June 1, 2006
COLLEGE PARK -- How long of a grace period does a head coach get after winning a national championship? That's the question many Maryland fans are beginning to ask about basketball coach Gary Williams.
Maryland basketball has been in steady decline since 2002, when it captured its first national championship. Williams was on top of the world back then, having led the Terrapins to back-to-back Final Fours to reach the pinnacle of what has been a great career.
Indeed, Williams is a Hall of Fame coach. He has led programs in four major conferences to 20-win seasons and NCAA Tournament berths. His work in rebuilding a shattered Maryland program has been remarkable.
Maryland had hit rock-bottom in the wake of Len Bias' death and the disastrous Bob Wade era. The Terps were on NCAA probation and were as far from being a factor in the ACC as any school ever has been. Williams met those challenges head-on, and through sheer determination, will and perseverance he was able to lead Maryland back to prominence.
By now, Maryland fans know the numbers well: 11 consecutive NCAA berths and seven Sweet 16 appearances from 1993-94 to 2003-04. Last season, Williams eclipsed Lefty Driesell as the winningest coach in Maryland basketball history, having accumulated 353 victories during his 17 seasons in College Park.
Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Williams ranks third all-time with 147 regular-season ACC wins, trailing only North Carolina's Dean Smith (364) and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (264). Williams stands 11th among active Division I coaches with 560 career victories, compiled over 28 seasons at American, Boston College, Ohio State and Maryland.
Obviously, Williams' legacy is secure. If he were to ride off into the sunset tomorrow, he would be remembered as a consistent winner who reached the pinnacle of his profession.
At the same time, college basketball has become a "what have you done for me lately" sport, and not even a coach of Williams' credentials is above criticism when reasonable expectations are not met.
Maryland has endured (by its standards) two straight subpar seasons. The Terps finished 19-13 in 2004-05 and 2005-06, missing the NCAA Tournament both times. There were several rock-bottom moments during those difficult campaigns, but certainly getting thoroughly out-played by Manhattan at the Comcast Center in the opening round of the NIT ranks high on the list.
Beyond the poor on-court performance and the failure to reach any significant goals has been a disturbing trend of incidents that suggest a program in disarray. The Sports Journal has detailed the various problems in past issues, ranging from the academic and criminal misconduct of players to high turnover among assistants and lackluster recruiting.
An over-the-ledge Maryland basketball fan might say this about the current state of affairs: There is no accountability (on or off the court) among the players, assistant coaches don't want to work for Williams, communication within the basketball office is virtually non-existent, and the overall recruiting strategy makes no sense.
Williams, as feisty as ever at 61 years old, vehemently would dispute every one of those assertions. However, there are several issues that Williams has never properly addressed or explained that ultimately would seem to be the responsibility of the head coach.
What exactly happened to make point guard John Gilchrist so disenchanted with the program that he would rather play professionally in Israel than conclude his career at Maryland? Why was the staff caught unaware of the transcript deficiencies that caused the admissions department to reject the application of recruit Shane Clark? How was starting guard Chris McCray allowed to fall so far behind in his schoolwork that he received a failing grade in a course that caused his GPA to fall below the NCAA minimum and made him ineligible? Why did assistant Rob Moxley leave after just one season?
There are many, many other questions that haven't been fully or directly answered by Williams, such as why three prominent players were arrested and charged with crimes related to drinking and carousing at bars, and how the basketball office had no idea that the athletic department had agreed to host an NIT game.
What is clear to even the most casual fan is that the program is reeling. Bad news has been coming in droves, and there seems to be no end in sight.
MAJOR CONCERN: MOXLEY DEPARTURE
Moxley's sudden and unexpected departure, supposedly because he has been promised the top job at Charlotte whenever 49ers coach Bobby Lutz departs, hurt more than Williams will admit. A bright, young, energetic assistant, Moxley had single-handedly improved Maryland's recruiting fortunes -- working with Williams to put together a sensible plan, then hustling like crazy to evaluate talent and build relationships.
After years of watching top-tier local talent go elsewhere, Maryland once again became a player within the Baltimore-D.C. region. Moxley was the lead recruiter for Baltimore-area prospects Dino Gregory (Mount St. Joseph) and Braxton Dupree (Calvert Hall), who gave early commitments to the Terps. Moxley also was the point man in discovering, then landing elite Philadelphia-area guard Jeff Jones (Monsignor Bonner), whose stock rose dramatically after he pledged to play in College Park.
Moxley also had positioned Maryland nicely with other area targets, such as Adrian Bowie (Montrose Christian), Malcolm Delaney (Towson Catholic), John Flowers (St. Mary's-Ryken), Jerai Grant (DeMatha) and Sean Mosley (St. Frances).
Ask any major high school or AAU coach in the Baltimore-D.C. area what Maryland coach they saw most often in their gyms, and the immediate answer will be Moxley, not Williams or assistants Keith Booth and Michael Adams. Now Moxley is gone under unusual circumstances, and suddenly all of that recruiting groundwork may be lost.
Jones dropped one bombshell on May 25, when he announced that he was re-opening his recruitment. Georgia Tech and Virginia are among the many schools that are interested in Jones, who said Moxley's departure "left a void" in his relationship with Maryland. Jeff Jones Sr. told several media outlets that Maryland is still very much in the mix, but the family wants to be recruited personally by Williams himself.
Williams was on a goodwill trip to Kuwait as part of "Operation Hardwood" when Jones called the Maryland basketball office and informed Adams that he was rescinding the commitment. That news came one day after big-time Ohio forward Kosta Koufos, another key Maryland target in the Class of 2007, pledged to Ohio State.
Such news on consecutive days sent the "anti-Gary" establishment into a frenzy of criticism with regard to Williams' recruiting abilities.
Here's a news flash: Williams is not a great recruiter. The Sports Journal has been stating that fact for a decade now. That does not necessarily mean he doesn't work at recruiting by attending games and camps or making calls, although many in the recruiting world question his dedication in that regard. But it definitely means that he's not real good at the game the way it's being played right now.
Williams is an old-school coach whose style, personality and temperament don't necessarily sell well with the new generation of players. He always has relied on assistants to do most of the early legwork, before he comes in as a "closer" late in the process.
That approach often doesn't cut it in an era when big-time players expect to be recruited directly by the big-time coach. The Jones situation will be an interesting test of whether Williams is able to adjust and do what is necessary to land a key prospect. Williams has the knowledge, ability and work ethic to get the Maryland program back on track. However, the larger question is whether he has the energy and desire to do so.
Step one involves hiring a strong assistant to replace Moxley. Interestingly, the top candidate mentioned so far is Chuck Driesell, a former Maryland player and, of course, Lefty's son. Williams had better demand some sort of long-term commitment from the new assistant, because the program cannot afford to have coaches coming and going the way they have done so recently.
More than anything, Williams needs to become more visible and take a more pro-active role in the direction of the Maryland program. Fans are growing tired of all the various problems being blamed on others, while the head coach accepts little responsibility.
All of which brings us back to the original question. Athletic director Debbie Yow has hinted in the past that Williams will be allowed to leave Maryland on his terms. After all Williams has done for Maryland, that would seem the appropriate way to handle things.
However, everyone knows that most well-heeled boosters and prominent athletic directors have limits to their patience. If the Maryland program continues to freefall, both on and off the court, the "Gary Must Go" chants will grow louder.