Williams shouted to his grandson above the din. "Can you say 'Go Terps?'" he asked. David replied by throwing a red-and-white pom pom in his grandpa's face. I distinctly remember that as Williams stood up, he looked toward the upper deck of the Georgia Dome and nodded. It looked like he was drinking in the deep satisfaction of a job well done.
No doubt that moment will be widely remarked upon Friday afternoon as Williams ends his 33-year head coaching career, the last 22 of which were spent at Maryland. But what was truly remarkable was the road Maryland had to travel to get there. Williams' ability to lift his alma mater from ultimate nadir to ultimate heights is one of the great achievements of the modern era in this sport. Best of all, he did it his way -- which is to say by various turns grouchy, intemperate, intense, irascible, impatient, demanding, unreasonable, profane, unbending, confrontational and borderline insane. And that's just how his friends described him.
Then again, if Williams were not all those things, Maryland basketball would be in a very different state than the one it is in today. He returned to College Park in 1989 knowing the program was about to get hit with NCAA penalties for violations committed under the previous coach, Bob Wade. Williams, however, had no idea how bad the sanctions would be -- and truth be told, he probably wouldn't have left Ohio State to take the job if he did.
At the end of Williams' first season, the Terps were hit with a two-year ban from postseason play and a one-year ban from appearing on live television. The campus air was still fouled from the death of Len Bias four years before. The violations the school was being penalized for had nothing to do with what happened to Bias, but coming as they did on the heels of that tragedy, it looked like the program had just suffered a fatal double whammy.
Williams applied his unique determination to the task at hand, rebuilding the program dribble by dribble. One of his early tasks was to rebuild Maryland's fractured relationship with the city of Baltimore. (Wade was a former coach at Baltimore's legendary Dunbar High School.) Williams managed to break the freeze when he signed Dunbar guard Keith Booth in 1992, but Williams was by no means a great recruiter, or even a particularly good one. In fact, his best players were mostly guys who were under-recruited but overachieving.
Joe Smith was a lightly-regarded forward from Norfolk, Virginia, who ended up being the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Steve Francis was a Maryland native who was recruited not through the high school and AAU scene that Williams disdained, but rather out of a junior college in Texas. Juan Dixon was an anonymous 6-foot-1 guard from Baltimore when Williams saw him dive for a loose ball during a summer tournament in the late stages of a 20-point blowout. Most coaches looked at Dixon and saw a 145-pound wisp who would never amount to anything. Williams saw someone who could play for him.
Nor did Williams coach his way to 654 wins by being a brilliant strategist, though he was a highly-respected tactician. Rather, he did it by carrying a big ol' chip on his shoulder. Gary didn't play for Lefty Driesell, but he was well-versed in Driesell's inferiority complex that insisted the rest of the ACC (especially those nefarious bogeymen in North Carolina) got all the breaks. Some of Gary's rants could be downright Nixonian. He could tell you all about the inner political workings of The Washington Post, explaining why the newspaper took such a negative slant in its Maryland coverage or, worse, ignored the program altogether.
A few years after Maryland's title, I stood again with Williams, this time on the courcourse of the Comcast Center, a gleaming, $125 million facility that replaced historic but dilapidated Cole Field House. As we looked at a huge bracket from that 2002 tournament that hung on a wall, Williams pointed out that his team had defeated several of the so-called marquee schools en route to the championship: Kentucky, Connecticut, Kansas, and finally Indiana. Even while recalled his biggest triumph, he was not quite ready to let that chip slide off. It was just Gary being Gary.
Maryland's program has slipped lately, failing to reach the NCAA tournament in two of the last four years. It's no mystery why. Williams was never enamored with recruiting to begin with, but as the grass-roots netherworld has gotten sleazier and sleazier, Williams became openly -- and understandably -- disgusted by it, and it cost him players. Several summer coaches from the area publicly complained that Williams never made the effort to build relationships with them. They intended it to be a criticism, but Williams took it as a compliment.
Nor has Williams shown the same competitive edge that defined his career. Last year, right before a game against Duke, Williams shook Krzyzewski's hand, smiled and said, "We're getting too old for this s---." Then his team lost by 21. Williams turned 66 in March, and as he faced the specter of another summer on the recruiting trail, he decided his heart wasn't in it anymore. It was time to call it curtains.
No doubt the video reels that will accompany news reports of Williams' retirement will show familiar pictures of him flailing on the sidelines, screaming at players, refs, assistants, or the poor schlub sitting innocently at the scorer's table. We'll see that well-worn glare and the familiar bow-legged walk, and especially the gobs of sweat soaking through his suit and dripping off his nose. But the thing I'll remember most is the expression Williams had on his face on that glorious night in Atlanta nine years ago. When he walks out of his press conference on Friday, I hope he takes one last look toward the upper deck of the Comcast Center -- the House That Gary Built -- and drinks in the same deep satisfaction he experienced that night. This hard-driven, indisputably authentic basketball coach is getting out of the business like few do: on his own terms, by his own choice, with his health, his reputation, his dignity and, yes, his sanity largely intact.
Job well done, Gary. Job very well done.