Nashville and Vanderbilt University lost far more than an athletic director, vice chancellor and law professor Feb. 8 when David Williams died at 71.
The world lost someone who bridged the gap between academics and athletics, sports fans and professors, Nashville’s black community and a university with a less than exemplary track record in terms of historical treatment of and attitude towards African Americans.
Williams reached many people who otherwise could care less about Vanderbilt sports or the institution.
A funny thing though: Because the outpouring of grief was so widespread and immediate, it’s easy to overlook the fact that when he was tabbed to be athletic director in addition to Vice Chancellor of University Affairs (the first black to hold either position by the way and the SEC’s first black athletic director) there were hosts of people in the sports world who thought Vanderbilt had lost its collective mind.
There were even columnists suggesting this was a sign Vanderbilt was de-emphasizing athletics.
Williams disdained separate dorms for athletes, and put equal amounts of attention on education, insisting it was important even for the select handful of Vandy football and basketball players who had a chance to earn big dollars in the NFL or NBA.
Yet, rather than Vanderbilt athletics fading under Williams’ leadership it soared. He hired the most successful football coach in recent Vanderbilt history in James Franklin, also its first black head football coach.
Franklin didn’t stay very long, but he was there long enough to get the Commodores into bowl games, and for a brief moment even into the Top 25.
His successor Derek Mason hasn’t duplicated Franklin’s lofty achievements, but has gotten them to multiple bowl games and garnered multiple wins over hated in-state rival Tennessee.
That Williams hired TWO black head coaches when a lot of SEC schools have yet to hire their first also says a lot about his devotion and dedication to equal opportunity.
What many detractors either didn’t know or realized about David Williams was his whole life personified the notion one could love sports, arts, politics, and academics with equal vigor.
He’d been a track athlete and student activist at Northern Michigan during the ’60s, a peak time for activism among students and athletes.
Williams loved music (especially soul and Motown) and had been teaching in the law school since 2000 despite the many demands placed on an athletic director.
He found time to be involved with numerous other non-athletic things, including maintaining ties with Vanderbilt’s Black Cultural Center, Nashville’s Equal Justice Initiative, and various other social and political groups.
Williams always made sure the local Black press got the same treatment at press conferences and sports events that mainstream publications and broadcast outlets received. He did not let anyone feel neglected or ignored.
The Williams era at Vanderbilt will no doubt be regarded as one of the most, if not THE most, productive.
The school won four national championships over his 16 years, the first Vanderbilt ever earned in any sport. He was as proud of the women’s two bowling and one tennis title as he was of Tim Corbin’s 2014 baseball squad finally capturing the College World Series crown.
Although football, the only sport that matters in much of SEC country, never threatened for a conference or national title, even it flourished under Williams.
Before 2007, Vanderbilt had appeared in a grand total of three bowl games since they began football in 1890. Over the next 11 years, they appeared in six.
Still, if you ever talked to Williams about his time at Vanderbilt, he would inevitably return to what he considered his greatest personal achievement. He brought back into the Vanderbilt sphere pioneering basketball player Perry Wallace, who’d been the SEC’s first full-time Black player.
Vanderbilt ostracized Wallace for decades because on his way out the door in 1970 he had the temerity to let everyone know just how bad things had been for him, both at the school and in the SEC.
While Wallace, a true student-athlete, would go on to become prominent as a law professor at American University after working for the Justice Department as an attorney, his alma mater acted as though he were invisible.
Williams ended that nonsense. He had Wallace’s number retired, got him inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, and personally endowed a scholarship in his name.
Nashville author Andrew Maraniss, a longtime friend of Williams, wrote the definitive biography of Perry Wallace “Strong Inside,” and teamed with him to launch a Sports and Society Initiative beginning this year. Sadly, Williams didn’t live to see that come to fruition.
It’s a testimony to David Williams’ stature, impact and contributions to society that the list of those paying tribute after news of his death hit the airwaves and websites included journalists, athletic officials, politicians, fellow professors, and former and current Vanderbilt athletes.
Everyone was in total shock because he had a retirement party scheduled that evening, with friends and family from around the nation gathered in Nashville for the event.
While many remain in mourning, the greatest lesson that can be taken from David Williams is never to accept conventional notions about anything. He didn’t make bogus assumptions that athletes can’t be scholars, or academicians can’t have fun and love music. He was a phenomenal individual, irreplaceable, and will never be forgotten.