‘A coach at heart’ - Saint Augustine’s Williams quietly became a coaching icon
Thirty-two NCAA Division II team championships, more than 150 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association titles and 200-plus coach of the year awards. But who's counting? Certainly not George Williams.
Williams, the legendary Saint Augustine's track and field coach, has built a dynasty at the small, historically black college in Raleigh, N.C., during his 37-year tenure at the helm of the program.
It was something he certainly never dreamed of when he took over the program as a favor until the school found a permanent replacement for the outgoing track coach in 1976. At the time, he was working as an administrator in the school's alumni office.
A 1965 graduate of St. Augustine's, Williams played basketball for the college and ran track as a way to keep in shape. But he knew nothing about coaching track and field athletes.
"The first year, I think my team scored four points in the conference championship," Williams said. "I had always been a part of a winning program in everything I had done and I decided to go talk to Dr. Leroy Walker, who was the track coach at North Carolina Central - a very successful track coach. I asked him about setting up programs and how he did things. He explained to me about biomechanics and techniques and gave me a book about biomechanics. I began to read that and tried his practice schedule."Walker went on to become the first African-American head coach of the U.S. Olympic Men's Track and Field Team in 1976 and later became the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, so the advice Williams had sought was certainly sound.
Another friend of Williams, legendary Winston-Salem basketball coach Clarence "Bighouse" Gaines, also shared his thoughts with the young coach as well after seeing one of St. Augustine's meets.
"Bighouse said, ‘George, I saw your program. You're trying to run track with basketball players. You need to get track athletes,'" Williams said.
Williams heeded the advice and headed to his native Sunshine State.
"I decided to go to my hometown of Miami, where there are a lot of track people, and I recruited my first group of track athletes," Williams said. "The next year we finished maybe third or fourth in the conference. From then, we've won most of them."
Since Williams led the Falcons' men's outdoor squad to the CIAA title in 1978, the program has won every outdoor conference championship but two.
Williams claimed his first NCAA trophy in 1985 with Saint Augustine's women's indoor team. They won the title after the team road-tripped from Raleigh to North Dakota in vans, barely making the start of the meet. He has since risen to the pinnacle of his sport multiple times, whether it be with men's or women's, indoor or outdoor teams, including his latest championship in March when the program captured the men's indoor national title.
The veteran head coach said there is no secret to winning in track, just recruiting student-athletes that can run fast.
"I try not to mess them up," Williams said. "I don't change too much, but I do go back to school and learn different things about biomechanics, because kids are different now. They have better tracks and lighter shoes. I try to keep up with that, but I don't change the [practice regimen]."
But his student-athletes' prowess on the track is not his greatest priority.
"Athletics is the second thing at St. Aug's - academics are first," Williams said. "Academics, athletics and then a controlled social life. You form a relationship with your kids and let them know you are their father and mother away from home ... it's your way now."
The results in the classroom have matched Williams' results on the track as he has graduated approximately 95 percent of his student-athletes. For Williams, who also serves as the school's athletics director, it is by far his proudest accomplishment.
"They always come back with a big smile on their face," Williams said. "Some of these kids come here and don't know which way to run and are lucky to be in college. And, now some of them are top lawyers and doctors, and I've got about 10 of them coaching in Division I track and field."
Williams has not only excelled in the DII coaching ranks, but has coached some of the world's greatest athletes. Named the head coach of the 2004 U.S. Olympic Men's Track and Field Team, Williams' athletes brought home 19 medals from Athens, Greece. He also served as an assistant coach for the 1996 Olympic Team and has mentored 32 Olympians during his career, including three goal medalists.
While he has enjoyed great success, Williams has remained humble and relatively unknown, even in track and field circles. He likes it that way.
"One thing about track and field is that I can walk around Division II track and field coaches and student-athletes and hardly any of them know I was the head Olympic coach in 2004," Williams said. "Or coached in 1996 and worked with the team in 2000. They have no idea. I will probably never be a household name internationally or even in the NCAA."
Kristene Kelly, the associate athletic director at St. Augustine's and member of the DII Track and Field Committee, has worked with Williams during the past four years. She is amazed by Williams' achievements and willingness to advance in the sport.
"Even if he is coaching against you and trying to win a championship, he will take time out to help another athlete," Kelly said. "He'll pull their coach aside or ask permission to help their athlete. Even though he's been an Olympic coach and traveled the world extensively and is very well-known in track circles, he's still George Williams and a coach at heart. He will give all of his time, his services, his money - anything he can do to be an ambassador of the sport."
Williams will bring 24 student-athletes - 16 men and eight women - to the DII Outdoor Track and Field Championships at the Neta and Eddie DeRose Thunderbowl on the campus of CSU-Pueblo on May 23-35. The men's squad enters the meet ranked No. 2 in the nation, while the women are No. 12. The men's team has a legitimate chance to win its 11th outdoor crown and the program's 33rd title overall under Williams.