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My time with Gary Williams

5/6/2011

In May 1987, I had an interview set up for a position on Gary Williams' staff at Ohio State. I hardly knew him but I was very close to Rick Barnes, his former assistant who was leaving to become the head coach at George Mason. I had been an assistant coach at Ohio University, 68 miles down the road, and had helped Barnes navigate the state since he arrived with Williams the year before. He basically told me that I would get the job.

I met Gary at an airline club at the Columbus International Airport, and after a couple of minutes of small talk, he asked me if I wanted the job. And in the shortest job interview in college basketball history, I accepted. Off the court, I found that he was a man of few words.

My two years with Gary were amazing. We were coaching in a Big Ten conference that, I later counted, had 26 NBA players in it while we were there. It included the 1989 Flying Illini and the eventual national champion Michigan Wolverines. The Buckeyes had no NBA players, but it didn't matter.

We were in almost every game and beat a number of much more talented teams because of Gary's passion, intensity, coaching acumen and, most importantly, his will. It was how he coached at American University, Boston College and Maryland. He barked at the players and assistant coaches and sweat on us when he got close to us on the bench. But he coached like he was on the court playing. The players appreciated his sweat equity, so to speak.

Speaking of sweat, I remember we went to the 1988 Maui Classic and the field was stacked with top-10 teams such as the Mookie Blaylock and Stacey King-led Oklahoma Sooners, Tark's UNLV Runnin' Rebels and the Michigan team that would win it all later that season.

Gary's brainstorm was that the coaches would wear shirts and ties because his attitude was that he didn't want our team to think we were playing exhibition games. By halftime of our game with Oklahoma in the hot box that is the Lahaina Civic Center, our dress shirts were soaked and sweat had worked its way through the knots of our ties. By the end of a close 97-93 loss, the stream had cascaded down to the tips of our now-ruined neckwear.

The next game in Maui, we wore coaching polos.

I got caught in Gary's crossfire on a few occasions. He got on me before a Big Monday game on national television for showing up to the game with the same exact glen-plaid suit we both bought at the same store. It was too late for me to go home and change.

But for a young assistant coach, it was two years of graduate-level basketball theory and worth every minute. Gary had a reputation of being hard to work for, but I found it to be two of the best years of my career because, if he thought you were good at what you do, he left you to do your job.

Because I knew the state so well from my time at Ohio, I handled much of the Ohio State recruiting. He never turned down an opportunity to get out on the road when I needed him to. He was a rock star in Ohio, so when he showed up at a high school gym it was a big deal. In a state that has always been loaded with great high school coaches and players, he was not only appreciated, he knew he didn't have to sell his recruiting soul because most kids grew up wanting to be Buckeyes.

Some players were scared off by Gary's intensity, and it almost did cost us a key recruit. We were finishing up an official visit with Chris Jent, a top-25 recruit from New Jersey who later became a Buckeyes great -- he would also win an NBA title with the Houston Rockets and later coach the Orlando Magic.

It was my idea to finish up the visit with nine holes of golf on Ohio State's famed Scarlet and Gray Course. Gary paired up with Jent while I paired up with his uncle, Lou McGuire, who, coincidentally, lived in Columbus. Those who know Gary know he is passionate about his golf.

On the second hole, Gary mishit a shot and started to throw his clubs. From the other side of the fairway, I could see the blowup and the loss of a key recruit, not to mention a year's worth of work, right before my eyes. Thinking quickly, I said, "Uncle Lou, we're going to have to switch carts, so you finish playing with Coach Williams." He understood. The visit was saved, and Jent committed later that day.

Gary would have won a national championship had he stayed at Ohio State but in going back to his alma mater, Maryland, he had to battle for recruits right smack in the middle of two of the best leagues in the country.

While he wasn't going to get involved in schmoozing summer league coaches and hangers-on, much to his detriment, he still won. While he had his share of NBA players at Maryland, most -- such as Steve Blake, Juan Dixon and Lonnie Baxter -- were self-made. A lot of quality players in the Washington, D.C., area went elsewhere, in part, because Gary didn't have the desire to get into the recruiting gutter. It cost him a lot more wins.

In fact, Gary's greatest legacy may not be winning the 2002 national championship but winning 668 games in his career without any hint of breaking NCAA rules. He told me last year, after all those years of winning in what he felt was the right way, he didn't want to start cheating now because people would think that's how he'd always won.

In recent years, I'd watch Maryland when it was on TV because I like to watch Gary coach. I'd laugh when he'd turn and yell at an assistant for a turnover made by a player on the court. Or when he'd plead with an official over a perceived injustice against the Terps. It brought back great memories for me of my two years at Ohio State.

While it will be strange not seeing Gary Williams on the Maryland sidelines this coming season, I understand his decision to retire. At 66, he has poured his heart and soul into 33 seasons of head coaching and he'll be in the Naismith Hall of Fame soon enough.

When he's up on that podium in Springfield, Mass., I can't wait to see him sweat through that crisp white dress shirt.