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May 6, 2011The news broke Thursday afternoon, stunning in both its timing and significance. After 22 years at Maryland, Gary Williams had decided he was finished coaching, stepping away at age 66 and turning the page with one final energized fist pump.
On Friday at the Comcast Center, the legendary Terrapins coach made it official with an emotional news conference that packed quite a powerful punch of finality.
It was hard to tell whether Williams was truly ready to retire from coaching.
He fought back tears. He absorbed the chants of "Thank you Gary!" from the gathered Maryland fans. He did his best to explain why now was the best time to move on.
"It's better to leave early," Williams said, "than it is to leave late."
That Williams is leaving at all is a shock to the system of anyone who truly loves and appreciates the history and tradition and larger-than-life stage of the ACC.
Suddenly, the conference as we've long known it is being overhauled piece by piece.
Williams is 66. So it makes sense that, at his age, retirement was in the thought process. But then you quickly connect the dots and realize Duke's Mike Krzyzewski celebrated his 64th birthday in February.
And North Carolina's Roy Williams will turn 61 this summer.
Is it possible the league's icons are all headed for the finish line faster than we could ever imagine?
And what happens when they're all gone?
It just doesn't seem like Maryland basketball will really be Maryland basketball without Gary storming the sidelines.
Just like Duke can't be Duke without Coach K. And just like UNC will take its own hit when ol' Roy eventually decides to walk away.
And when they're all gone? Well, it stands to reason that, in the eyes of many, the ACC just won't be the ACC anymore.
Scarily, Williams' retirement announcement brings a startling reminder that those days may be nearer than we all thought.
WHERE'D EVERYBODY GO?
For now we're left with a conference that's in flux more than it's ever been before.
Not just because Gary Williams is no longer coaching at Maryland. But because in the past 26 months, eight of the conference's 12 basketball programs have undergone coaching changes, shaking up the dynamics of the league as if it were a Boggle tray.
Consider this: Steve Donahue, hired in April 2010 at Boston College, is now in the upper half of the ACC in terms of tenure in the league - with 13 whole months under his belt. Yep, you read that correctly.
And just to put that striking sign of instability in a different context, it should also be noted that Krzyzewski has now coached more seasons in the ACC (31) than the other 11 league coaches combined (29).
For now, it seems chaos and uncertainty reign.
Until, that is, you consider the one constant in the conversation: the widespread belief - and really it's indisputable - that Duke and North Carolina are the rulers of the ACC with everyone else simply vying to become third best.
Gary Williams' exit from the Maryland bench will only solidify that reputation for the conference as a whole in the immediate future.
In a roundabout way, that's good news for all the other programs in the ACC, leaving the league wide open for someone, anyone to step up and accomplish big things.
Yet it may ultimately be better news for Carolina and Duke, who now have a widening continuity advantage working in their favors.
Think about it, since the start of the 1999-2000 season, only three teams other than UNC and Duke have won at least a share of the ACC regular season title: Maryland (in 2002 and 2010), Wake Forest (in 2003) and Virginia (in 2007).
The Terrapins are also the only team outside of the Tar Heels and Blue Devils to win an ACC tournament championship or to have won at least eight NCAA tournament games in the 21st century.
For the last dozen years, even with its 2002 national title followed up by a very ordinary and startlingly mediocre run, Maryland has carried the torch in most outsiders' eyes as the ACC's third best program. Now that torch is back up for grabs.
What that ultimately means is that, in the immediate future anyway, the likelihood of Carolina and Duke continuing their consistent dominance has increased.
Let's face it, if the Tar Heels and Blue Devils aren't 1-2 on every preseason ACC ballot next fall at Operation Basketball, then someone has gotten a hold of some hallucinogen-laced sweet tea.
In the modern era of college basketball, there are prerequisites to having sustained high-level success.
Talent always helps.
So it's worth noting that of the 15 players who were named to the All-ACC teams in March, only five will be back next season.
And four of them (Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Kendall Marshall) play at UNC.
Miami, thanks to Malcolm Grant, is the only other ACC team with an all-conference contributor returning.
Advantage: Tar Heels.
And your runner-up in the talent department is Duke, which will welcome to campus this fall a recruiting class that includes five players ranked in the top 40 by ESPN.
Outside of UNC, the only other ACC schools with incoming recruiting classes ranked in the top 25 are Florida State and Virginia Tech.
Then there's the matter of coaching. And while the league has added some promising up-and- comers recently with guys like Donahue and Clemson's Brad Brownell and Virginia's Tony Bennett, Gary Williams' retirement leaves Roy Williams as Coach K as the only two remaining legends.
With that, comes a crazy realization that the days of the ACC being known for the well-known leaders in its coaching fraternity are numbered if not gone already.
And that leaves Maryland and the ACC as a whole with a huge void to fill and a bit of an identity crisis to sort out.