This post is a little long, but hang with me, it’ll be worth it (hopefully)…
There seem to be two emerging schools of thought on Saturday’s Duke loss. One side is that it was simply a tough (very tough) loss for the Terps — i.e., it was an awful game, but there really wasn’t any deeper “meaning” to it. The other side is that the Terps were exposed as a fatally flawed group that personifies the deeper failings of a program in decline. This other side, which is seeing a real surge in membership today, wants change. What this means is that they want Gary Williams’ head on a silver platter, surrounded by field greens and dried cranberries. I’m kind of over field greens, but still, what a lovely presentation that would be. Except for the head part, which would be a little macabre.
The criticism is hitting a fever pitch. Gary’s name now comes up on TV segments like “Who’s On The Bigger Hot Seat” and so forth. One of WaPo’s Terps beat guys, Steve Yanda, said in his online discussion that the Duke game was “the worst performance I have ever seen from a Division I program.” That’s a bold statement. National college hoops pundit (and Dookie) Seth Davis said in a recent mailbag that “Maryland looks like it’s going to be irrelevant for the foreseeable future.” Ouch.
You can tell it’s bad when people are not only speculating that Gary will be fired, but speculating on his replacement as well. The Examiner suggests Oklahoma coach and local boy Jeff Capel. Fans and bloggers are throwing out names as quickly as they come to mind. Memphis’ John Calipari, Miami’s Frank Haith, and Xavier’s Sean Miller seem like popular selections. Others point to Gary’s tense relationship with athletic director Debbie Yow as more evidence that his firing may be inevitable. (Still others want to fire Yow herself, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Discussion board posters and bloggers love to parse and re-parse the Gary situation, grind it up, beat it into dust, reconstitute the dust into a kind of putty using their own urine, and grind it up again. Every fan knows what the problems are: He can’t (or won’t) recruit top talent. The talent he does get doesn’t always meet its potential. Today’s players are put off by his intensity. He has problems getting consistent effort from his guys. His teams lack poise and appear sloppy. (Personally, I think he goes too easy on his guards and too hard on his bigs, but that’s just my own pet theory.)
So those are the problems. No real debate there, despite the constant discussion they elicit. The real debate is whether they should fire him. Those who say yes simply point to the aforementioned problems and the recent postseason drought. Those who say no point to the championship, the two Final Fours, and the fact that Gary came to his alma mater while it was under NCAA sanction and lifted it back into prominence. They also ask, fairly, who would replace Gary. Top D-1 coaches don’t grow on trees.
Here’s my take, if anyone cares. I love Gary. I remember how jacked up I would get, standing in the student section and getting the fist pump from him as he walked to the bench during warm-ups. I would love nothing more than to see him ride off into the sunset on his own terms. But at this moment, he is embarrassing himself. Over and over again. Everyone loves to complain about the “what have you done for me lately” attitude in the sports world, but let me ask you this: If you performed really well in your job for many years, but then sucked it up for four or five straight years, wouldn’t you be hearing whispers, too? Even if they didn’t fire you, wouldn’t there at least be some kind of mandate that you improve your performance immediately, or else?
I personally believe we’re at the “improve or else” stage. I don’t want to start settling for this “gee, I hope we make the Dance this year” mentality. I know there are off years, and I know that the playing field is more level now between the BCS schools and the mid-majors, but Maryland should be a lock for the big tournament more or less every year. So if they don’t improve this season, and next year’s new recruits don’t make a big difference, then I say it’s decision time. At that point it would become a question of whether the school prefers the devil they know versus the devil they don’t. And is fear of the unknown really a good reason to hang on to a coach? Does blind loyalty eventually just become blindness? How long can a fan base hold onto old memories without needing any new ones? Is a true fan the one who refuses to criticize, or is it the one who criticizes the loudest? Is it a matter of believing in your team through thick and thin, or is it a matter of the emperor wearing no clothes?
So that’s my take, but I’m not even sure he’ll get that long. Given what we know and where we stand right now, I think it’s very possible that, in three months, we’ll all be saying that Saturday’s loss at Duke was the beginning of the end for Gary Williams’ time at Maryland.
(Update: It’s getting worse between Gary and the athletic department. Like it or not, this could be an irreparable rift.)