Call from the Hall: CHD interviews brand-new Hall of Famer Gary Williams

The Basketball Hall of Fame announced its newest inductees on Monday morning and one of the lucky selections is Gary Williams, who won more than 400 games at Maryland including the 2002 NCAA title.  The Terps made 11 straight NCAA tourneys under his watch including back-to-back Final Fours.  He was a two-time ACC Coach of the Year and led three other programs to the postseason (American, Boston College, and Ohio State).  Jon Teitel got to chat with the new Hall of Famer about playing point guard at Maryland and becoming one of the best coaches in ACC history.  CHD congratulates Gary on this well-deserved honor!


You were the starting point guard and team captain at Maryland under Coach Bud Millikan, where you set a school record by making 8-8 field goals in a game against South Carolina in 1966.  What made Millikan such a good coach, and what is your secret for being a great shooter? I was not a great shooter: he was a good coach because he did not let me shoot more! He was tough in terms of how he taught the game: you either did it his way or you did not play. Bud had played for Coach Hank Iba, who is considered one of the best man-to-man defense coaches ever. He gave me the confidence that I could become a coach.

You attended the historic 1966 title game at Cole Field House between Texas Western and Kentucky.  What was the reaction like when the Miners came out with five African-American starters, and what impact did that game have on your life? I went to the game with the first African-American player to play in the ACC. Most people thought Kentucky would win because they had this aura about them. It was big to see that a team like Texas Western could be as smart as any other team.

In 1970 your team at Woodrow Wilson High School went 27-0 and won a state title.  How were you able to come in and go undefeated in your very first year as head coach at the school and what did it mean to you to win the title? I had good players. I was the JV coach the previous year, which was key because it helped me get to know the players. The school was undergoing a lot of changes and we were able to come together and play well as a team. I was only 24 years old and the players respected me: they did not worry about their individual stats. A lot of them had grown up together in Camden and had pride in the city.

In the 1985 NCAA tourney as head coach at Boston College Michael Adams scored 17 points and made a 25-foot jumper with five seconds left in a two-point win over Texas Tech in Houston.  How much of a home-court advantage did the Red Raiders have that day, and did you think Adams’ shot was going in? Nothing surprised me about what Michael did: he was one of those overachievers who had an unorthodox game because he was only 5’10”. The game was close the whole way and that shot was big for the school.

Andre Turner scored 12 points and made a 17-foot jumper with one second left in a two-point win by Memphis State.  Where does that rank among the most painful losses of your career? It is right up there with a few others. We fought back from a big halftime deficit but we were a little undersized. We misplayed an inbounds pass towards the end and Turner made a great shot. It really hurt at the time but I figured we would get there again: you have to learn how to handle those situations.

What are your memories of the 1989 NIT (Jerry Francis missed a three point shot at the buzzer in a three-point overtime loss to eventual champion St. John’s)? We were a very good team going into February but Jay Burson broke his neck after slamming into the backboard support. Francis did a great job of picking up the scoring slack. I remember the disappointment of not making the NCAA tourney but you have to deal with injuries in college.

What are your memories of the 1990 NIT as head coach at your alma mater (Freddie Barnes made two free throws with five seconds left in a two-point win by Penn State)? That was probably the toughest year of my career because the NCAA was investigating our program. I felt bad for our players because they spent a lot of their time talking to investigators rather than getting a chance to play in a normal situation.

In the 2001 NCAA tourney Tremaine Price missed a 35-foot shot at the buzzer in a three-point win over George Mason.  How were you able to pull out the win? We were fortunate: Juan Dixon and Steve Blake just refused to lose.

Shane Battier scored 25 points for eventual champion Duke after you raced out to a 22-point first-half lead.  When did you sense that the Blue Devils were going to pull off the comeback? That was the fourth time we played them that year, which is very unusual. I was proud of the way that we came out because we had never been to a Final 4 before. I knew Duke would not go away and we hung around pretty well, but we got in a bit of foul trouble and some calls went against us. That first really hurt because it is so hard to get to the Final 4.

In the magical 2002 NCAA tourney, eventual tourney MOP Juan Dixon matched a career-high with 33 points in a nine-point win over Kansas: what did you learn from the 2001 tourney that helped you in 2002? The biggest thing was that we finally knew we were good enough to get to the Final 4: until you actually do it, it is just talk. We brought back most of our team from 2001, which reminded me a lot of the 1970 high school team that won the state title. Everyone played their roles very well, even the glue guys like Byron Mouton.

Lonny Baxter had 15 points and 14 rebounds to beat Indiana and win the title.  What did it mean to you to win the title, and what was the reaction like when you got back to campus? Every coach has the goal of winning the title but it does not mean you are a bad coach if you cannot win it. It was certainly a great accomplishment. When we landed the next day we had a police escort back to campus down I-95 and people were honking their horns the whole way. It was great, but it goes by quickly.

You became the only coach to ever win a title without a McDonald’s All-American since the inception of the award.  How were you able to recruit less-heralded players and turn them into stars? There are only about 24 McDonald’s All-Americans but there are 100 guys who are good enough to become a college basketball star. I always believed that part of my job was to give my players the opportunity to become as good as they can be. I also looked for guys who loved being in the gym, just like I did.

In the 2003 NCAA tourney Drew Nicholas scored 22 points including a three point shot at the buzzer in a two point win over NC-Wilmington.  Where does that shot rank among the most amazing you have ever seen? It was big because of the situation. Wilmington had outplayed us for most of the game but we made a couple of shots and got into a position to win the game. I could see that it was right on line because it was directly in front of our bench.

What are your memories of the 2004 ACC tourney (you beat each of the top three seeds to win the conference title, which included overcoming a 21-PT first-half deficit against NC State as well as an OT win over Duke)? That was an incredible run because the games are back-to-back-to-back. We had a tough game with Wake Forest, then came back quickly in the second half against NC State. We were really tired against a dominant Duke team but just played as hard as we could. We had some guys foul out but our subs came in and played good defense.

What are your memories of the 2006 NIT (Jeff Xavier scored a career-high 31 points in a three point win by Manhattan after you initially declined the NIT bid)? There was some confusion with the administration as to whether we were going to the game, so we were not as mentally prepared as we should have been because we thought we had a chance to make the NCAA tourney.

What are your memories of the 2010 NCAA tourney (Greivis Vasquez banked in a shot with six seconds left before Korie Lucious made a three point shot at the buzzer in a two point win by Michigan State)? It was from almost the same place as the Memphis shot from 1985. I knew by then that we were a tough team for our opponents to guard, and whenever you have that you have a chance to be good. Greivis had a great will to win. I will never forget it because I thought we were good enough to get to the Final 4 that year. Part of the disappointment is that it ended so quickly because all our seniors had worked so hard.

After stepping down in 2011 you remained in the Maryland athletic department as assistant AD and special assistant to the AD.  How do you like the new gig, and what do you hope to do in the future? I am also doing some TV for the Big 10 Network and looking around. I coached for 43 years in a row so I am just trying to see what is out there. I personally miss the practices: no phones, no media, just basketball. The job of being a coach has become very complicated over the years so it is nice to have a new perspective.

You are the third winningest coach in ACC history (trailing only Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski).  What made you such a great coach, and how do you want to be remembered the most? Everyone is different, but I fell in love with the game when I was eight years old and needed to play basketball. I had a couple of business interviews after college but I knew that I wanted to be a coach. I appreciated everything I had: during my first year as coach at American we did not even have a gym on campus!