Waving a fond farewell to Gary Williams

After 33 years, 668 wins, 17 NCAA tournament appearances, three ACC regular-season titles, nine Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights, two Final Fours and a thrilling run to the 2002 national title, Gary Williams has officially reached the end of his career. As of Thursday, per a release from the school, Williams is retiring as head men's basketball coach at the University of Maryland:

"It's the right time," Williams said. "My entire career has been an unbelievable blessing. I am fiercely proud of the program we have built here. I couldn't have asked any more from my players, my assistant coaches, the great Maryland fans and this great university. Together, we did something very special here."

For all the success Williams has had at his alma mater -- success that made him a beloved figure among most Terps fans -- it's hard to argue with the coach's assessment of his timing.

Maryland hoops isn't downtrodden by any means, but it has failed to achieve the lofty heights Williams once consistently achieved. From 1994 to 2004, Maryland never missed an NCAA tournament. In 2001 and 2002, the Terrapins went to back-to-back Final Fours, and in 2002 Williams brought his alma mater the only national championship in program history.

Those were the good old days. And man, were they ever good.

Things were never quite that good again. In the years after 2004, the Terps went to the NIT as frequently as the NCAA tournament. In 2011, the better-than-you-think-but-still-pretty-mediocre Terrapins not only missed the Big Dance, but didn't even make it to the NIT. In recent years, Williams found himself taking unusual risks on questionable recruits, openly feuding with former athletic director Debbie Yow (who actually accused Williams of "sabotaging" her coaching search at NC State last month) and becoming the subject of awkward "Wait, we can't fire him, he's Gary Williams!" conversations among increasingly impatient Maryland fans.

This week, sophomore star forward Jordan Williams announced his plans to stay in the NBA draft and hire an agent. Without his best and most important player, Gary Williams -- now 66 years old -- would have found himself rebuilding yet again. Like he said, it's the right time.

The only awkward part of the decision's timing is how it relates to Maryland's future. With minimal exceptions, the 2011 coaching carousel stopped spinning weeks ago. Coaches were fired and hired, vacancies were created and filled, and eventually everything settled down. Now, the Maryland job -- almost certainly one of the 25 best in the country -- is available. Will athletic director Kevin Anderson have time to find a desirable successor? Who will that successor be? How many dominoes will tip in the wake of that hire?

The future is uncertain, but the past is etched, and none of Williams' recent struggles will outweigh his legacy. Quite simply, he is the best coach in the history of Maryland basketball. Few others come close.

And yet, in many ways, Williams meant even more than his successes.

For Maryland fans, he represented the strength of the school and its alumni, the special bond fans feel when one of their own is leading their team to conference championships and national title runs. For Maryland fans, it was impossible to see Williams and not realize, for better or worse, that he felt everything a college basketball fan feels during the excruciating 40 minutes between victory and defeat. In good years, bad years, and everything in between, no one ever wanted it more than Coach.

For others, Williams was something different. Maybe I'm just talking about myself here, because when Williams was at his best -- read: most frequently televised to a national audience, including sports-obsessed Iowan teenagers -- I was in high school and just realizing what (and who) I wanted to be. I still remember seeing Maryland and Duke wage one legendarily heated battle after another. I still remember thinking Williams, for all his antics, was the living, breathing, sweating embodiment of hard work.

Watching him work a sideline was like watching a pained artist pour everything he had into his life's great love. It was a roller-coaster of joy, despair, exasperation and pride. Seeing Williams sweat through his shirt -- has any coach in history sweat more profusely than Williams? -- meant knowing there was nothing noble about being too cool for school, that sacrifice and dedication and frustration were synonymous with success. Screw the towel. Toss the jacket. Roll up the sleeves. Let's go to work, and let's work hard.

If you pour everything out, good things happen. If you care, you'll succeed. Even better: You get to define success on your own terms.

Maybe that's corny, and maybe I'm projecting from afar. But to me, that's Williams' legacy. That's how I'll remember him.

Your mileage may vary, but one thing is for sure: Maryland's sideline -- and Maryland's program -- will never be the same.

It has Williams to thank for that.