A chat with legendary University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams

The Hall of Fame coach opens up about his College Park journey, his mentors and players, and leading the Terps to the 2002 national championship

Published on: October 12, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: October 12, 2022 2:54 PM EDT

Gary Williams was a point guard for the Maryland Terrapins in the 1960s before he returned to be their head coach, ultimately leading Maryland to its first NCAA men's basketball title.

Gary Williams has been retired for over 10 years now, but if you get him reminiscing about his career as a Hall of Fame coach, you can still see the fire burning in his eyes. You can feel his humanity and passion when he gets choked up thinking about his mentors and former players.

On Thursday evening, he’ll receive another major honor, the Maryland Athletic State Hall of Fame’s Inaugural Coaches Legacy Award.

It’s an honor that Williams, a former Terrapin point guard and 1968 graduate who went on to lead his alma mater to a national championship in 2002, does not take lightly.

The 2022 induction class also includes the late college basketball star Len Bias; lacrosse icon Dave Cottle; the late Negro League baseball player Leon Day; and Darryl Hill, the former University of Maryland football player who broke the color barrier in 1963 as the first Black player to receive an athletic scholarship in any sport from any school below the Mason-Dixon line.

Other honorees include tennis champion Fred McNair IV and Marty West III, considered to be one of the greatest amateur golfers of all time.

Carl Runk, Towson University’s lacrosse coach from 1967 to 1998, will receive the John F. Steadman Lifetime Achievement Award as well.

Williams, 77, is the winningest head basketball coach in Maryland history. During his 22 seasons at the helm, the Terrapins went 461-252, a winning percentage of .646. His tenure included 14 NCAA tournament berths, seven Sweet 16 appearances, back-to-back trips to the Final Four, and the 2002 national championship. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014 and has the basketball court at the Xfinity Center named after him.

Williams, who has worked as a college basketball TV analyst in recent years, sat down with The Banner for an extended conversation about his life, his journey, his passion and a burning desire throughout his life to coach, teach — and win.

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Banner: As a teenager, what were your dreams in terms of where you wanted to be later in life?

Gary Williams: Like most of the guys who grew up in my area of South Jersey right outside of Philadelphia that loved basketball, we all thought we were going to play for the Philadelphia Warriors and 76ers. That was the dream that I had, to play in the NBA.

Every year, I make a run up to Philly to watch some games at The Palestra on Penn’s campus, one of America’s historical cathedrals of college basketball. When you were playing in high school, did that building hold any special meaning to you?

Growing up as a kid, I went to The Palestra regularly. I’d catch a bus into Philly and then take the subway. It was only about a 25-minute trip from where I lived. I spent a lot of time there and saw some incredible basketball. I saw guys like Oscar Robertson and Jerry West playing at The Palestra when they were in college. That was my dream, to play on that court in college.

When you were in high school, did you hope to play your college ball in Philly?

I had a high school teammate who went to Penn and was an All-Ivy-League player. That’s where I wanted to go, but your grades need to be top shelf to get into Penn and I wouldn’t have qualified.

When did the University of Maryland come into the picture?

I talked to a couple of schools and Maryland stood out. It was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from home and they were in a great conference, the ACC.

In my conversations with great coaches, I find that there was a coach they had in their formative years that made a great impression on them as a role model, mentor and teacher. Who was that for you?

My high school coach, John Smith. He was also a history teacher and someone who genuinely cared about people. My parents got divorced when I was in the ninth grade and it was kind of messy. We lived in a small town and that was frowned upon back then. So Coach Smith became a father figure to me. He was a great person who had three little kids of his own, and I was like his fourth kid.

I’m sure some of your high school teammates had a lot of jokes about that.

Yeah, they’d say things like, “It must be nice playing for your father.” He made sure I did enough academically to be able to go to college. He gave me confidence.

If you can give a kid confidence, and I’m not just talking about basketball but in life, that person is special. His family knew I was a good basketball player, but they cared about me as a person.

You were a gritty little point guard at the University of Maryland, and you stated earlier that your dream was to play in the NBA. When did you have the epiphany that it wasn’t going to happen for you?

My sophomore year, we beat North Carolina. Billy Cunningham, out of Brooklyn, New York, was an incredible player for the Tar Heels and he was a senior that year. I’m guarding my guy in the corner. My coach Bud Millikan drilled us on the principles of help defense. He was a big defensive coach.

My job, in guarding the guy in the corner, was to hustle into the paint if an opponent shook loose to attack the basket. My job was to take the charge. Billy had the ball at the top of the circle and beat his man, but he had to get through me to get to the basket.

I was in great position. Next thing I knew, he took off and his Converse canvas sneaker went by my right ear. As I turned, he dunked it hard and the ball banged me in the head when it went through the net. It was embarrassing. At the same time, it was a watershed moment because I knew right then, if that was typical of the talent level in the NBA, I wasn’t going to get there.

Yeah, they didn’t call Billy Cunningham “The Kangaroo Kid” for no reason. That man could fly! I’m sorry he did you like that.

Billy was kind enough to be my presenter when I was inducted many years later into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

That was the least he could do, right? That set you up for the next vision, being a coach.

Yeah, luckily for me that was my sophomore year. I would study the great coaches in the ACC: Dean Smith, Frank McGuire, Vic Bubbas, Norm Sloan, they were all tremendous coaches. I watched how they coached, studied their philosophies. I still loved to play, but from that point forward, I started to think that somewhere down the line, I better learn how to coach.

What was a key moment early on that started you on your path?

Tom Davis came to Maryland to get his doctorate. He was a guy that was always hanging around practice. I didn’t know who he was, and he wasn’t on the coaching staff. I went over to talk to him one day after practice and we got to know each other. After about a year, my coach Bud Millikan was fired, and the new coach hired Tom Davis to be his assistant.

When I graduated from Maryland, I went to take a junior varsity coaching job at Woodrow Wilson High School in a pretty tough area of Camden, New Jersey. I later became the varsity coach. Tom told me if he ever got a college head coaching job, he’d give me a call to be his assistant.

What happened from there?

Three years later, he became the head coach at Lafayette College in 1971, and he called me and asked me to join his staff. We’d just had an undefeated season at Woodrow Wilson where we won the state championship. I thought I was going to be a career high school coach and loved every minute of coaching on that level.

Tom said, “There’s one problem with the job. There’s no money in the budget because they’ve never had a full-time assistant basketball coach. But the soccer coach left and there’s money in the budget for that, so you can get that money, but you’ll also have to be the head men’s soccer coach.”

How did that go?

I knew absolutely nothing about soccer, so I turned the job down two different times. The third time Tom approached me, he said, “Who else is going to get you into college coaching? Sometimes you have to do some things that you don’t like to do to get to where you want to be.”

He got philosophical and kicked some profound, simple truth to you right there.

That hit me hard. I went with Tom to Lafayette, coached soccer for six years and was his assistant with the basketball team. I learned an incredible amount about coaching from him. He was a professor, and the basketball court was his lecture hall. Without Tom, you wouldn’t be sitting here talking to me.

You got your first head coaching job at the age of 32 at American University in 1978. Four years later, you got the Boston College gig after your mentor, Dr. Tom Davis, left there to take the job at Stanford. This was around the golden age of the Big East Conference and when ESPN started to take off as well. And you eventually took BC to an Elite Eight in an era when conference schools like Georgetown and Villanova won national championships.

I loved watching those BC teams play because it seemed like you always had some awesome guards who were diminutive in stature. Two of my favorites were Michael Adams and Dana Barros. Those dudes were special.

My philosophy around playing dynamic small guards was based on how I played. I was nowhere near as talented as those guys, but I was small and could handle the ball well. You have to be tough to succeed in Division I basketball if you’re small. I always looked for that toughness in players that I was recruiting.

Michael was unorthodox and his shot looked like a shot put when it left his hands. Some people had previously tried to change his form, but I told him I don’t care how you shoot it, as long as it goes in.

He was a tough guy and was always the smallest guy on the court. He played in the Big East against guys like Patrick Ewing and those great Georgetown teams, Chris Mullin and those excellent St. John’s teams. Michael was incredible, with tremendous quickness and intelligence, and he went on to make an NBA All-Star team.

Do you remember where you were when you heard that Len Bias, the greatest player in the history of the University of Maryland basketball program, who had been drafted by the Boston Celtics, died of a cocaine overdose at just 22?

I remember exactly where I was. It was June of ’86 and I had just taken the head coaching job at Ohio State. I was sitting at my desk when a friend from back east called and said, “Turn on your television. You won’t believe this, Len Bias died this morning.” I didn’t believe it because the people connected to Maryland saw Len Bias as Superman. There was no one built for basketball better than Len Bias.

I called a meeting with my players at Ohio State and explained to them how fragile life is. You have to take care of yourself. You might think you’re invincible when you’re 20 years old, but you’re not. It was such a tragedy and an extremely sad time.

You had great success at Ohio State and looked to be building a national championship program. But then Maryland, your alma mater, came calling.

We had gotten pretty good and just signed Jimmy Jackson. Two years after I left, they missed what would have been a game-winning jump shot that would have put the Buckeyes in the Final Four. Believe me, I would have never left Ohio State to go anywhere else. It was a great situation and a special job.

Walk us through the task of rebuilding the Maryland program in the wake of Len Bias’ death with the NCAA sanctions that had been handed down for past recruiting violations and other improprieties.

I was told that it was going to be a slap on the wrist, but it turned out to be much more than that. There were a lot of things that I was fighting against and, most days, all I wanted to do was get to the basketball court for practice because that was my sanctuary.

You shouldn’t have to coach that way. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in coaching. Those first three years, I really did question myself, asking, “Were you really thinking clearly when you took this job?”

Through all the turmoil, what made you optimistic about the road ahead?

When I got there, we had a really good team. We had three guys that eventually went on to the NBA — Walt Williams, Jerrod Mustaf and Tony Massenburg. We beat Carolina twice that year, but we weren’t able to prove ourselves when it counted the most in March.

During the ACC Tournament my first year, we found out that we were docked three scholarships, we couldn’t play on national television and in the NCAA Tournament for two years, and we had to give the NCAA back a lot of money.

But we had a great player in Walt Williams. He kept the students coming to the games. He was aptly nicknamed “The Wizard” and played four positions for us. He was a tremendous player and a great guy.

He could have transferred and gone anywhere, but he stayed because he loved Maryland. His loyalty to the school, especially by me, will never be forgotten. He was the bridge that got me through it, that got the university through the toughest times.

A year after Walt’s departure, you guys make a surprising run to the Sweet 16 in the 1992-1993 season, led by Joe Smith, the future No. 1 pick in the 1995 NBA Draft. How rewarding was that?

Joe Smith was very under-recruited until late in his senior year of high school. We were able to establish a rapport with him a year earlier when he was a junior and he committed to Maryland. All of the big schools came in during his senior year, but Joe kept his word and came to College Park.

He wound up being the National Freshman of the Year and won the Naismith Award as college basketball’s best player when he was a sophomore. Such a beautiful player, so smooth. He was a big part of our first really good team during my tenure at Maryland.

Now we get to one of the most scintillating and electric players to ever wear a Maryland uniform, Steve Francis. To this day, I still watch his Maryland highlights when I’m dragging and need to get hyped up.

Steve was a local legend. He came to my basketball camp when he was 12 years old. Both of his parents died when he was about 15 years old. He had a local fireman that kind of took care of him and made sure that he at least went to school. He had to go to junior college. The summer before he got to Maryland he averaged 50 points per game in the Urban Coalition, the great summer league in Washington, D.C.

Back then, you couldn’t hold summer workouts with your players, so I didn’t coach him on the court until official practices started on Oct. 15. He was ridiculous in terms of what he could do with the ball, and at the same time one of the easier guys I ever coached. As good as he was individually, he wanted to be part of a great team.

With the difficult circumstances of his upbringing, I think he saw the basketball team as his family — the experience and bonds and brotherhood really meant something to him.

He was incredibly unique. When did you realize that, unfortunately for you and the program, that you’d only get to coach him for one season in college?

That year we had him the NBA was on strike. We played in an early-season tournament in Puerto Rico that had some talented teams. This is Thanksgiving week. And Steve just explodes. I think he had 26-, 28- and 30-point games.

The problem for us was the way he did it because he was dunking all over UCLA and Kentucky’s big men. He was coming down the court at lightning speed and just pounding the ball. He also had the mid-range game, was knocking down threes and playing great defense.

And since the NBA was on strike, he basically monopolized the ESPN “SportsCenter” highlights every night.

Correct. Steve Francis was the human highlight film over at ESPN. I turned to my assistants during one early-season game and said, “Enjoy this while we have it, because it’s not going to last very long.” Everybody saw how good he was. And he cared about winning and getting better. He never bought into the myth of his nickname, “Stevie Franchise,” or the urban legend of his exploits as a kid playing on the D.C. playgrounds.

Let’s talk about the recruits that form the nucleus of those 2001 and 2002 teams after Steve Francis leaves. You guys had an astonishing run of back-to-back Final Fours. I don’t think people realize Maryland is the only team in the modern era to win a national championship without a single McDonald’s All-American.

People thought every one of the kids we brought in after that season had some type of defect that wouldn’t allow them to be great players in the ACC. Juan Dixon was 6-foot-2 and weighed 160 pounds. In high school at Calvert Hall, he played on the wing and didn’t handle the ball that much. I knew he was going to be a lot better than people thought. All great scorers think they can score every time they touch the ball, and Juan had that. He wound up becoming the all-time leading scorer at Maryland, a first-team All-American and a Final Four MVP.

Anything you could do in college basketball, Juan did it.

How about Steve Blake?

Steve played on a great high school team in Miami that won a state championship and then went to the legendary Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. He was a facilitator who didn’t score a ton of points during his prep career. He wasn’t spectacular, but he was really solid. I thought he’d be an excellent floor general who could run our team.

Then there’s Lonny Baxter.

Lonny weighed about 275 pounds at 6-foot-6. He went to a military school and I remember going in there. He had a teammate who was a great player and there was a line outside of an office of college coaches waiting to talk to that kid. Lonny was in another office by himself and we just walked in and started talking to him. Two minutes into my recruiting pitch, he cut me short and said, “I want to play at the University of Maryland.” He was from D.C., had a tough upbringing and bounced around a little bit at a few different high schools. He got to play one year with Steve Francis and lost 25 pounds between his freshman and sophomore year.

Chris Wilcox was very talented as well.

Chris was from Raleigh, North Carolina, right in the back yard of those schools down on Tobacco Road. He was a funny player in high school. He’d take plays off but he was very talented. I went to one of his games when we were in town to play North Carolina State and what stood out was his timing. He could really get up and was an intimidating shot-blocker. And you could see that he was physically still growing and developing. By the time he got to Maryland, he was a chiseled 6-foot-9, 250 pounds.

And we can’t forget about my guy from Jersey, Tahj Holden!

I always tell Tahj that he should have been an NBA player. He was 6-foot-10, he could pass, he could shoot, he could do all the necessary things on a basketball court. He made us a really tough front line.

I’m not sure if most people understand the breadth of what you accomplished at Maryland, from the state of the program that you inherited to leading them to a national championship with a 64–52 win over Indiana in 2002. The fact that it was your alma mater had to make it even more special.

We [when I was coach] made four Sweet 16s prior to the back-to-back Final Fours and the National Championship in 2002. People always want to tell you what you can’t do until you prove them wrong. And it was difficult, because anything you’ve never done before, is going to be hard to accomplish.

The toughness of those guys still resonates with me. What I love about that team is that we weren’t considered a great team, we had to prove that we were. We had to go out there and gain everybody’s respect, and we did that.

What did bringing Maryland its first basketball national championship mean to you?

It meant everything. I put my head down and just went to work. I really believe that if you work hard enough and had the right combination of good people on the team that you could do it. That was a culmination for me of all of my beliefs of how and why you coach.