It was 1971 when Gary Williams was offered a position as an assistant coach for Lafayette College’s men’s basketball team, but there was a catch.
Since there was no money in the budget for an assistant coach, Williams, 25 at the time, had to also take on the position of head men’s soccer coach.
While Williams, the winningest coach in Maryland men’s basketball history, was reluctant to accept a coaching position he had no expertise in, he recognized it as being pivotal in his future coaching success.
“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in coaching,” Williams said Wednesday night while speaking to students in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “I would have never been a college coach if I didn’t do that. When it comes time, you can’t always get that job that you might want, you get something that’s in the neighborhood.”
Williams, a 1968 graduate of Maryland, played point guard for the Terps under head coach Bud Millikan. While he enjoyed a successful college career, he said he knew around his sophomore year that he would be a coach.
“I started but there were too many guys who were bigger and better,” Williams said. “So I started to look at the games like a coach.”
Soon after graduating, Williams entered the coaching ranks, starting at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. He worked his way up, making stops at Lafayette, Boston College, American and Ohio State. In 1989, Williams’ career came full circle and he returned to coach his alma mater.
However, the basketball program had a figurative scarlet letter, trying to overcome several scandals.
The previous coach, Bob Wade, resigned over allegations that he broke NCAA rules in his handling of recruits and players. The NCAA placed Maryland on three years’ probation, banned them from postseason play for two years and prohibited them from playing on national television for one season.
To make matters worse, the tragic death of All-American forward Len Bias in 1986 still loomed over the campus.
“You never really know a job until you get there,” Williams said. “But the problem was, on campus there was a complete distrust of the athletic department.”
Williams faced a daunting task, playing handicapped in a conference of national powerhouses like Duke and North Carolina. While he was able to keep the team afloat in his first season, finishing 18-13 and getting an NIT birth, the NCAA sanctions kicked in right after and Maryland finished 42-43 over the next three years.
“I was on a roll,” Williams said of his coaching ventures prior to Maryland. “I was at [Boston College] in the Big East and then I was in the Big Ten and things were going well. I almost threw my career by coming to Maryland. People have short memories in athletics and coaching. So in five, six years, if you’re not winning, the door’s over there.”
While Maryland was fighting to stay competitive amidst its sanctions, Williams kept coaching, working to maximize the potential of the team. He named Walt Williams, who starred at the school from 1988-1992, as instrumental in the laying the foundation for future success.
“None of the players were involved with anything that gave us the sanctions, but we had to play,” Williams said. “Sometimes, you get into those situations and it makes you better. I know I was a better coach coming out of it.”
Once Maryland was free from the NCAA’s grasp, things begin to look up. From 1993, Maryland made 11 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament and two consecutive Final Four appearances, culminating in a 2002 NCAA championship.
“You win it and you realize how important everything has to be in place in order to win,” Williams said. “I had a great staff.”
Maryland’s starting five that championship year featured four players who would go on to play in the NBA. Arguably no one was more important than guard Juan Dixon, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in 2002.
When asked how Dixon was able to succeed despite his smaller stature, Williams pointed to his chest.
“That’s right here,” Williams said. “You can measure a guy, how high he jumps, or how well he shoots the ball. You can’t measure what’s inside of him. That’s the grey area of recruiting.”
After winning the NCAA Tournament, Williams would go on to cement his legacy in Maryland lore. His 442 victories at Maryland is 94 more than the next highest, legendary coach Charles “Lefty” Driesell. He was voted ACC Coach of the Year twice and was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
However, Williams placed one feat above all of his other accomplishments: his 2014 induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“That’s all basketball,” Williams said. “Now it’s international. It’s kind of a measuring stick of a period of time.”
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