Ohio State Hoops Doing Fine 25 Years After Gary Williams Bailed

By Michael Citro on June 19, 2014 at 1:00p

Last Friday marked 25 years since Gary Williams left Ohio State to take over his alma mater, Maryland, after only three seasons in Columbus. It was pretty shocking to me, since I considered very few jobs (read: none) were worth leaving Ohio State for.

I was disappointed, not quite irate like Jimmy Crum.

Williams had taken a lackluster Ohio State basketball program and turned it into a fast-paced, aggressive, exciting game that truly ignited a passion for the team. The results weren’t spectacular (two 20-13 seasons and a 19-15 mark in his final year of 1988-89). He won a now-quaint-seeming 59% of his games, 44% in Big Ten play.

In fact, the Buckeyes finished sixth in the conference in Williams’ first two seasons and eighth his last year. But the team was exciting to watch and it did reach the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1986-87. His other two years at Ohio State produced an NIT runner-up in 1987-88 and an NIT quarterfinalist in 1988-89.

The team, however, was getting better and you could see it. He was recruiting better players, like Jimmy Jackson, one of the guys Crum railed on him for running out on.

Williams took over for Eldon Miller. Everything about Miller was boring. He even looked boring. Miller’s teams averaged a record of 17-12 from 1977 to 1986 and made four NCAA tournaments, but mostly did very little. Williams was dynamic, animated on the bench and his teams played hard. By and large they didn’t win that many more games, but they did manage to steal a few they shouldn’t have, and probably wouldn’t have under Miller.

Thad getting (boom) Hightower'd.
Things haven't been too bad under Thad.

St. John Arena became a very difficult place for opponents to play in Williams’ three seasons in Columbus. It was loud and intimidating. And so was Ohio State’s defensive pressure. Williams brought in more athletic players and by the time the makeup of the team was what he needed to win, he bolted for Maryland.

So, the Buckeyes were changing coaches for the second time in four years.

“I really thought when I want to Ohio State that that would be the job,” Williams said at the time. “There was nothing there that didn’t meet my expectations.”

And yet, he left. I’m sure the pull of the ACC and his alma mater was strong. I didn’t like his decision and pretty much decided to hate him for a while. I got over it eventually, but I still tend to wrinkle my brow when his name comes up.

Like many fans of that era, it seemed like Ohio State would be stuck in mediocrity and even take a step backward from what Williams had begun to build. It seemed a shame for a coach of his caliber to bail just when things were getting good.

Big names were tossed around, but in the end, Ohio State promoted assistant coach Randy Ayers in a move probably designed to hang onto players and maintain some continuity within the program.

Ayers took Williams’ team to the NCAA tournament three straight years, reaching the Sweet 16 in 1991 and the Elite Eight in 1992.

Then the wheels fell off. The Buckeyes went 15-13 in 1992-93, finished seventh in the B1G, and were knocked out of the NIT in the first round. Ohio State fell to 13-16 the next year and missed the postseason, and then had consecutive years of 6-22, 10-17, and 10-17, before Ayers was ousted.

But Williams proved that Ohio State could become an attractive job where a coach could win, even if he left before that actually happened. Jim O’Brien succeeded Ayers and was mostly successful, despite NCAA sanctions that wiped out a huge chunk of his wins.

O’Brien made the NCAA tournament four times in seven seasons before he landed in hot water, including a Final Four appearance in 1999.

Thad Matta replaced O’Brien in 2004 and I think we’d all agree that was a very good hire. Matta has won an incredible 77% of his total games and 70% of his conference games. He has won 20 or more games every year he’s coached the Buckeyes, with three 30+ win seasons, a National Championship appearance, two Final Fours, an NIT championship and he’s made at least the Sweet 16 in half of his 10 seasons.

Matta has been so successful that a first-weekend exit from the NCAA tournament in a 25-10 season is considered subpar in Columbus. That would have been considered an exceptionally good year under Miller.

So Williams’ leaving didn’t kill Ohio State basketball. It set the foundation for much better years under Ayers, O’Brien and Matta, and it gives us a nice reason to hate on the Terrapins now that they’re going to be B1G East division rivals.

I’m over Williams leaving now. I appreciate that he paved the way for better things to come. But man, do I want the Buckeyes to throttle his alma mater.


Comments Show All Comments

Shangheyed's picture

We have a Basketball program to be proud of... We are lucky to have Matta.

+4 HS
AndyVance's picture

I agree with the sentiment underlying the statement - That Matta is a great coach and we're happy to have him - but I disagree that Ohio State is "lucky" to have any coach. Our University is one of the premier athletic programs in the country, so having a great coach is not a thing of luck, but rather to be expected. With the resources at the athletic department's disposal, we should expect that our coach is as good as Coach Matta or better.

Again, I'm not disagreeing with the underlying sentiment about being happy to have Coach under the tiller, but it always rankles me when someone says we're lucky to have a given player or coach. It's not by luck, it's by design.

Shangheyed's picture

Strangely none of his predicesors have been as good as Matta... we are indeed lucky to have him.

AndyVance's picture

Agree to disagree then re: luck. Until Coach Matta brings home a tournament title, Fred Taylor is still top dog in my book.

+1 HS
Young_Turk's picture

I agree with both of you!  We're lucky to have Matta, and we should expect it because as an institution, we're a magnificent bastard.


+1 HS
CarolinaBuck's picture

I also heard one of the reasons Williams left was because he was about to go through a divorce and we all know what a fish bowl Columbus can be, so he didn't want to deal with that.

Craft to the Rafters's picture

Interesting that he recruited well and recruited more athletic players here. I heard a knock on him from Maryland fans was that he wouldn't recruit some of the more athletic guys from the area if they didn't fit his system - Maryland is very fertile with bball talent (Durant, Melo, Beasley, Lawson in the past decade), yet not many of them stayed home. Then again, maybe they would've bolted even if he had recruited them harder.

Michael Citro's picture

I think it made it easier to recruit better athletes because they liked his style of play. Miller was an average coach and recruiter and there was literally nothing special about Ohio State basketball under him, although the talent pool in Ohio (Dennis Hopson, Jay Burson, etc.) gave the squad a fighting chance most nights.

Damonbuckeye's picture

Jimmy Crum laying the smacketh down on fools...

+2 HS
jamesrbrown322's picture

No matter what anyone else says. I love having Matta as our coach. He is a fantastic recruiter, pretty good in front of a microphone, and great at winning in the B1G. I still believe that he'll lead the Buckeyes to a national title. People thought Calipari, Roy Williams, Gary Williams, Jim Boeheim, and Bill Self would never win one either.

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill

+1 HS
ibuck's picture

Agree with all this but the part about good in front of microphone.  I think Thad might be better before a mic with a little coaching.

Our honor defend, so we'll fight to the end !

If you can't win your conference, just quietly accept your non-playoff bowl game.

+1 HS
Jpfbuck's picture

I know Gary Williams deserves some credit for bringing "excitement" if not results to OSU and yes he did win a National Title once

but to me he is one of the most over rated college coaches ever

he won exactly 5 conference titles in 33 years a a HC and 2 of those were in his first 5 years (at American in his 3rd year and at BC in his 5th) which means in his last 28 years coaching he won 3 Conference Titles

12 times in his 33 years he finished under .500 in conference, that's 36% of his seasons and he was exactly .500 7 more times meaning he was over .500 only 14 times in 33 years in conference, sorry but that is not very good

on his career he won less than 55% of his conference games and less than 65% of all his games

btw Eldon Miller is still coaching, he has been an asst for his son Ben at UNC Pembroke for the last 7 years, a 6,000 student D2 school, I believe he is 74 now

+2 HS
Floyd Stahl's picture

Totally agree with you here and good stats to back up your point, but didn't he also win a national championship in 2002? That's something not many coaches can lay claim to.

tennbuckeye19's picture

Williams was OSU's coach when I first got into Buckeye basketball and I remember when he left being really sad. I was just a kid and I was like, "Why would anyone want to leave Ohio State and go somewhere else?"

+5 HS
Nutty's picture

Last Friday marked 25 years since Gary Williams left Ohio State

Damn I'm old. But so is he. And I remember some unpaid phone bills.


+1 HS
Floyd Stahl's picture

Haha can you please explain the context of that picture?

+1 HS
MarylandPride's picture

Gary was known around College Park as a "partier".

I'll leave it at that.....

+2 HS
Nutty's picture

Haha can you please explain the context of that picture?

Sorry, not really. A few years ago there were a couple of these photos out there with what appears to be a drunk Williams with young women. I think it is hard to tell if someone is drunk or just got caught with their eyes half closed. Who knows? Not judging, just thought it was funny.

+1 HS
hit_the_couch's picture

Is he coked out with some barely legals? 

And then I told her...i'm no weatherman, but tonight's forecast is calling for several inches!

Young_Turk's picture

Somebody needs to photoshop cHokes face on this pronto.


Floyd Stahl's picture

I remember Williams coming in and really energizing the program. It really seemed that they were about to go to the next level. I was disappointed when he left, but it's hard to fault a guy for leaving for his alma mater. And Ayers was the right guy, at least for that run of dominance in the Jim Jackson years.

jmoore3309's picture

I was a student during those years and Gary really energized the program.  Although the record the last year was a disappointment, it can partly be traced to losing Jay Burson.  I remember USA Today had us as a lock for the tourney the week he got hurt.  The team closed out the year with a 9 game losing streak and that was that.  We still had a lot of fun and we could get really crazy in those court side seats.

Go Bucks!

+2 HS
Michael Citro's picture

There was no sadder sight than Jay Burson in that medical halo brace.

bucksfan92's picture

I was a high school senior when Williams left and I was pissed.  I can still remember watching that Jimmy Crum segment live and I loved it!  "Good riddance!" became my catch phrase for quite a while.  I still don't care for Gary and was interested in the reaction he got when we played Maryland in the ACC/B1G challenge, he got a much warmer reception than I thought he would, and frankly much warmer than he deserved.  The real reason he left though, is he was about to be in some serious hot water over phone calls and other charges he billed to OSU to hide the fact he was cheating on his wife.  He cited his wife wanting to move back to the northeast as part of the reason for taking the Maryland job... well she filed for divorce and stayed here.  His daughter still lives here with her family.  I guess that was yet another lie.  While I don't like him as a person, he did pull us out of the Eldon Miler days, which I refer to as "the 10 years when a dark cloud hung over Columbus" and brought energy back to the team and made SJA the toughest visiting arena in the country.  All in all, it took us a while (but we made it to the Final Four here before he did up at Maryland), but we got a superstar in Matta and he isn't going anywhere until he retires as the winningest coach in OSU history.  I'd much rather have Matta be the one to pass up Fred Taylor than the lying cheating Gary Williams.

Zaphod Beeblebrox's picture

You should take into consideration the fact that Gary Williams played at Maryland from 1964-67. And while it was a bummer that he left Columbus can't be upset with a coach that went back to his alma mater.