A Terps Signature MomentWednesday, January 25th, 2012
New avatar on my Twitter account this morning, honoring the man whose name will be publicly unveiled tonight on the hardwood of the University of Maryland’s Comcast Center. I was a sophomore in College Park when Gary Williams returned to his alma mater. A school still reeling from the death of Len Bias three years earlier. A shaky basketball landscape Williams knew would soon be further sullied. Sure enough, in the spring of 1990, the Terps were hit with NCAA sanctions that included two year post-season and television bans and a scholarship freeze that paralyzed the entire athletic department. Bob Wade’s belated parting gift for the recruiting violations that prompted his pink slip.
Over the next 13 seasons, Williams built his championship program and in 2002, I was blessed to cover every single one of the Terps’ games en route to the national title. I, admittedly, received a few perks as an alum– sitting in on a closed practice and a film session, speaking with Coach every day as he closed in on his long-term vision. And I vividly recall the phone conversation we had the morning of the championship game against Indiana.
“Can you believe it’s been 13 years?” I asked him.
“I thought I’d be fired in five,” Williams said.
“We were… I was…”
There was a quiver in his voice.
“I was just trying to survive. We were in such bad shape and I didn’t realize how negative the feeling was toward us on campus among the administrators and professors. They were convinced we were hurting the academic standard of the school.”
Then, Gary collected himself, the emotion of heavy reflection extinguished by his defiant South Jersey pride.
“It was hard for me to convince people I was doing what was in everyone’s best interest. But I think we have. Finally.”
I’ve often been asked about my favorite event to cover throughout my 20-year career. The answer is simple: The 2002 NCAA Tournament. Witnessing the Dark Days of Maryland Basketball only to have the opportunity to cover the lone championship run. Being around the kids as they realized a lifelong dream. Tapping in to the psyche of a coach who took a huge risk to come home. As a journalist, it’s a plum assignment to cover an event in which you are so personally invested.
That said, a reporter must be objective with microphone-in-hand. It wasn’t a difficult task. It’s part of the job. But as I was standing courtside, watching Gary Williams, two year-old grandson in his arms, do his post-game interview with my CBS colleagues Jim Nantz and Billy Packer, I had to look up into the rafters of Atlanta’s Georgia Dome to keep a tear from rolling down. At that moment, I was so very proud to be a Terp.
On Monday night, there was a private court dedication ceremony on the Comcast floor for Coach Williams, chock full of video highlights and toasts and pokes from close friends, mentors, former players and fellow coaching greats like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo and Rick Barnes. I moderated a chat with members of the ’02 championship squad: Juan Dixon, Byron Mouton, Taj Holden and Mike Grinnon. All spoke of their affection for a coach who not only led them to college basketball’s promised land, but mentored them to become better men.
Standing at the podium, Gary, at first, struggled with his composure. The gruff curmudgeon we have all chuckled at over the years seemed a bit softer. Just a little. There were plenty of zingers as he reflected on his accomplishments and shared anecdotes, and he made note of how his new bride, Dana, knew him while he was coaching, “so she knows what she’s in for.”
After the event I grabbed the picture with the guest of honor that now serves as my Twitter avatar. “Look, Gary,” I said. “You’re smiling. A full blown smile! Don’t think I have one of those.”
“I smile a lot these days,” he replied. “I spend a lot of time on the golf course.”
Tonight, though, he’ll be at Comcast to see the public reveal for Gary Williams Court.
Go Terps. Beat Duke. For the old coach.