SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — The ride from Collingswood, N.J., to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame takes about four hours by car. Fueled by a passion for the game very few possess, a South Jersey gym rat named Gary Williams arrived here in the class of 2014 after a four-plus-decade coaching journey.
“It’s a great thrill, a very humbling experience,” Williams told a packed house at Symphony Hall that included nearly 100 family members, former players, assistants and friends, including Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and former Maryland governor Robert Ehrlich.
While the longtime Maryland coach built his career in places such as Washington, D.C., Boston, Columbus, Ohio and eventually carved his legacy in College Park, it was in Collingswood where the flames first flickered.
It became a roaring fire that helped Williams win 688 games and a national championship in 2002.
“Where I grew up, it was a great basketball area, you could always get games, basketball was always there,” Williams said of his hometown, where he emulated Boston Celtics legend Bob Cousy and Philadelphia Warriors star Guy Rodgers, who was enshrined posthumously Friday.
Williams credited his Collingswood High coach, John Smith, with “keeping me out of trouble” and former high school teammate Stan Pawlak “for teaching me how to work hard.” He also credited former NBA great and fellow Hall of Famer Billy Cunningham, who presented Williams Friday, with unknowingly putting him on a path toward a career in coaching.
Recalling a game he played as a Maryland sophomore against North Carolina when Cunningham was a senior and one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s big stars, Williams said he tried to take a charge after Cunningham blew past teammate Neil Brayton and went in for a dunk.
“Next thing I saw was his Converse shoe going over my shoulder,” Williams said with a laugh. “Billy was dunking and I think he was smiling at the same time. Right about then — thank you Billy — I started thinking about out being a coach.”
In a 25-minute speech touched with humility and humor and a few tears, Williams spent more time talking about his former coaches, assistant coaches and players than he did himself.
Williams recalled how he initially turned down his first college coaching job, as an assistant under Tom Davis at Lafayette College, because it required him to also be the school’s head soccer coach.
At the time, Williams was a high school coach in Camden, N.J., where he led the team to an undefeated season and a state championship in his first season with the varsity.
“You think about key situations in your life and your career,” Williams said. “Tom Davis was the only guy I knew who could get me into college coaching. If I had turned that down, I would have been happy, I would have been a high school coach, I never would have coached in college. I would never be here tonight.”
Told by the Lafayette athletic director that he would coach soccer for only one year, Williams spent six years on the job.
“You ask me how I did as a soccer coach,” Williams said with his typical wry sense of humor. “Let me say this — the Soccer Hall of Fame hasn’t called.”
Those who followed Williams to his enshrinement — including Brayton, the player Cunningham beat for the dunk that turned Williams to coaching, as well as former star Walt Williams — talked about the one characteristic that carried Williams to the Hall of Fame.
The passion Maryland fans saw for the 22 seasons Williams was on the sideline at Cole Field House and Comcast Center, Brayton witnessed when Williams was a heady, hard-nosed point guard playing for Bud Millikan and Frank Fellows in the mid-1960s.
“I don’t know if he loved Millikan, but I think he loved the way Millikan taught,” Brayton said after a luncheon held here in Williams’ honor Friday. “I wouldn’t have said, ‘Hey, he’s going to be a Hall of Fame coach', but he did have a fire in his belly for the game.”
Walt Williams, whom Gary Williams has long credited for keeping the program afloat by staying at Maryland after it was put on NCAA probation in the early 1990s, said that no other coach got more from him — or anyone else — than Gary Williams.
“Imagine you’re out there and playing as hard as you can with every ounce of energy that you have, and then you’d look over at him on the sideline and he’d give you a feeling inside that made you think, ‘I’ve got a little bit more,” Walt Williams said. “That’s the tribute to his greatness. That’s the thing he had.
“No matter what type of player he had, he’d get the most out of them and even more. If you start piling up the number of players he could affect in that way, you can have some pretty good teams. That’s why he got away with so many years of not having top recruits and still compete at a high level.”
George Washington coach Mike Lonergan, who worked only one season as an assistant under Williams after being a successful Division III coach at nearby Catholic University, said that Williams is now more appreciated by many local fans and other coaches now that he is retired.
“The more corrupt our sport gets at the college level, I think the better his legacy is because people know he was above board, he wasn’t a cheater,” Lonergan said at the luncheon. “To win for a long period of time, it’s hard to survive in this business. I think even some of my friends who weren’t Gary lovers appreciate him more now.”
In talking about his two Final Four teams at Maryland, Williams read off the names of each player, including the walk-ons. He thanked Millikan and Lefty Driesell. He thanked his 13 assistants, former trainer, J.J. Bush, and radio play-by-play man Johnny Holliday. He thanked his wife, Dana, and his daughter Kristin and his grandchildren.
He thanked the Maryland fans.
Two longtime fans with no direct ties to Williams stood outside Symphony Hall Friday waiting to watch Williams walk onto the red carpet. Rick Baker and his daughter Jaclyn, a 2014 Maryland graduate who was captain of the school’s dance team, drove from their home near Solomons Island.
“We think Gary Williams is the best college coach that ever has been,” said Baker, who grew up outside College Park. “He took a team from being nothing to winning a national championship. His teams were always gritty teams. He took players that nobody else wanted and turned them into national champions.”
Baker said the drive took nine hours.
For the gym rat from South Jersey turned Hall of Famer named Gary Williams, it took more than 40 years.
“This is as big a thrill as you can get as a coach and I’m really honored to be part of the whole thing,” he said.