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Robyn Norwood ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Williams Passes This History Test

April 02, 2002

ATLANTA — Forgive Gary Williams if he was still gesturing, still pointing to his head shouting, "Think," still sweating it out in the final minute or so even though Maryland was up 15.

You have to understand, it was the first national championship for the Terrapins in his lifetime.

Make that anybody's lifetime.

Lefty Driesell arrived in 1969 saying he'd make Maryland "the UCLA of the East."

A generation later, it's one title down, 10 to go.

Williams graduated from Maryland in 1968, and returned in 1989, during the darkest of days.

Len Bias had died in 1986, his cocaine-induced death coming perhaps 48 hours after he'd been the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.

In the aftermath, Driesell was forced out, renowned Baltimore high school coach Bob Wade took over, and by the time Williams arrived, Maryland was on its way to NCAA probation.

That's why there was more than celebration on the court for Williams and seniors Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter Monday night after Maryland's 64-52 victory over Indiana in the Georgia Dome.

That was release.

All those years of chasing Dean Smith, all that Duke obsession. Over.

"The program came a long ways," said Dixon, who played through only four years of it, but grew up in Baltimore. "They were in a lot of trouble, I guess, in the late '80s. Coach came in and did a great job. We're one of the better programs in the country right now. That's a credit to the guy to my right."

That would be Williams.

"We definitely wanted to get Coach a ring," said Baxter, from Silver Spring, Md. "This was his year. It's about time. He got what he deserved."

For years all Williams got was also-ran status--no ACC team from outside of North Carolina had ever won the NCAA title until Monday night--and a lot of grief about his sideline insanity.

But two hours before Monday's championship game, that lunatic you saw later was playing with his 2-year-old grandson.

"He was down on the floor, playing trains with David," said Kristin Scott, Williams' daughter.

He found it calming, because little David didn't know Granddaddy had yet to win the Big One, or that Duke came from 22 points down to beat Maryland in the semifinals last year.

A kinder, gentler Gary? His daughter laughed.

"That's a relative term," she said. "He still gets pretty fired up and emotional. It's all relative."

It's hard for people who weren't around Maryland basketball in 1986 to understand how devastating Bias' unexpected death was. Jay Bilas and Brad Daugherty, both ESPN analysts now, played in the ACC at the same time.

"Bias was Superman to me," said Bilas, who played at Duke and considered Bias a friend.

"It profoundly affected not only the Maryland program, but college basketball in general. It took a long time for Maryland to recover. They only really got there after Keith Booth and Joe Smith came in."

Daugherty played at North Carolina and was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft that year, and he and Bias had both signed big deals with Reebok. He was leaving for an event he and Bias were to appear at together in Boston when he heard Bias had died.

"I was at Raleigh-Durham airport and someone told me, and I said, 'Man, I don't believe it,'" Daugherty said.

"So many things happened after that. So much negativity. Then Lefty was gone. Things were tough. They never recovered--but here they are now."

For that, make Williams a lifetime member of the alumni society.

"I came back at a time I hate to even think about, because there was so much mistrust, so much doubt about the place of the basketball team at the university," he said.

"We had to work all those things out before we could even think about having a good basketball team."

The Terrapins sunk to 14-15 in 1992 and 12-16 in 1993--2-14 in the unforgiving Atlantic Coast Conference. In 1993, Williams landed Joe Smith and Keith Booth, and Maryland was on its way back. The Terrapins made the Sweet 16 in 1994, and six times altogether, breaking through for the school's first Final Four last year.

It took one more before they got it right.

"The guys who played back then, Walt Williams, people like that, had a lot to do with keeping the crowd at Cole Field House even though we couldn't participate in the NCAA tournament or be on television," Williams said.

"I'll always remember those guys as well as the guys that played on this team. I'm not sure if we could have recovered if it weren't for the people involved back there, say from '90 to '93."

It was a school with a great basketball heritage, just no case full of trophies to prove it.

The Terrapins were ranked in the top five in 1974 and 1975, but they didn't play in the NCAA tournament in 1974, the year ACC champion North Carolina State won the national championship with David Thompson.

"There's been so many good teams," Williams said. "When Lefty was coaching, the rules were different. It was so hard to make the tournament. They probably were the second or third best team in the country a couple years and didn't get into the tournament.

"Things have never worked out quite right. This year they did. I hope everybody feels a part of that because it's the result of a lot of hard work. But it's a lot about getting that feeling back that we could be as good as anyone in the country. I think you have to feel that way."

There was no doubt they did.

When Indiana tied the score, at 40-40, then led ever so briefly, Dixon didn't crack. Neither did the others.

"You see other schools are very happy about getting to a Sweet 16," Williams said. "We've had to live for the last couple of years with the idea that if you don't win it all, you haven't had a great year, even when you win 25, 26 games.

"It's been tough at times. I think that's why we won tonight. It's made everybody a little tougher."

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