Sunday, March 01, 2009

Gary Williams and the Talking Points - When is Enough Mediocrity Enough?

On Friday, The Washington Post's Michael Wilbon filed a column that presented the key talking points in support of Gary Williams:

Remind me, one more time, of how many national championships Maryland had won before Williams arrived? Remind me, one more time, how many Final Four trips Maryland had made before Williams arrived? Remind me, please, of who left a comfortable job with a perennial 20-win team at Ohio State to come bail out his alma mater, whose program was about to receive sanctions just short of the death penalty. Maybe their memories are short; mine isn't. Maryland basketball after Len Bias's death was on life-support. It was nothing.

These are bullet points A, B, and C in defense of Gary Williams: he brought the program back from the brink, he took the program to 2 Final Fours, he won a national championship.

And while I agree that these accomplishments have earned Gary the full respect and appreciation of Terps fans forever, I do not agree that they grant him a free pass forever.

Here's my gripe. And it's not a "fire Gary" kind of a gripe, but it's a "c'mon Gary, at least acknowledge that this isn't good enough," gripe.

Here it is: The Terps have not been a nationally relevant, week-in, week-out top 25 college basketball program since the 2002-2003 season. That's six seasons.

The Terps went on a great late-season run in 06-07, when D.J. Strawberry and company ran the table from 3-6 to 10-6 in the ACC to get back in the top 25 and earn a 5 seed in the tournament. But other than that run, and the John Gilchrist-led blitz in 2004 to win the ACC tournament, Maryland fans have watched rather average squads for a long period of time.

Whenever Gary is questioned about his recent record, or his recruiting, he falls back on the talking points: I brought this program back, I went to 2 Final Fours, I won a national championship. He's right, and no one can ever take those accomplishments away.

But that said, isn't it absurd that James Gist went to one NCAA tournament?

Gary always says, "judge me by my record. I stand by my record."

Here are the ACC records since 02-03: 7-9, 7-9, 8-8, 10-6, 8-8, and so far this year, 7-7. During that periond, Maryland has two NCAA tournament appearances and two wins.

The conference record comes out to exactly .500 for past six seasons time period, which isn't horrible, but at least a rung or two below the top tier in the ACC, which is where we want to be.

And here's one more point I never see anyone make: If it were not Gary, don't you think it would have been someone else?

What I mean to say is that had Gary Williams not "saved" Maryland basketball following Bias' death and the sanctions brought on the school in the wake of the Bob Wade era, don't you think Maryland basketball would have recovered eventually? Now, we may never have won a national championship -- and that's a BIG mark in Gary's favor -- but Maryland basketball was not going to stay down forever.

Before Gary Williams arrived in College Parks, fellas who wore the jersey included Buck Williams, Albert King, Len Bias, Len Elmore, Adrian Branch, Mo Howard, Ben Coleman, John Lucas, Brad Davis ... the list goes on. Maryland is, after all, a basketball school.

My point is not that Gary Williams does not deserve our respect and appreciation for everything he's done for Maryland basketball. But I am saying he is not above thoughtful criticism; and those who point to the 3 talking points (saved the program, went to 2 final fours, won a championship) in his defense, are relying on data that's now seven seasons old.

No matter what happens on the court this season, I don't see the university making a change anytime soon, and I personally don't want one.

I like Gary a lot as a coach and motivator and would like to see him get back on top. To be sure, the man has endured an avalanche of criticism this season, much of it justified. And as that has gone on, his troops have responded, playing their best ball of the season when it matters.

I guess the toughest part is drawing some sort of a line: how many 7-9 and 8-8 seasons and embarrassing losses to subpar teams warrant a change at the top? For everyone who loves Maryland basketball, I hope we never have to find out.

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