Joe Williams, who coached Artis Gilmore and tiny Jacksonville University to the 1970 NCAA tournament championship game against mighty UCLA, died Saturday. He was 88.
Williams, who also coached at Furman and Florida State, died in Enterprise, Mississippi, while in hospice care after a lengthy battle with cancer, his son Joe Williams Jr. said.
The Dolphins were one of the true Cinderella teams in NCAA tournament history. Led by the 7-foot-2 Gilmore and unranked to start the season, they beat Western Kentucky, Iowa, Kentucky and St. Bonaventure on their way to the championship game. They scored more than 100 points 18 times that season, including three times in the tournament.
In the final, they faced a Bruins program in the middle of coach John Wooden’s dynasty. UCLA won 80-69 for its fourth consecutive national championship and sixth in seven years.
Williams was an assistant coach at Furman when he took over the Jacksonville program in 1964, and the school played in the NAIA for one more season before moving to the NCAA, where it quickly rose to prominence.
Gilmore had played his first two seasons in junior college before signing with Williams and Jacksonville.
Williams was willing to recruit Black players to Southern colleges when many coaches still refused to do so, and protected them in hostile environments on the road, his son said.
“He was one of the first coaches in the South to do that. When Dad would travel with the team, if there was a restaurant that wouldn’t let the whole team eat together, Dad just packed the whole team up and they went to a restaurant where they could,” Joe Williams Jr. said.
“Dad was never one to get on a soapbox and talk about stuff like that, it was more that he just always did the right thing. … He went through a lot. He got death threats in the mail. But he just realized all his players were equal and wanted to treat them equally. It was about teaching his players how to be a good human being.”
The son and brother of Methodist ministers, Williams got into coaching by accident, his son said. He was a junior high school English teacher in Jacksonville when someone realized the tall guy in the hallways had played basketball in college and asked if he wanted to help coach.
“He realized that was his passion and that’s what he wanted to do,” Joe Williams Jr. said.
Williams left Jacksonville after the title game appearance to return to Furman, where he coached until 1978 before heading to Florida State. He finished with a record of 336-231 over 22 seasons and was inducted into the Jacksonville University Hall of Fame in 1994.