Gary Williams announced his retirement from coaching the University of Maryland men’s basketball team Thursday, a day after his best player, forward Jordan Williams, announced he would be leaving for the NBA Draft.
A rebuilding season clearly awaited Coach Williams, who led his alma mater to the 2002 national championship. Still, few doubted that Williams would have been able to bounce back from his star player’s early departure. In his 33 years as a head coach—22 of those in College Park—Williams faced challenges.
He developed a legendary reputation for performing at his best when things appeared bleakest, winning big when detractors proclaimed he no longer could. When Williams took over the Maryland job in 1989, the program was still coping with the aftermath of the 1986 death of Len Bias from a drug overdose. In 1990, the NCAA imposed harsh sanctions, including a rare two-season ban from postseason play, for violations dating back to William’s predecessor, Bob Wade.
Twelve years later, Williams had Maryland on the top of the college basketball world for the first time in the school’s history. Maryland basketball fans, a fervent group that had witnessed its share of disappointments, placed Williams on a pedestal as tall as any of the area’s great all-time sports figures.
Jordan Williams’s decision, fans thought, would be just another speed bump, another chance for Gary Williams to prove his toughness, to succeed despite significant odds.
It appears that Coach Williams, at age 66, wasn’t up for another uphill battle. After 668 wins—ranking fifth among active college coaches—and 17 NCAA tournament appearances, he stepped down.
Williams’s underdog mentality—the one that enabled his teams to contend with conference rivals Duke and North Carolina, often considered college basketball royalty—was sometimes his greatest weakness.
He often bristled at reporters and engaged in a long-running, at times public feud with his boss, former Maryland athletics director Debbie Yow.
In a statement Thursday, he described himself as “fiercely proud” of the program he built, and that’s not an exaggeration. Williams rarely attempted to sell himself to elite recruits, and he refused to engage in some of the shady recruiting practices that have become common in today’s college games.
As Maryland readies a press conference Friday to announce formally Williams’s retirement, the coach’s legacy remains secure. The customary fist pump he gave fans when walking onto the court before a game, his battles with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, and his near-record seven upsets of a number-one-ranked team, all add up to the same thing.
Gary Williams rarely backed down from a challenge.