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Basketball Family Something Special

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

March 10, 2003 COLLEGE PARK — With the Washington Wizards game for that night already postponed because of heavy snowfall, Juan Dixon made the effort to dig out his Cadillac Escalade and get to the Comcast Center for the Maryland-Wake Forest game that had been pushed back from Sunday night to Monday afternoon.

Dixon settled into a seat along press row and within minutes was totally engrossed in the game. With Drew Nicholas struggling to get off a shot early, Dixon whistled to get his former roommate's attention during a break in the action, then shouted some instructions. That scene has been repeated on several occasions this season. Dixon and Steve Francis sat directly behind the Maryland bench at Georgia Tech and were literally leaning into the huddle to tell former teammates what to do.

Fast forward a few weeks, when Dixon's Wizards were playing Francis' Rockets at the MCI Center despite a heavy snowfall. On hand that night were Nicholas and Steve Blake, who had braved the elements in order to see their former teammates square off.

That bond between players who have passed through the program speaks volumes for what coach Gary Williams has built in College Park. Prior to Williams' arrival, the Maryland basketball family was fragmented, with players from different eras feeling a bit disassociated from the program. Players from the Lefty Driesell era didn't tend to come to games for a long time, in part out of anger over what happened to their coach. Those who played for Bob Wade felt somewhat lost and overlooked, as everyone associated with Maryland basketball had sought to forget that scandalous three-year run ever happened.

Williams has made a conscious effort to reach out to former Terrapins of all generations, implementing an honorary captains program that brings back at least two alums for every home game. Yet the closest relationships exist between those who have played during Williams' 13-year tenure. They are tied together by a mutual thread and feel a certain closeness for having been part of building the most successful period of Maryland basketball.

Williams is known for telling current players about those who came before, routinely invoking the names of past greats such as Walt Williams, Johnny Rhodes and Keith Booth. In fact, the vision of those three sitting together in the front row of the Comcast Center during the North Carolina game caused Williams to grow emotional as he talked about what it meant to have former players come back to show their support.

“To see Walt, Johnny and Keith here Ö it means a lot. You know, it takes a while to build a program,” said Williams, unable to finish the thought because he was choking up.

Later, Booth and Rhodes were in the Maryland locker room, greeting current players and getting to know them better. That scene probably will be repeated a few years from now, when Tahj Holden and Blake come back to see how freshmen such as Travis Garrison and John Gilchrist have grown up.

Williams gradually has created something special at Maryland. He has built a program that is beginning to perpetuate itself. Francis taught Dixon, who mentored Nicholas, who has taken Chris McCray under his wing. Gilchrist is learning at the feet of Blake, while Garrison is getting pointers on inside toughness through discussions with Booth. Already this season, Williams has compared Jamar Smith to Chris Wilcox and McCray to Dixon. The coach said he saw a lot of Francis in current recruit and
McDonald's All-American Mike Jones.

If Jones does prove to be a similar high-flying guard, you can bet Francis will come back to take the kid under his wing. That likely will happen in the famous summer pickup games that have moved from Cole to Comcast. Former Terps such as Rhodes, Booth, Francis, Tony Massenburg, Obinna Ekezie and Laron Profit all have returned to the area to play against the current crop of players. That is how the relationships are formed and the bonds develop.

This season clearly showed why it was important for Williams to give Maryland basketball an identity. To outsiders, this was a rebuilding campaign for the Terps, who lost four starters (three to the NBA) and were relying on career backups and newcomers. Members of the ACC media who voted Maryland fourth (and in some cases fifth) in the league during a preseason poll didn't imagine that seemingly mediocre players such as Nicholas and Holden could step up and keep the program at a high level. Some pundits even predicted a Carolina-like collapse that would end Maryland's impressive run of nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

Yet they underestimated what Williams referred to in preseason as the “attitude of a program.” The coach noted that players such as Blake, Nicholas and Holden have known nothing but winning and truly believed that Maryland belonged among the nation's best.

Indeed, this year's squad played above its head and was on the verge of a 20-win regular season. Maryland's seniors have shown a determined will to win, and that attitude has been instilled in the four freshmen and junior college transfer Smith.

Williams is rightfully proud of what this combination of inexperienced newcomers and somewhat limited seniors has accomplished. They have kept Maryland among the nation's elite in what figured to be a transition season between the Final Four teams led by Dixon and Lonny Baxter and the program's next powerhouse squad, which figures to be led by back-to-back strong recruiting classes that brought in eight talented players.

Just For Fun: A What-If Game

No Maryland fan wants to think about life after Williams. The fiery head coach, who has proven a savior for Maryland basketball, has a 10-year contract that might as well be a lifetime deal. Williams will remain in the big office at Comcast Center for as long as he is healthy and has a passion for coaching.

Yet there will come a day when someone will have to succeed Williams. Maryland's next head coaching transition doesn't figure to take place for quite a long time, but it's always a fun topic to discuss, right?

It's scary to think who would follow in Williams' footsteps if the 56-year-old coach decided to suddenly retire on the laurels of his 500th career victory, or if sometime soon he decided his type A personality finally needed a break. At present, there is no ready-made replacement for Williams, no well-groomed successor waiting in the wings.

When one thinks about who might be the next Maryland basketball coach, it makes sense to first consider products of the program who are in the coaching profession. That would be a very, very short list that starts with Dave Dickerson and ends with Billy Hahn. Those two also fit the description of the next-most-likely candidates, former Maryland assistants who have become head coaches.

Hahn already has moved on to LaSalle, while Dickerson probably will be a head coach next season. (Accounts differ, but some say Dickerson could've had the College of Charleston job last year if he really wanted it.) Assistant Jimmy Patsos likely will serve a stint in the No. 1 position once Dickerson leaves, so he also could be a head coach by the time Williams retires.

The list of Williams protÈgÈs also produces a couple of other notable names — former St. John's and New Mexico head coach Fran Fraschilla and Texas boss Rick Barnes. Both were assistants under Williams at Ohio State. Randy Ayers (the former Ohio State head coach now an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers), and Fran Dunphy (long-time head coach at Pennsylvania) are two other former Williams assistants still in the business.

Realistically, none of the aforementioned names would appear overly attractive or the right fit for Maryland, at least not any time soon. Most simply lack the rÈsumÈ the Terps job now can demand. Ayers and Fraschilla carry significant baggage from previous coaching stops, and it's questionable whether Barnes would be interested in the job.

So, the inevitable question: What current collegiate head coach has ties to Maryland, an interest in coaching in the ACC and the proven ability to warrant consideration from one of the nation's premier programs?

The first name that jumps right out is Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, who was an assistant at DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville and served as an assistant at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski. According to sources close to Brey, the Maryland job is one of the few in college basketball that could even conceivably lure him away from the Fighting Irish. At this point, of course, he's very happy in South Bend and doesn't expect a call any time soon.

Many would love to see Dickerson become a successful head coach elsewhere, then ultimately return to Maryland, and he figures to get consideration at Clemson (in his home state) if Larry Shyatt isn't retained after this season. Dickerson is a former player who served as the lead assistant during the most successful period of Maryland basketball. With more grooming, he would seem the perfect fit.

Knowing Williams, of course, he'll probably be sweating through suits and screaming at officials on behalf of his alma mater until 2020 or so. It's always fun to play the game of what-if, though, isn't it?