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Williams' exit signals changing of guard

5/5/2011

Gary Williams wore his passion on his sleeves.

And under them.

And on his shirt. And on his brow.

Yet while his sweat glands may have been compromised, Williams never was. He was the same guy when he stalked the sidelines at Woodrow Wilson High School as he was when he paced the court at Maryland, a fiercely competitive, baldly honest and endlessly passionate basketball coach.

And that was it -- a basketball coach, a throwback to an era when coaching meant making good players great instead of babysitting great players for a year or two.

Williams was never a salesman or a showman or a pitchman or a charlatan. Just a coach, thank you very much, one who walks away after more than 30 years in the business with one national title and another even more difficult-to-achieve milestone -- no blemishes.

The NCAA sanctions Maryland endured during Williams’ tenure were tied to the regime that preceded him and in their wake, he opted for what now looks like an old-school -- or, detractors would say, stubborn -- way to exist.

In 2009, the Washington Post authored a three-part series about Williams’ recruiting style. Instead of what typically occurs -- an exposé that unearths questionable practices -- the newspaper revealed that Williams staunchly refused to associate with what can often be a seedy underbelly in the college game.

His reticence to play the game that some believe is necessary to win the game no doubt cost him players. In recent years, the Maryland-D.C. area has been rich with talent but little of it has stayed home, causing his once-ardent fan base to give way slowly but surely to more impatient critics.

But whether or not you consider it his greatest attribute or his greatest sin, Williams didn’t change.

All of which could be why he’s decided to hang it up. He told ESPN.com’s Andy Katz by phone this afternoon that it was time, that he was ready for a new challenge. He is 66 years old and few of his generation are still stalking the sidelines.

There is no doubt that in recent years Williams looked more beleaguered than energized. When the Terps beat Duke to claim a portion of the 2010 ACC regular-season title, Williams seemed as relieved as he did exhilarated.

These last few years have not been easy. His typical coaching style of attracting blue-collar players who worked to get better hasn’t paid the same sort of dividends. And when he tried to bring in the sort of recruits his fan base had been clamoring for -- namely Gus Gilchrist and to an extent, Tyree Evans -- his always simmering battle with former athletic director Debbie Yow went public.

Yow just recently accused Williams of sabotaging her coaching search at NC State and Williams tossed one last zinger on his way out the door, telling John Feinstein, “After Yow left, I thought I might enjoy it more this year.’’

But the Terps, struggling without Greivis Vasquez, failed to make the NCAA tournament and just recently lost their best hope for a better next season when sophomore double-double machine Jordan Williams announced he would remain in the draft.

So the time -- if not the timing, as May 5 is awfully late in the carousel spin cycle -- seems right.

But now that Williams has stepped away, what’s left?

What’s left for Maryland and to an extent, what of the ACC?

The basketball-centric league is full of new faces now. Brian Gregory, Jim Larranaga, Mark Gottfried and the coach to be named later at Maryland join Tony Bennett, Brad Brownell and Steve Donahue in the changing of the ACC guard.

Always dominated by the residents of Tobacco Road, the league would seem to tilt even heavier in Duke and North Carolina’s favor as so many new coaches try to gain their footing.

Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson will have plenty of suitors to choose from. This is a good job, with a fevered fan base, a hot recruiting bed, a national profile, and a top-drawer conference. Needless to say, making the right choice from what will be a pile of resumes will be critical.

But in the batch Anderson isn’t likely to find another Williams, a Maryland alum who saw his job as more of a craft than a career.

“Why be a used car salesman when you can be a coach?’’ Williams once said.

And for better or for worse, he staunchly stayed true to that notion. The game may have changed, but Williams, perhaps to his detriment, didn’t.

During his run, a new generation of coaches took to the sidelines, fashionably turned out in their tailor-made Armani suits.

And Williams just continued to sweat through his.