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coaches are still kings

Even with its blights, college game still better than NBA
Maryland coach Gary Williams, 59, is a legend in college basketball.Chris Gardner / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The scissored, bottom half of the championship net from last spring's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament hangs on a trophy behind Gary Williams, competing for space and time with an assortment of enlarged and framed magazine covers from the 2002 national championship season.

Sixteen years after he inherited a program on probation, Maryland's basketball coach has won enough baubles to have earned a feeling of contentment as he prepares for another season, but he finds himself in an altogether different landscape than the one he once knew.

Coaches still rule college basketball -- even this season, when many top players put off the NBA for another year of school. Casual fans who can't name the country's top five players can probably rattle off the biggest names in coaching. Mike Krzyzewski. Tubby Smith. Roy Williams. Jim Boeheim. Jim Calhoun. And Gary Williams. Eddie Sutton and Bob Knight make the cut for longevity and Rick Pitino for winning percentage.

Down in Durham, N.C., the players leave paternal Coach K and the Duke family after their freshman and sophomore seasons. That had to play in Krzyzewski's mind when he had a notion to jump to the NBA after the Lakers ponied up $40 million-plus last June. Mike Montgomery took Golden State's bait and left behind the chores of luring talent to Stanford.

"Is the guy ready to go pro? That's how they now judge a recruiting class," Williams said, shaking his head in disgust yesterday morning. "They don't base it on how a kid might develop, how he could get better having played in the ACC or grown up as a result of being on a college campus from 18 to 22. No, just, 'Is the guy ready to go pro?' That's how a lot of the magazines and prediction people judge."

Williams is in great health at 59, has won a national championship and accomplished about everything at Maryland. At what point does the state of the college game make Williams reconsider College Park?

"I don't know; nobody has offered me that kind of deal," Williams said. "You don't really even get into those scenarios until someone calls, and you're forced to make some of those decisions."

If college basketball stays on its current course, the game might one day make the decision for him. All that remains are a few months of competitiveness in the winter and something called bracketology in March.

Players like Patrick Ewing and Ralph Sampson rarely go to college anymore. Instead of Kwame Brown preparing to carry Florida to the Final Four this season -- he would have been a senior -- the Wizards' No. 1 pick spends early November in a training room, so he can ostensibly "come back" at age 22.

But if another job did arise, Williams should not leave his alma mater soon. Like Krzyzewski, he has history to consider.

It's easy to forget that the ranting, perspiring man on the sideline for almost two decades took over Maryland after the Lefty Driesell and Bob Wade eras ended in infamy.

Williams also has the challenges of the immediate future. This year's team, picked somewhere between No. 10 and 15 in most national polls, has been chosen to finish sixth in the ACC in some bogus preseason media poll. Without even playing an ACC game, Williams can pound the nobody-respects-us drum.

"How does that work, where you get voted sixth in your conference but a lot of people think you have Final Four potential?" Williams asked. "How does that work?

"Look, there are probably 20 teams that are good enough to win the national championship. But there's not one team good enough to win it now. You get what I mean? Gradually, some of those teams are going to get better and develop and some aren't. It's the process that matters, not what's being said right now."

John Gilchrist, the guard who basically took over the conference tournament as a sophomore, returns to a loaded backcourt. D.J. Strawberry is a year older and maybe the best sixth man in college basketball. The frontcourt has holes, but the Terps will most likely be very good again and the larger issue will be whether Williams can get them to peak at the right time.

Another reason to ignore the NBA and stay at Maryland: the blown-up cover of Basketball Times in Williams's office that reads, "Garyland."

Williams pointed to Leonard Hamilton, who was brought in to oversee a dysfunctional Wizards team until Michael Jordan eventually fired him. Montgomery is off to a 1-8 start with Golden State. John Calipari. P.J. Carlesimo. Jerry Tarkanian. Pitino. On the list of college legends turned pro flops goes.

Krzyzewski would have had to take over the Lakers without Shaquille O'Neal, subsequently traded, and deal with the Phil Jackson comparisons.

"People love to say, 'College coaches don't do a good job in the pros,' " Williams said. "But look at the jobs they get. They give them bad teams and bad situations. You give them a good job in the pros and then see what they can do."

If the NBA ever came calling, no one would begrudge Williams for moving on from Maryland after what he built. But those sweat-soaked dress shirts would almost seem wasted on the sideline of the Bobcats or the Bulls.

Better to watch Gary Williams at the Comcast Center tonight, trying to convince his nationally ranked players that measly Jackson State does not respect the Terps. Better to have Williams stay in college trying to fix a game that needs people on its side.