If you didn’t know much about Gary Williams, you’d swear he was a mean, angry man. On the Maryland sideline with that stern, always-worried look, often spinning around to yell in the faces of his assistant coaches and bench players, arms flailing and sweating- sure he looked petulant. Ask him a critical question in an interview and Gary would all but put his hands up in a boxer’s pose: ready to defend himself and his team, and jab back when he needed. Gary Williams isn’t mean or angry, but he is a fighter. For 33 years he fought to make his college basketball players better. He challenged them in practices and in games. He fought for every victory. He fought for respect among his peers. He fought perceptions that he felt were unjustly perpetuated by the media. Gary Williams’ basketball life, it seemed, was a constant struggle- and that’s how he liked it. I once asked Gary: “Why the chip on your shoulder? Why does it seem like you’re always fighting?” “It’s who I am,” he said. Williams told me about growing up in New Jersey and going to the playgrounds and neighborhood asphalt courts to play pick-up games when he was a kid. “I was always the smallest guy so I had to try harder, I had to fight.” The record book and the trophy case will show that Williams fought a good fight. More important than the records and the hardware- Williams’ real legacy is in the players he coached, how he coached them and who those players became. No better example than Juan Dixon- the ultimate Williams player: small and unheralded from a rough Baltimore background, he became a man- and a winner- at Maryland. If the best players in the country were destined for Duke and North Carolina, then Gary would take sometimes less talented but tougher kids to fight them. He’d convince his guys that they’re just as good as any so-called elite team and demanded that what they might lack in skill- they must make up in grit.
Williams coached at his alma mater for 22 years and won more games than any other coach in Maryland history. He took a program ravaged by scandal and built it up, by fighting. He reached the top with an NCAA title in 2002 with a talented, gritty group led by Juan Dixon. He took his team from legendary Cole Field House to the gleaming Comcast Center and on the night the new building opened- Gary Williams stood on a stage at center court and cried. Fighting takes a lot out of guy. Pushing for every inch and scratching for every advantage bares the body and the soul. There are moments when there’s nothing left inside but emotion and that’s what comes out when there’s no more sweat. That’s when a fighter knows he’s given everything and there’s little left. Sure, the fighter believes he’s got a few more good punches in him, believes he’s wily enough to go a few more rounds. But even the best get tired of the struggle and only the best get to ring that bell themselves instead of being counted out by someone else. Gary Williams can ring his own bell on the way out. It was a good fight, Coach.
–Posted By Mark Viviano