MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications

Had the great pleasure to attend the Maryland-Ohio State men’s basketball game Sunday at Xfinity Center to see the Terps’ 75-60 win over the No. 22 Buckeyes, Maryland’s third top-25 victory of the season.

Maryland played what was likely its best game of the season, as the Buckeyes and their head coach, Chris Holtman, admittedly had no answer for the Terps’ guards, Fatts Russell and Eric Ayala, who combined for 50 points, going 17 for 36 from the field, 8 for 15 on threes and 8 for 10 from the line.

Oh, what might have been …

In fact, Sunday in College Park was a day of what might have been, what once was, and what Maryland’s Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams promised the crowd is and will be again.

The university welcomed back Maryland’s 2002 national championship team on Sunday, and every single one of the players from that splendid team and time returned to be with their coach, each other and the Maryland community.

It was a day of great emotion, a warm day of feel-good and, perhaps, a stirring source of inspiration for the current Terps, who have been handed so many adverse circumstances almost since the time they arrived in College Park.

“We’re Maryland basketball,” Williams told the fans when the national champs were introduced at halftime. “This whole crowd, our team right now, our 2002 championship team, the students, people who have been students, alumni, boosters, you’re all part of one of the great programs in the last 50 years.

“We are going to continue to be great. We are as good as any program in the country, and you’re all part of that. So, thank you for coming out today. We appreciate it.”

When you hear somebody say Gary Williams bleeds Maryland black, gold, red and white, believe it; as from the time he arrived in College Park from Collingswood, N.J. as a freshman basketball player in 1964, he has essentially never left, including during his time building his coaching career in other places. Maryland had him at hello and Maryland became his home, and he finally returned home in 1989 to serve as the head coach for 21 years.

Gary is currently assistant to the athletic director at Maryland and is a day to day presence in fundraising, moral support or whatever he feels is necessary to help his school. So when he says Maryland is one of the best programs in the country, believe him.

During a reception for the 2002 team prior to Sunday’s game, Juan Dixon, the star of that team and currently the head coach of Coppin State in Baltimore, talked of how the path to the 2002 title began in earnest on Valentine’s Day 2001 when Florida State handed the Terps their sixth straight loss.

Dixon recalled how the team was booed by the fans at Cole Field House that night and I vividly recall Gary exchanging words with some of those fans on his way off the court that night.

Beginning the next day, Williams put that negative home crowd reaction and the Terps’ poor play during that stretch to good use, according to Dixon, and Maryland, spurred by the guidance and motivation of its coach, would proceed to win 10 of the final 11 games of the season to reach the first Final Four in school history.

Dixon, and every member of the team who spoke of it on Sunday, said there was no question when the 2001-02 season began that Maryland’s aim was not to return to the Final Four, but to finish the job and win the national championship.

Win the national championship is, of course, just what Maryland did, and every player and coach, including Williams, pointed to the Florida State loss and being booed by the home fans the season prior, as the beginning of the road to the most glorious moment in Maryland basketball history the following season.

That Maryland team and that Maryland coach used that “negative positive reinforcement,” as the great Earl Weaver called it, and put it to work to become the great Maryland team for the ages.

The Terps did not curl into the fetal position and disappear after being booed off the floor in their own building. The head coach did not back down and quit his job as head coach because his feelings had been hurt.

Things change over the course of 20 years sometimes, don’t they?

The University of Maryland must never again make the same mistake that resulted in the previous 10 years and eight games, not if it is to remain one of the great college basketball programs in the nation that Gary Williams knows it is.

The next hire has to be as big and as right as any hire in the history of the athletic department. As big and as right as when the school finally came to its senses in 1989 and brought Gary Williams home to stay.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT