It seemed fit that the man who coached CSU men’s basketball during “the glory days” be remembered on his home court.
On the rustic, hardwood floors of the old South Gymnasium, former Rams players towered over the mix of 200 family, friends and CSU loyalists who gathered at the Jim “J.J.” Williams memorial Saturday.
Williams, a World War II veteran, died of pneumonia May 31 at 92, and more than seven years after being diagnosed with leukemia.
“(We) used to joke that he would never pass,” said Gary Ozzello, assistant athletics director and former co-worker of Williams. “He’s just too ornery, I’d say.”
As a young man, Williams either wanted to be a coach or a cowboy, his daughter, Joan Williams, said.
It was his experience in the Army – something he spoke of only once to his team – and the leadership he acquired there that ultimately brought him to Colorado A&M in 1954.
Before the service began, road stories and play-by-play commentaries bounced off the antique walls of the retired basketball court, where Williams was famous for his sideline fits and hollering at unsuspecting referees – sometimes racking up to seven technical fouls in one game.
“I was always behind him when he walked out and yelled at the refs,” Joan Williams said.
“This was his place,” said former Rams football star Pastor Johnny Square before the opening prayer and before passing the podium to CSU legends Irv Brown and Boyd Grant.
The mood was nostalgic and uplifting, as those who knew Williams came to celebrate the life of a man they remember as “intense, but fair,” “stubborn” and “a champion for diversity.”
Only months before his death, the man who almost always sported cowboy boots and large-framed eyeglasses could still be seen occupying his courtside seat at a Rams game, giving advice to players and a piece of his mind to the refs.
“He might have been 90 years old, but he had a sharp mind. that’s what a lot of people found intriguing about him,” said Lawrence Neal, a CSU alum who played for Williams in 1977 and 1978.
During his stint as head coach and for three years as athletic director, Williams won 352 games at CSU, more games than any other Division I coach in state history. His teams – 1954 through 1980 – made four NCAA and two National Invitational tournament appearances.
“I’d say he’s the greatest basketball coach who ever coached here,” said Boyd Grant, his assistant coach and successor as head coach in 1980.
Grant and CSU officials credit Williams with building the athletic department from the ground up – almost literally, as he was instrumental in the construction of Hughes Stadium and Moby Arena and for catapulting CSU’s legitimacy into the Western Athletic Conference.
And in 1988, the coaching legend sealed his place in CSU history, when he was added to the university’s athletics hall of fame.
His most-hailed contribution, though, was his commitment to diversity at CSU and to his players.
In 2004, Williams told the Collegian, “I’d like to have people remember the graduation rate of my players.”
As a black man in the ’70s, Neal remembers Coach Williams as someone who gave everyone a shot, regardless of race.
“My senior year, he started five African-American basketball players,” he said. “Color wasn’t an issue with him. If you had effort, then you had an opportunity. There are a lot of people who owe him a lot.”
“That’s what he did,” said Highlands Ranch High School boys basketball coach Bob Caton, who played for Williams and still teaches some of his plays. “He found players and helped them better their lives.”
But the revered coach was also known to cause a little trouble, says Deworth Williams, his nephew.
“He was stubborn,” Deworth said, as he told of the time a young Coach Williams snapped his brother’s fingers with a mousetrap, instead of retrieving the glass of water his brother expected.
“He had a unique sense of humor.”
Williams was born March 19, 1915 in Malad, Idaho. He is survived by his two daughters, Carol, who lives in Denver, and Joan, who lives in Fort Collins.
Joan Williams says it’s difficult to sum up her father’s legacy in a news story, adding simply, “He loved basketball.”
In his closing words, Caton said Williams, his intensity and his love of the game forever touched him.
“He never lost a game – coach never lost a game. It’s just those clocks up there that said he had to stop playing.”
Editor in chief J. David McSwane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A scholarship fund has been established in Williams’ name. Donations can be made to the Jim “J.J” Williams Memorial Scholarship Endowment established through the CSU Foundation at P.O. Box 1870, Fort Collins, CO 805222