For 30 seconds on the first day of April in 2002, there was no better view in college basketball than through the eyes of Maryland Coach Gary Williams. As the final minute of the NCAA tournament final ticked down inside the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Williams's team held a double-digit lead over the Indiana Hoosiers.
The national championship capped the remarkable revival of a program decimated by scandal in the mid- to late 1980s, and Williams had done it his way: with players who hadn't been highly coveted coming out of high school and without resorting to the schemes that were becoming increasingly prevalent in recruiting.
Seven years later, the view through Williams's eyes isn't nearly as appealing. The adoring fans have been replaced by angry skeptics. The Terrapins have reached the round of 16 only once since winning the title and are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament altogether for the fourth time in five seasons.
A review of NCAA tournament records shows that no national champion in the past 18 seasons has regressed so quickly.
How did this happen? Interviews with more than 50 coaches, players and others knowledgeable about the program reveal many explanations, and Williams, 63, is central to each of them.
Some say his disdain for under-the-table recruiting tactics has left him out of touch with the influential summer league circuit; others say he has grown complacent, delegating most recruiting duties to an ever-changing group of assistants. Clearly, Maryland has been hurt by landing highly touted recruits whose potential was never fulfilled and by failing to identify less-heralded future stars, many of whom attended high schools within short drives of College Park.
Williams argues that his 412-223 record at the school, including 11 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 1994 to 2004, proves his coaching acumen. He says he is as involved in recruiting as any coach in the nation and that the occasional recruiting misstep is to be expected in such an ephemeral task. "Well, you miss kids," he said. "This is not a perfect science."
Regardless of cause, the effect on the court has been clear: A program located amid arguably the deepest pool of high school talent in the country is fading. And Williams, in his 20th season coaching at the school where he played point guard more than four decades ago, could face pressure to step down after the season. Williams has three years left on a contract that pays him about $2 million annually in salary and benefits, but with another March looming with limited postseason prospects, even he admits "because of the bar we set, [that] is probably unacceptable to a lot of people."
The Future Seemed Bright
From a personnel standpoint, the future of the Maryland program appeared incandescent on the night it claimed the national championship. The incoming recruiting class consisted of a McDonald's all-American power forward, a two-time All-Met shooting guard, a point guard who had been named the Virginia AAA player of the year as a junior and a small forward who was Maine's Mr. Basketball.
No one knew then -- not Williams, not his staff, not Terrapins fans -- that the program would have been better off with some of the recruits it had rejected.
Deron Williams, a point guard prospect in the recruiting class of 2002 out of The Colony, Tex., led his team to the Class 5A state semifinals as a junior, and Maryland was the first school with which he arranged an official visit.
However, Deron Williams's mother, Denise Smith, said neither she nor her son ever spoke to Gary Williams. Smith found it odd that Gary Williams was not involved at all in Maryland's efforts to recruit her son, especially considering how hands-on head coaches such as Paul Hewitt at Georgia Tech, Bill Self at Illinois and Buzz Peterson at Tennessee were in courting Deron.
"I heard [Gary Williams] was like that," said Smith, who noted that assistant coach Jimmy Patsos was Deron's only contact from Maryland. "But then it got me thinking. Deron grew up without a dad. Gary is, like, standoffish, not involved with the players. I don't think he would have been the right coach for Deron. Deron needs somebody who is more involved and communicates with him and really takes an interest in him personally."
Smith said Maryland "eliminated" Deron from consideration after the program set its sights on another point guard, John Gilchrist. She said Maryland canceled the visit shortly before it was set to commence.
Gilchrist attended Salem High in Virginia Beach and was the Virginia AAA player of the year as a junior in 2001. Gary Williams said he could only take one point guard that year and that Maryland got the one it wanted.
"A lot of people thought [Deron Williams] would be too heavy," Gary Williams said. "I didn't know [Deron] Williams was going to be that good. I don't think many people did, from what he was in high school. He was good; he was solid. But John Gilchrist was right here. Easier to recruit. Okay, so I recruited" Gilchrist.