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Gary Williams Explains His Fist Pump


(Reuters and TWP photos)


When Tiger Woods joined Gary Williams on a Comcast SportsNet set this week, the first thing Woods said was "I haven't forgotten that game."

"That game" was the 2001 Elite Eight matchup between top-seeded Stanford and Maryland, which the Terps won to advance to their first Final Four, a crushing result for a certain tournament host.

"I said, 'Ah, we played really well...it was just one of those days,' " Williams told me yesterday. "Right," Woods responded.

What the men didn't discuss was what I wanted to talk about: the similarity of their signature fist pumps. Living in this town, it's hard to think of two men more closely associated with the fist pump than Woods and Williams, who's again working as an analyst on CSN's nightly golf show from Congressional. Like, whose fist pump is better, I wondered.

"Tiger's got the best," Williams said. "Tiger by far. But he's younger."

The fist pump, it turns out, wasn't some accidental addition to Williams's persona. When he played basketball, he wasn't particularly demonstrative; "it was a different game, a different time," he said. "Nobody woofed at anyone, there was no talking between players. Never."

He doesn't get fired up on the golf course; "If I made a fist pump, I'd probably hurt my elbow," he joked, and besides, "there's nobody there when I make a long putt." And when he coached at Ohio State, he entered the arena and waved at the Buckeye fans, believe it or not. That was his thing.

Then he got to Maryland, and the vibe required something stronger. Len Bias had died. Sanctions were coming, and soon the Terps couldn't appear on television or play in the NCAA tournament. Williams wanted a way to say thanks to the 7,369 fans who still showed up for his first game, an 87-53 win over Delaware State at Cole Field House.

"Walking into Cole and seeing a pretty good crowd even though we had those restrictions meant a lot to me," Williams said. The fist pump "was just to show them. So once you start something like, that it would be difficult to stop."

And so Williams fist-pumped his way through 20 regular seasons and 13 NCAA tournaments, through a national championship and an ACC title, always with the right hand, always before the game.


Gary pumps his fist in 2002. (By Jonathan Newton - TWP)

"That's part of me getting comfortable to start a game, that's part of the routine" he said. "All players have routines; coaches have routines too."

But casual observers noticed a bit more defiance in that pump this spring. Maybe you heard, but there was a bit of media chatter about Williams's future. And as the noise mounted, the fist snuck a bit higher into the year, stayed there a moment longer. It was great fodder for amateur psychologists, but it was also true. So maybe it wasn't exactly Tiger at the 72nd hole of the '08 U.S. Open, but he dang sure wasn't waving to the crowd.

"About halfway through the year, I got very enthusiastic," Williams agreed with a smile. "We had to prove something as a team. I had a great team, in terms of how we competed. We might not have been the most talented team, but we were a great team in terms of everybody having each others' back and all that stuff. It was just showing the people that I thought we were still good, [that] we still had a good chance to make the NCAA tournament when a lot of people said we didn't.

"It was kind of like, 'Here we go. You're either with us or you're not with us.' And I say this to the team all the time: if you're with us, that means you're with us 100 percent. In other words, if we get blown out by Duke, like we did this year, you've still got to be with us for the next game."

Which brings us from fist pumps to bandwagons. Williams grew up rooting for all Philly teams. He rooted for the Sixers when they would get eliminated by the Celtics every year. He rooted for the Phillies when things weren't working out. I suggested that bandwagons are inevitable, for all sports and all teams; "Well, not all fans bail out," he said.

"Your hard-core fans are there. And if I leave Maryland, they'll root for the next [coach]. They're Maryland fans. but they're Maryland fans right away; they just believe in the school. And everybody's gonna have opinions. Fans are certainly entitled, they play a lot of money for tickets, they're certainly entitled to an opinion about the game. But when it's all said and done, they're still with you, they're still behind you."

Later in our conversation, I jokingly asked which was worse, Duke fans or Yankees fans. We were sort of joking around, and talking about the Romo jerseys that had descended on Congressional earlier this week, but Williams did remark about how many Duke fans there seem to be in this region.

"I don't mind the students, I don't mind the people at the games," he said. "But the people that live here in D.C. and say they're a Duke fan? You know, what for? Because they win? If you're a fan, you're a fan. It's not that your team has to win all the time for me to be a fan."


Tiger pumps his fist in 2000. (By Rich Lipski - TWP)

Which is why you might not be surprised to learn that Williams is "a big Manny Acta fan," and that he appreciates Acta's positivity, his reluctance to publicly criticize players, and his doggedness, even though their public images could not be more different.

"He's got to be the most positive guy in the park, because his players will read the way he reacts," Williams said. "When I walk into a locker room, I don't care who we're playing, how big of an underdog we might be--I believe we can win the game. If you can do that when things aren't going well, that, to me, is a sign of a career coach, a career manager. Whatever happens, Manny Acta will be in baseball for a long time."

Of course, the fist pump would be anathema to someone like Acta, but it's as intrinsic to Williams as his suit or his tie. Now that the '08-'09 season is done, after all those right-fisted stabs into the air, I asked Williams about the future of his signature move.

"The fist pump," he said, "will be around forever."

By Dan Steinberg  |  July 3, 2009; 8:20 AM ET
Categories:  College Basketball , Golf , Nats , Terps  
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Next: Morning Bog: A Near Nats Fireworks Fail

Comments

Great piece, Steinz. You gotta love Gary calling out bandwagoners. I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you were born and raised here in the DC area and root for the Cowboys, Yankees, Duke etc...you really are the worst kind of human being. The worst. I don't believe in hell, but if I did, I'm sure there would be a nice warm spot there reserved solely for bandwagoners.

Posted by: Barno1 | July 5, 2009 7:37 PM | Report abuse

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