On January 25, 2012 an article appeared on The Chronicle of Higher Education blog. The article covered the decision by the University of Maryland to name the basketball court at its shiny new basketball arena after Gary Williams, the long-time men’s coach who retired after the 2010 season.
In his 22 seasons a head coach, Williams took 14 of his teams to the NCAA tournament. Those teams made 4 Final Four appearances and won 1 national championship. Yet the overall graduation rate for his last 15 years was only 21.4%. That means that barely 1 in 5 of the players who came to Maryland on basketball scholarships earned a degree within 6 years of their first enrollment.
Last year the NCAA passed a rule that teams with graduation rates under 50% will, beginning this year, be barred from playing in the NCAA tournament. While Williams’ graduation rate for his last few years was reportedly better (15 of the last 17 seniors on his teams reportedly graduated) the overall rate for the last 15 years was less than half the minimum now required by the NCAA.
There are many Maryland alumni and supporters who were upset at the decision to name the court after him. Those feelings were fueled by reports that the school made the decision based on a promise from a prominent booster to make a major donation to the school if the court were named in honor of Williams.
The Maryland chancellor, William Kirwan, has stated that the decision was made due the greatly increased visibility the school enjoyed because of the success Williams had as coach. His legacy was said to have led to greater visibility and stature for the school.
If current rules regarding graduation rates had been in place during Williams’ tenure as coach the issue of whether to name the court after him or not would never have come up. The school would have been barred from participating in the NCAA Tournament during most years, so there would be no legacy of success.
A statute honoring Joe Paterno was placed outside of Beaver Stadium in 2002—ironically the very year of the incident involving Jerry Sandusky that ultimately led to Paterno’s dismissal as head football coach this past November 9. A statue of Nick Saban stands outside the north entrance to Bryant-Denny Stadium. Schools continue to struggle to find a balance on campuses across the country between athletics and academics.
The sad truth is that events usually happen in response to demand. Many large public universities in this country have seen state budgetary support decline by 30% or more in the past 5 years. Yet if the football or men’s basketball teams at those same schools have a poor season many fans start clamoring for the coach to be fired. There is no such cry when academic programs are cut because of funding problems.
That reality is something that people working in sports administration and management have to learn to deal with. There needs to be an honest dialogue about the distorted role that athletics play on college and secondary school campuses across this country.
There is something that doesn’t feel quite right about naming sport facilities after living people and also about erecting statues and monuments to people who are still working. Gary Williams was an outstanding basketball coach who served several schools during his career. He had problems getting along with his athletic directors, particularly Kay Yow when she was at Maryland. He was not a great philanthropist. He did not invent basketball. His teams weren’t even that successful his last 5 years at Maryland. We seem as a society to have greatly lowered our standards for canonizing people. The truth is Lefty Driesell probably did more to build up Maryland basketball than Williams did. We need some perspective on sports.