David Williams, SEC’s first black athletic director, wanted athletes to see the world outside the arena
Pioneering sports administrator saw his role as more than producing winning teams
The security guard at Tuskegee University stopped our car and told us the road was closed: We’d have to turn around. And then he kindly asked us what we were doing on campus.
David Williams pointed toward me in the back seat. “Just giving our son a college tour.”
With that, we turned around, and everyone burst out laughing.
Williams, Vanderbilt University’s athletic director at the time, and Candice Lee, the car’s other occupant and deputy AD (who is 10 years younger than me), are African-American and I’m white.
The scene illustrated the playful side of an accomplished and important man. More than that, the fact the three of us were in Tuskegee, Alabama, last August tells you everything you need to know about David Williams, who died Feb. 8 at age 71.
We had driven to Alabama from Nashville, Tennessee, to scout out civil rights sites in Montgomery. Two years ago, Williams came up with the idea to take a group of students, faculty, and staff from Vanderbilt on an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day trip sponsored by the athletic department. In 2017, he chartered a plane and took the group to Washington, D.C., to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Last year, he chartered a bus to Memphis, Tennessee, where the group visited the National Civil Rights Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
That planning trip to Montgomery included stops at the Rosa Parks Museum, the Freedom Rides Museum, and the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum and lynching memorial. On the way back to Nashville, we detoured to Tuskegee to pay our respects to a significant American university. How many athletic directors would spend a day this way on the eve of football season? How many would initiate annual trips like this, chartering planes and buses to expose student-athletes to black history, and bring along other students, faculty and staff, bridging the gap with athletics that exists on so many campuses?
Williams didn’t just give lip service to the idea that the first priority in college sports should be the best interests of the student-athletes. He was criticized by some for not spending more time fundraising or schmoozing with boosters, but that’s not where his heart was. He was comfortable in his skin, and in the tracksuits he loved to wear to the office. During football games, he didn’t do the wine and cheese scene. Instead, he paced the sidelines, not to interfere with his head coach but to encourage the players. He petitioned the NCAA to approve an innovative summer internship program that allows Vandy athletes to gain work experience. He made it possible for athletes to study abroad and to serve in student government without fear they’d be told they were spending too much time away from their sport. He launched an international service program that has sent student-athletes to places such as Morocco and Jamaica to serve and to learn. Closer to home, the athletic department adopted a low-income Nashville elementary school. Williams paid for individual classroom libraries, and each year student-athletes throw a Christmas party for the kids and host sports clinics.
The fact that Lee was sitting beside Williams in Tuskegee was no accident. Lee played basketball at Vanderbilt, and when she graduated, she planned to return to Huntsville, Alabama, to coach high school hoops. Williams persuaded her to work for him, and to begin a career in sports administration, part of Williams’ intentional strategy to create leadership opportunities for women. Lee has since earned her master’s degree and doctorate at Vanderbilt, risen to the No. 2 spot in the department and gained recognition from NCAA counterparts as a star in the business.
My presence in that car was unusual, too. How many athletic directors are willing to create the position of “Visiting Author”? Williams was not a traditional AD in many ways. He had served Vanderbilt as general counsel, university secretary and law professor before becoming the first African-American athletic director in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in 2003. For Williams, there was more to life than touchdowns and 3-pointers. He loved books, music (especially the Motown sound of his native Detroit), art, travel, Italian food, U.S. and South African history, and the role of sports in American culture. As a track athlete at Northern Michigan in the 1960s, Williams had been a student activist.
He often said that his proudest achievement at Vanderbilt was repairing the university’s relationship with Perry Wallace, the Commodore basketball player who had desegregated the SEC. As a senior in 1970, Wallace refused to “shut up and dribble,” granting an interview to the local paper in which he told the truth about the racism and ostracism he had encountered. For decades afterward, Vanderbilt wanted nothing to do with Wallace, who went on to become an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department and a professor of law at American University. When Williams arrived from Ohio State and learned the school had no relationship with Wallace, he found it unconscionable. Soon, he retired Wallace’s number, inducted him into Vanderbilt’s Hall of Fame, and personally endowed a scholarship in his name. I wrote a biography of Wallace, and Williams and I bonded over our shared admiration for the man and our interest in the social implications of sports. He let me join his staff in part to help launch a Sports and Society initiative at Vanderbilt this year that is exploring issues related to race, gender, politics, law and sports.
Of course, Williams understood that college athletics is largely about winning. When he became athletic director, there was much snickering that he had no idea what he was getting into, that Vanderbilt – already an academic-minded outlier in the SEC – was doomed. But Williams’ tenure was a golden age of Commodore sports. Under his leadership, the school won its first four national championships – in baseball, women’s tennis, and twice in women’s bowling. The football team, which appeared in just three bowl games between 1890 and 2007, played in six over the last 11 years. Williams was immensely proud that he proved the doubters wrong.
Williams retired on Jan. 31, and Feb. 8 was supposed to be the date of his retirement party. Friends and family from all over the country, including his four grown children, had come to Nashville to celebrate with him and his wife, Gail. Vanderbilt chancellor Nick Zeppos had invited hundreds of people for a party that evening at the university’s Student Life Center.
On Feb. 7, David gave his annual talk on race to a group from Leadership Nashville, and he was preparing an application to speak at an NCAA conference on race, social justice and athletics. He was staying busy in retirement, even continuing to teach at Vanderbilt Law School. Truth be told, he didn’t really want a retirement party. He joked with friends that he might not show up.
Williams joined friends and family for breakfast at a restaurant near campus on Feb. 8 and was about to order his favorite: sweet potato pancakes. Rising from the table, short of breath, he collapsed with an aneurysm.
Shortly before 1 p.m., Lee informed Athletic Department staffers that Williams had died and word began to spread. Harry Edwards tweeted that Williams was the “most visionary and progressive AD that I ever worked with.” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who had been on his way to Nashville from Birmingham for the retirement party, wrote that “a brief statement does not begin to capture our sadness.” Vanderbilt athletes, current and former, men and women, black and white, commented in the most personal ways about the influence Williams had in their lives. He was a father or grandfather figure to many, always had an open door, always made time for them. The conversations, they wrote, were about life, not sports. He treated them as if they were his sons and daughters, and he wanted the best for them.
Rosevelt Noble, director of Vanderbilt’s Black Cultural Center, made space available for faculty and staff to sit and share memories. African-American colleagues recalled through tears the significance of Williams’ presence on campus. A strong, fearless, and respected black man in such a powerful position at a predominantly white institution made life a bit easier, the campus more welcoming. Knowing he was there, they could be themselves. He believed in them, even when they did not.
By midafternoon, the chancellor’s office had emailed guests that there would be no celebration that evening. The honoree had died.
Instead, at the Williams’ home, where close friends and family gathered to celebrate a remarkable life, there was a knock at the door. It was a delivery from Vanderbilt. The food intended for Williams’ retirement party had arrived for his wake.