A Legacy of Lessons

Apr 182004
Authors: Zach Borg

Many people spend half their lives trying to decide what they

will do with it. It did not take as long for Jim “Jay Jay”


“I decided I wanted to be a coach in the fifth grade,” Williams

said. “That’s pretty young, you know what I mean?”

Though his days behind the bench have long since passed, the

84-year-old former CSU men’s basketball coach can still be found at

the courts of Moby Arena on cold winter evenings. He has spent his

entire life around the game of basketball, and the passion to teach

the game has not gone away. Yet, in an era when coaches put their

premium on wins, Williams is a throwback to the glory days of

college athletics and an era when a college education meant more

than a pro career.

These days, if you sit next to his courtside seat and listen, it

is as if the court were Williams’ classroom.

“Clear out that lane! Let him drive to the basket,” he yells.

“Second shot! Block out!”

Perhaps teaching and coaching mean so much to Williams because

he himself was far from an exemplary student.

“I was a very poor student, but athletics kept me going,”

Williams said. “I think through the years that followed my brother

grabbing me and saying, ‘You’re going to school’; I think that

experience along with the army experience just helped me


Getting started

A native of Utah, Williams served as a captain in the military

and was stationed at New Guinea. Following his stint, Williams

returned to Utah and coached at Snow Junior College. In addition to

coaching basketball, Williams coached football and baseball.

However, Williams found his true home in 1954 when he took the

reins of the Colorado A&M basketball program. He came to a

school that was a fledgling among college basketball programs.

Unlike the present day, in which the Rams play in the comfy

confines of their own home arena and have national-caliber practice

facilities, Williams had to coach in a cramped environment.

“We had the gymnasium and you’d have weights, wrestling and the

gymnastics coach behind the curtain, and he’d roll the mat down,

and they’d be practicing their tumbling on the side of the court,”

Williams said. “It was like coaching at Grand Central Station.”

Williams was a fiery competitor when it came time for tipoff and

was no stranger to mixing it up with referees. Still, it was that

attitude that led Williams to challenge some of the nation’s top

teams. Against legendary John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins, Williams

and the Rams were 2-2.

These intangibles ultimately earned Williams the respect and

friendship of his peers. Former University of Texas-El Paso coach

Don Haskins, a one-time national champion, recalls an example of

one of Williams’ legendary bouts with referees.

“One time, in El Paso, I’ll never forget, Jim got kicked out of

the game, and he had come all the way to my bench and challenged me

to get kicked out with him so we wouldn’t have to watch the

officiating in that particular game,” Haskins said while laughing.

“And I accommodated him, so we went and drank coffee, and we both

had our runners telling us the scores. Evidently his assistants

were better than mine because they won.”

Going beyond wins and losses

Williams coached the Rams from 1954 to 1980, a total of 25

seasons, winning 352 games. Four times he guided Colorado State to

the NCAA Tournament, including the 1969 season, in which the Rams

beat the University of Colorado in the second round to advance to

the Elite 8. To this date, it is the closest any athletic program

at CSU has ever come to winning a national title.

“I remember we beat CU, and everyone thought we won the national

championship,” Williams recalled. “We tried to practice the next

day, but there were just throngs of media, and we didn’t get

anything done. It’s my greatest regret because I think we could

have beaten Drake (the team the Rams lost to in the Elite 8). I

said to the kids that there is always something more in everything

you do.”

In addition to building a winning basketball program, Williams

helped to enhance the entire athletic department during his time as

athletic director from 1964 to 1968. The school experienced its

greatest period of growth, highlighted by the construction of

Hughes Stadium and Moby Arena.

Beyond the game, though, Williams was much more than a coach. He

took the lead in breaking the color line in college basketball,

recruiting several prominent African-American athletes, like former

CSU All-American Bill Green.

“Bill Green didn’t have anything,” Williams said. “He was dead

set on getting an education, and I did everything I could to help

him get one.”

Although he was drafted sixth overall by the powerful Boston

Celtics, Green turned down a pro career to become a teacher. By the

time of his death in 1994, Green had become one of the nation’s

foremost educators in Brooklyn.

“He went to the Bronx and did a great job, and he’s probably the

best basketball player that ever played here,” Williams said.

Main purpose: Providing opportunity to succeed

Regardless of race or ethnicity, Williams was concerned with

giving his athletes a chance to succeed in life, which left a

lasting impact on virtually every young man he coached. One of

Williams’ first players, Boyd Grant, worked with Williams for

several years as an assistant coach following his playing career

and was later the head coach at CSU from 1988 to 1991. Through the

years, Grant saw firsthand the life lessons his mentor imparted on

his young players.

“Here’s a man who gave his whole life to be an influence on the

young people he recruited, and so many of them are so successful,”

Grant said. “And I think that they are still doing some of the

things Coach Williams taught them, like teamwork, paying the price

for others to be successful, having integrity and being honest, and

playing defense. And when you play defense you’re a giver, and not

a taker, and thus you contribute to society.”

Beyond the court, beyond the classroom, Williams was a teacher,

and that is the legacy he would like to leave.

“When they judge me, I’d like to have people remember my

graduation rate of my players, because the rest of that stuff are

just a statistic,” Williams said. “But it’s that you’re teaching,

and you’re accomplishing something.”

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