February 23, 2010
Final court hurrah for Williams
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
SUNY Cortland Assistant Coach Bill Williams helps out the “big men” of the Red Dragon basketball squad during a recent practice. A career which he started as a Homer Central star is coming to a close for Williams.
Looking for a new sport to immerse himself into as a still-growing and ambitious 14-year-old boy, the choice was rather simple for Dr. Bill Williams.
Since he took a liking to basketball, that was the activity he opted to pursue after opportunities as a swimmer were no longer available to him locally.
Who knew that simple decision would transform into a life-long passion for Williams, who will be retiring from his current duties as the SUNY Cortland assistant coach. When the Red Dragons’ 2009-10 post-season journey comes to an eventual end — Cortland hosting Fredonia this evening at 8 p.m. in a conference playoff quarterfinal game game at Corey Gymnasium — he will turn to other things to take up his time and attention.
He will turn 63 years old by the time he officially walks away from teaching classes, too, at SUNY Cortland this spring.
It’s hard to envision the 6-foot-4 Williams not being a big part of the local basketball scene.
He was a high-scoring big man on the legendary Homer Central squad that won a Section 4 Class A title in 1965, concluded a successful college stint at SUNY Cortland by being named a first-team all-conference performer as a senior in 1969 and 10 years later was back on the coaching staff of his college alma mater.
On top of all of that, Williams estimates that from his teenage years until having to undergo knee replacement surgery almost 10 years ago he averaged playing in four or five basketball games per week. All that court time and doing what he referred to as “other stupid things” — like running a couple of marathons — took a toll on his body but is nothing Williams regrets these days.
Williams served as the head coach for the Red Dragons for eight seasons, from 1981-89, was the SUNYAC “Coach of the Year” after guiding the 1982-83 squad through a 16-7 season. That team featured his current boss Tom Spanbauer as a precocious and dangerous southpaw shooter.
“That is definitely a unique situation,” he said of being on Spanbauer’s staff in recent years, considering the Red Dragons head coach was a graduate assistant as well as a player under Williams previously. “Maybe because of that we have a unique relationship.”
“It’s been really positive for our program and it’s been a real positive for me just to have Bill on staff because of his years of experience with the sport and his expertise,” said Spanbauer. “There are many ways to get a final result, and that’s where his experience and expertise have many times been valuable. It’s good to look at things at a different perspective.”
Both coaches were never shy about expressing those different perspectives, either — which was a healthy thing from a coaching standpoint.
“He always has strong opinions about the way things should be done, but most of the time we’re exactly on the same line,” said Williams of working alongside Spanbauer. “But we also disagree at times on some things, and I think it just makes it a little more interesting.
“Being old and being his coach at one time, and being a coach for so many years, I have strong opinions and can be stubborn and strong-minded just as easily as he is,” Williams says. “All through that, we will say what we’ve got to say and move on. I think there’s mutual respect. I respect him greatly and I think it’s a relationship that’s worked well for both us.
“I get to keep enjoying the game and I appreciate that.”
WILLIAMS COULD have followed the path taken by his late brother Dick, since they were both talented swimmers as youngsters.
Before becoming the swim coach at the Cortland YMCA and leading those Stingers to state-wide and national respect, Dick Williams moved to Indianapolis to pursuit his swimming ambitions and came close to earning a spot on United States Olympic squad. Bill Williams stayed home, and recalls his first taste of organized basketball as a sixth grader playing for a team coached by Fran Streeter.
Because of back problems, he didn’t really get hooked on the sport until his sophomore year of high school.
His senior season on the last team coached by George Butts at Homer, Williams (339 points) was the second leading scorer behind Bill Moon (352 points) on the 19-2 squad that beat Whitney Point 54-43 in the Section 4 Class A title game. He left the school as the sixth all-time leading scorer.
Though he did not always get along with Coach Butts, he now respects the man.
“When you’re a young kid, and you’ve got to remember that this was the 60s, too, it was a different time,” says Williams. “I thought he was a terrific coach because he just kept everything simple. We did basic things, basic skills, kept everything simple, and I thought that was terrific.
“It’s more when you look in hindsight after having coached and been around, you see how great what he did was,” he added. “When you go through it, like any player, it’s not that much fun. It’s always ‘Why are we doing this?’ But when you look back on that, it was a terrific model.”
Most of those players from the Trojan squad that featured Moon, Williams, Joe Sheridan, Paul Gower, Pat Brown, Terry Goddard and John Preston went on to play in college at some level, physical education taking Williams to Cortland.
There he also excelled, his Red Dragons tying for first place during his senior season. Williams finished with 910 points in his three seasons — not cracking into the 1,000-point club only because freshman not allowed to play in his day.
“There were a lot of fond memories. Playing college hoops is great,” he recalls. “There’s nothing else to say. Playing college hoops is great and anyone who has the opportunity to go do it has to cherish the opportunity. And I see that more now than I did at the time. Those were great times.”
SO WERE THE coaching years that followed. There were some doubts about a career path after his college studies, though he says “Once I got into teaching and coaching, I absolutely fell in love with it.”
His mother was a teacher, too, so there was that influence. And the communicative skills of his father, who grew up on a Minnesota farm and became a talkative salesman for Sears & Roebuck locally making a living off commissions, was also part of Williams the coach.
But the years have mellowed Williams a bit, along with the subdued role of being an assistant coach. “My coaching style is so much different now,” he says.
“As a head coach, I was probably so intense I scared people. Maybe that was more of a struggle than anything, getting people past that and having them deal with trying to be the best they can be and not worrying about me ranting and raving on the sideline, because I was a lunatic,” he admits. “As an assistant coach, my job is much more walk up to people and make sure they’re on track, try to say the right thing at the right time to help them enjoy the process more.”
“Coach Williams has been a great coach,” says senior captain Paul Oliver, the Red Dragons starting center. “He’s not always the loudest guy, but when he says something people really take it to heart. He’s always looking out for everybody, and he’s helped me improve my game tremendously.”
That is what will be missed when Williams and wife Phyllis, mother of three sons including former Syracuse University swimming captain Seth, head to warmer climes having never been a big fan of winter activities. There are more kayaks to be built by Williams, one of his hobbies, and other activities to try out.
Not that the coaching won’t be missed. He missed it when he left to earn his doctorate degree, and then returned to coaching even when serving as a high school administrator — traveling back and forth from Union Springs High School most recently.
That’s how dedicated he was to staying involved in basketball.
“His speeches are really from the heart,” says Oliver. “That’s what everyone really appreciates about him, that he’s honest.”
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