January 26, 2009

Time to Fire Gary?

Here's my thoughts on the Gary situation, drafted prior to our two losses to Miami and FSU and the utter embarrassment at Duke:

As an avid Maryland basketball fan, it pains me greatly to even consider this topic. But I think the performance of the Terps over the last few years leaves us no choice but to have the conversation. In the end, the questions are how much leeway Gary has earned, and what the expectations for the program really should be.

The Good:
In 1989, Gary Williams took over his alma mater's program at its nadir. The Len Bias tragedy had been followed by three disastrous years of Bob Wade. After a few rough years, Gary had the program turned around, on and off the court. Players like Joe Smith and Keith Booth started to appear in a Maryland uniform, and things looked up. What ensued was a period never seen before in Terps basketball: 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances, 2 Final Fours, the 2002 National Championship, NBA draft picks, and 87 consecutive non-conference home victories. Gary is the 7th winningest active coach and the 3rd winningest ACC coach all-time. Maryland holds the longest current streak of postseason appearances in the ACC, longer than Duke, UNC, and Wake. Maryland was the team that broke Duke's string of consecutive ACC Tournament titles. The season after the national championship, Maryland opened a brand-new arena (Comcast Center) to host the packed-in crowds and to take advantage of the many wins sure to follow.

Further, Gary seems to have the fire left to maintain his intensity. He still coaches hard, and his efforts can be seen in the development of players like Dave Neal, as Brien has pointed out. Gary has always seemed to find diamonds in the rough, players that weren't heavily recruited but can develop. See examples like Baxter and Dixon.

Many would argue that such success gives Gary a blank check for the duration of his tenure in College Park, and a couple years ago, no one would have disputed that at all.

The Bad:
Since Steve Blake's departure after the 2002-03 season, the Terps have made the NCAA tournament just twice and have not made a single Sweet 16. There has only been one winning record in the ACC, and the Terps have not managed 20 wins in 3 of the past 4 seasons, though they have had 19 each year. The non-conference domination is gone, marred by bad losses to teams like Morgan State and Ohio U. Victories over top-ranked Dook and UNC (surprisingly frequent, Gary has 7 victories over #1 ranked teams) cannot hide the underlying mediocrity of the past few seasons. Playing a weak non-conference schedule before playing in the best conference is fine, as long as you win against the minnows, but without enough conference victories, the non-conference SoS just isn't sufficient.

No Maryland player has been of notable interest to the NBA since Steve Blake, and it's hard to imagine any members of the current team changing that trend. While some recent players have had tremendous talent like Caner-Medley and Vasquez, they have not developed into stars. Maryland has lived on the bubble for the last few years, and deservedly so in talent and in performance on the court. This year, the Terps have two good non-conference wins (Michigan St. and Michigan), but with 6 games remaining against top 10 teams, an 8-8 ACC record would be a good result. The most concerning part is that there are no young players who really impress you and make you think the program is headed back into the top 25 any time soon. In addition, the assistant coaches from the national championship have all moved on, leaving new coaches to recruit and do much of the teaching.

The Ugly:
This offseason, Gary's relationship with athletic director Debby Yow became a subject of much media scrutiny, and some of our highest-profile recruits defected. It's no longer clear whether Gary even has the full support of the school, and the manner in which things were handled was not pretty.

Losing 60-20 at Duke, with Len Elmore talking about our lack of talent and hustle, has to be the lowest point of our program in 15 years. Even the early Gary teams with guys like Exree Hipp played really hard for 40 minutes. I don't think I've ever been that embarrassed to be a Terps fan. I can deal with losing if we're playing hard, but that was awful. Do the players even listen to Gary?

Cole was one of the greatest venues anywhere.

The Tradition:
Maryland is not a football school like some others in the ACC. It has been, and always will be, a basketball school. Cole Field House was one of the great iconic venues of college basketball from the last half-century, hosting numerous NCAA tournaments and numerous great Maryland players. John Lucas, Len Bias, Tom McMillen, and Joe Smith have graced our campus with their presence. Maryland players populate the NBA, including Joe Smith, Steve Blake, Chris Wilcox, Juan Dixon, DJ Strawberry, and Stevie Franchise. Lefty Driesell led the Terps in great showdowns in the '70's against NC State, UVA and UNC, some of them among the greatest games ever played.

The Debate:
In my opinion, this all boils down to a couple key questions.

Have 11 years of success earned Gary the leeway to give us 5 years of mediocrity, with no end in sight? Should Maryland realistically expect to finish somewhere between 5th and 8th in the ACC every year, admitting defeat to teams like Dook and UNC?

Maryland has a great tradition, and a coach who has won a national championship within the last decade. I think there is no excuse for continued mediocrity. The Terps may not be able to outrecruit UNC, but I don't think 10-6 in the ACC is unreasonable each and every year, with occasional improvements to 12-4 or better. Maryland should be a mainstay in the NCAA tournament and at least the bottom part of the top 25, not the 70's of the RPI. Terps should be mentioned during the NBA Draft coverage. The Terps should almost never be behind basketball "powerhouses" like FSU, Miami, BC and VT.

Gary's success has certainly earned quite a bit of patience, but the last few years have tried that patience dearly. I'm not ready to fire him, but if I were the athletic director, I would expect Gary to have a clear plan for our return to prominence (or at least 3rd or 4th in the ACC). The status quo is not cutting it, and the program deserves better if Gary is not willing or able to fix it. If he's not, there are other coaches out there who are making things happen. Look at the recent success of Tubby Smith, Thad Matta, Bruce Pearl, and John Thompson III. Maryland certainly has the resources to hire a coach like one of these, or Gillespie or Crean. Whether Yow has the wisdom to make the right decision about Gary, and if he's gone, to hire the right successor, is another question entirely.

January 25, 2009

In Defense of Gary Williams

Recently, there has been a lot of talk among Maryland fans (including here at ECB) that it's time for Gary Williams to either resign or be fired.

This shouldn't be surprising, as the "Fire Gary" crowd has been around as long as I've been a Terps fan. They shut up for a couple weeks after the National Championship, but other than that, they've been a constant presence in College Park.

The ranks of the Gary haters swell and contract with the fortunes of the team, and lately they have become too numerous to ignore.

Jeremy laid out the arguments of the anti-Gary crowd pretty well, but here's the gist of them:

  • Gary can't recruit the top-quality players needed to compete in the ACC
  • The National Championship was essentially a fluke because Gary somehow managed to land Juan Dixon and Steve Blake
  • The Terps offense is ineffective and boring
  • Gary has lost the fire that made him a good coach early in his career (he plays too much golf now, he cares more about hanging out at Bentley's than basketball, etc.)
  • Some of the haters fall back on the simple fact that the Terps are losing more than these "fans" want, so obviously Gary should be fired
As should be obvious to readers of this blog, I fall firmly in the pro-Gary wing of Terps fans. I've defended him for years in the face of calls for his job and I've said all along that I believe the job should be his until he decides he wants to leave. Gary Williams has earned the job of Head Coach of the Maryland Men's Basketball Team for as long as he wants it. For those that don't agree, here's my argument.

The bulk of the case against Gary stems from the failure of the team to make the NCAA tournament in 3 of the past 4 years. This year looks like it may mean another return to the NIT. After Gary's amazing run of 11 straight NCAA tournament berths, the past few years have indeed been a disappointment. Terps fans need to remember, though, that it was only 7 years ago that the Terps were National Champions, and only 5 years ago that they won the ACC Tournament. While the teams since then have generally failed to live up to expectations, the simple fact is that each year they have been 1 or 2 games away from making the NCAA tournament. Another 2 conference wins each year, and Gary's streak would be at 15. Obviously that didn't happen, but the point is that the Terps have been on the bubble every year.

I, for one, am optimistic. Gary continues to develop players (Dave Neal and Landon Milbourne being the most obvious examples this year), and the recruiting classes for the next few years look good. The Terps may not make the tournament this year, but they'll be competitive in the ACC and I think they'll make it back in the next few seasons. If not, I'll still be cheering.

My feelings about Gary are best summed up by a Jewish Passover song called Dayenu. The title means "it would have been enough for us." And the song is a list of all the things God has done for the Jews, each of which is followed by the word "dayenu," meaning that if God had only done one of those things, it would have been enough. So, this is probably sacrilegious, but here goes:
  • If Gary had brought the program back from disgrace, dayenu
  • If Gary had erased the pain of Len Bias and Bob Wade, dayenu
  • If Gary had shown such love for his alma mater that he'd take over for a program under sanctions, dayenu
  • If Gary had brought us Joe Smith, dayenu
  • If Gary had run a clean program, dayenu
  • If Gary had led the team to the Sweet Sixteen, dayenu
  • If Gary had led the team to the Final Four, dayenu
  • If Gary had won an ACC Championship, dayenu
  • If Gary had won the NCAA Championship, dayenu
Gary Williams has earned his job many times over, and as far as I'm concerned, there shouldn't be another coach for the team until Gary decides he's ready to retire.

"But Ironhead, What's With This Thingie?"

I was reminded today of one of my all-time favorite commercials: the late, great, Craig "Ironhead" Heyward pitching Zest bodywash. It may be difficult in these Axe/Old Spice/Tag times, but in the mid-90s, it was not considered acceptable for a man to wash himself with a "poof" a "thingie" or a "loofah." Men used bars of soap and an optional washcloth. Ironhead single-handedly made the world safe for men to use liquid soap in the shower. And for that, Ironhead, we solute you.