COLLEGE PARK — Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams stepped into retirement Friday with a fist pump, a few timely jokes and tears in his eyes.
One day after he stunned the school by calling it quits, the 66-year-old coach formally bid farewell during an emotional ceremony at Comcast Center before family, friends, several of his former players and thousands of Terps fans.
As Williams walked onto the floor, he treated the crowd to his trademark fist-pump. Minutes later, his eyes welled with tears as the crowd collectively stood and chanted “Gary! Gary!”
Coaching in a frenzied style that became as much a part of his lore as the school-record 461 wins, Williams was a fixture at Maryland for more than two decades. He could have probably stayed until he was 80, but opted instead to walk away on his own terms.
“I feel like I still could coach, but at the same time you realize there’s other things out there,” he said. “I started coaching at age 23. Each year you know your schedule, you know the recruiting period, everything is kind of programed into your life. This gives me a chance while I’m still relatively healthy to do some things, to see what’s out there.”
Williams’ eyes became moist as he began to explain his decision, and he paused to collect himself. The crowd respectfully cheered during the silence, and he said, “You’d better hold that (applause). That may not be the last time that happens.”
And it wasn’t.
Williams coached for 33 years, the last 22 at Maryland, where he played as a guard from 1964-67. He guided the Terrapins to the national championship in 2002, built the program into a force within the Atlantic Coast Conference and sent several players to the NBA.
Maryland went 19-14 last season and didn’t make the postseason, not even the NIT. No one was calling for his job, but Williams had a “gut feeling” the time was right to retire.
“I’ve seen coaches where they stay too long,” he said. “If you leave a little early, it’s better than leaving late.”
Years earlier, Williams considered stepping down after Maryland beat Indiana to win the NCAA title.
“I remember Al McGuire quitting after Marquette won the national championship. I thought that was a great thing,” Williams said. “Then I went and checked my bank account.”
So he stuck around until he passed the age in which most people go into retirement.
“I feel healthy, I’ve got great people around me, a new wife,” he said. “So we’ll see what happens.”
Later, Williams said, “I’ve had my time. I had a job for 43 years in coaching (including high school). I’ve been fortunate. I’m grateful for what I had.”
And the school is extremely thankful for his presence. Before Williams arrived in 1989, Maryland’s basketball program was still reeling from the cocaine-induced death of Len Bias and was buried under a variety of NCAA sanctions.
Under Williams’ direction, Maryland became a national basketball power and one of the focal points of the school.
“We’re here to celebrate somebody who represents the heart and soul of this university, who represents the best of the Terrapin character,” University President Dr. Wallace D. Loh said. “What he has done for this university the past 22 years is really remarkable. … A key factor in the rise of the University of Maryland is Gary.”
Williams started his college coaching career in 1978 at American University, then went to Ohio State before coming to Maryland. Upon his arrival, he realized the program was in much worse shape than he thought.
“When the Maryland job opened up, there really wasn’t a lot of thought for me to come here because this was my school,” he said. “I was a little surprised with the situation here, but at the same time, that was my deal. I chose to be here, so I was going to make the best of it.”
And now, after taking the Terrapins on 14 trips to the NCAA tournament, Williams is ready to try something else.
“It was a very difficult decision to make. Besides the coaching thing, I’m basically unskilled,” he said, pausing while the crowd laughed. “When you leave the one thing you kind of knew how to do, there’s always some apprehension in that decision. But coaching gives you confidence that you can be successful in some other ways.
“It really feels different, but it’s kind of an area I’m looking forward to, where there’s no set thing out there yet,” Williams said. “Obviously I’m going to help here, but after that we’ll see what’s out there.”
Williams will serve temporarily as an assistant to athletic director Kevin Anderson, but not in terms of finding the next coach.
“This is his deal,” Williams said of Anderson, who offered no insight into the timetable of the search for Williams’ successor.
“This moment is for Gary right now, so I won’t be discussing that,” Anderson said.
Loh said he will work with Anderson to name the court at Comcast Center after Williams, whose success at the school prompted the move from tiny Cole Field House in 2002.