletic ability to burn.
If only they can figure out a way to beat Duke.
At the University of Maryland, there's only one true four-letter word: D-U-K-E. The team has done more than dominate the Terps over the years; they've humiliated them. Last year, Duke won its two season games against Maryland by a combined total of 59 points. During the second game, played at Duke, Gary Williams was ejected after the first five minutes. Later, the Duke fans spontaneously burst into a chant of "Show no mercy!" It was nightmarish.
But this year was supposed to be different. This year, the Terps were expected to hold their own against Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina. (Indeed, the Terps have already beaten Carolina this year, handily, and they nearly stole a victory on Kentucky's home court.) Leading into their first game against Duke, revenge was in the air.
Alas, it never came.
Although the game was tied at halftime, Duke took an early second-half lead and never looked back. Final score: Duke 82, Maryland 64.
They got thrashed again at Duke on February 3. That game stung, but perhaps a bit less. It was on Duke's home court, after all. No one beats Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. And they get another chance, possibly, during this month's ACC tournament. Heck, they could even meet in a late round at the NCAA tourney. How sweet it would be.
But that first loss at Cole really stung. Coach Mike Krzyzewski had done it again. While Williams went characteristically postal on the sidelines, Coach K looked like he was in some sort of higher basketball trance. Throughout most of the game, he sat there stoically, lips pursed, hand resting professorially on his chin. Only his flashing eyes occasionally betrayed his intensity. And there was Gary, sweating like Richard Nixon.
"We all have somebody like that in our lives," John Feinstein says. "Gary sees Mike [Krzyzewski) as being where he would like to be. As successful as Gary has been, he's not viewed in the profession the way Mike is viewed. It's the difference between being respected and being revered."
Gary denies that there's anything special in his rivalry toward Duke. "Yeah, it's a big game, and I wanted to win," he says matter-of-factly. "But we didn't win it. It doesn't ruin our season."
Still, he reveals himself in a side comment. "I played against Mike when we were players. He was in Army, I was in Maryland. We won. When I was a coach at Boston College we played Duke in the Sweet 16. We won. But I never talk about those things."
Well, almost never.
The season is half over, the Terps are off to their best start ever, and—surprise, surprise—Gary Williams proudly reports he's the only coach in the ACC who has yet to be slapped with a technical foul (and that includes Coach K). In fact, he's even convinced himself that he might be able to chill out a little for the upcoming Clemson game.
"I'm very emotional on the sidelines," he admits. "But it could all change this Sunday."
Maybe all this winning has calmed him down. After all, it's good to be Gary Williams right now. He just signed a new, seven-year contract with the Terps, with an option for a three-year extension. He's at his alma mater, he's bringing the team to new levels of greatness, he's worshiped by his fans, admired by his peers, respected by his players. And he is winning. Nearly every night, winning, winning, winning some more.
Fast forward to Sunday's Clemson game. There's Gary, calmly sitting on the sidelines, a glass of white wine in his hand, a wryly amused smile playing across his face. Not!
Gary, of course, was Gary. We wouldn't have him any other way. He barked at the officials, he barked at the players, hell, he probably even barked at the fans. But the Terps won, as they are wont to do this season. And he left the stadium happy.
"If I were a history teacher, I'd still be this intense," he insists. (That would be an interesting class.) It's the teaching part, he says, not the winning that truly inspires him.
"The games are great," he says. "I mean, you walk out here and it's 14,500, that's tremendous—but it's the thrill of coaching, the thrill of watching your team develop that makes it for me. The year I feel that I don't want to go after that thrill, that it's not a challenge to me anymore, that's when I'll quit coaching."
In that case, they may be dragging Gary Williams off the court in a pine box.