Southwest Georgia loses a legend

Former Randolph-Clay boys basketball coach Joe Williams finished his stories career in 2008 with 1,015 victories and six state titles, including four with the Red Devils. Williams died Tuesday in Cuthbert.

Former Randolph-Clay boys basketball coach Joe Williams finished his stories career in 2008 with 1,015 victories and six state titles, including four with the Red Devils. Williams died Tuesday in Cuthbert.

— Joe Williams may be gone, but he will never, ever be forgotten.

Williams, the legendary former coach of the Randolph-Clay boys basketball program who took the Red Devils to heights never thought possible, died Tuesday, taking with him a mystery that few know the answer to.

“How old was coach Joe?” asked current R-C boys basketball coach Oglesby Jackson, who was an assistant under Williams for two years from 2006-08 before being offered the head coaching job in 2009; Jackson confirmed Williams’ passing to The Herald.

“Well, that was one of the great mysteries about coach Joe — he never wanted to tell anyone his age,” Jackson continued, mustering a small, somber laugh in the wake of the loss of a man he described as a mentor and friend. “We believe he was in his 80s, but no one’s really sure. We do know he passed (Tuesday) morning — and he will be missed.”

Jackson, who learned of Williams’ passing from Williams’ family, said funeral arrangements will be made soon and a service is expected to held later this week.

Williams, whose coaching career spanned 46 seasons — beginning in 1962 at his alma mater Speight — put together one of the all-time greatest coaching careers in Georgia high school history. He amassed 1,015 victories, six state titles — four of which came at Randolph-Clay — and sent countless players onto college and NBA careers. Although, he may be most famous for leading the Red Devils program to the one-time state record of 90 straight wins from 2003-06.

The Herald first reported Williams’ retirement in its April 19, 2008, edition when Williams confirmed the rumors that he would not be returning to the sideline the following season, ending one of the greatest prep coaching careers the state has ever seen.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Williams told The Herald in 2008. “I had the mindset early on this was going to be my last season. I just felt this was the best time.”

Jackson said news of Williams’ passing spread quickly throughout the school Tuesday morning as the mood went from sadness to one of remembrance.

“He touched so many people, myself included,” said Jackson, who made it his mission to return the Red Devils to Joe-Williams-like-prominence when he took over in 2009. “I’m just so thankful I had a chance to know him and learn from someone as great as him. He was truly a legend.”

The school eventually named its gym after Williams, who was affectionately known to anyone and everyone in and around Southwest Georgia simply as “Coach Joe.”

After he began coaching at the school during the 1979-80 season, it took Williams just a short time to build the Red Devils into a state powerhouse.

But once they achieved that status, they never looked back.

In 1983, he won his first state title with the Red Devils, then followed that up with another in 1986. Randolph-Clay wouldn’t win it all again until 2004, but then repeated in 2005 as both titles came in the midst of that staggering 90-game win streak. The streak ended in the 2006 Class A state semifinals with a loss to Southwest Atlanta Christian.

Williams’ first head coaching job in 1962 at Speight yielded similar results as he led his alma mater to the state crown shortly thereafter in 1969. He then moved to Clay County, winning it all again in 1979, before taking his talents to Cuthbert and starting a dynasty no one will soon forget.

“We called the GHSA and told (the executive director) Mr. (Ralph) Swearingen of the news and they were all very sad,” Jackson said. “They all knew him up there (at the GHSA). They all remembered what he did. Everyone knew Coach Joe.”

Jackson, a native of Brooks County, first heard of Williams and his dominant program as a player, then encountered him as a young coach at Stewart-Quitman. But instead of being intimidated by Williams, Jackson said he befriended the coaching legend and a bond soon formed.

“My wife is from Cuthbert and she introduced me to him one time, and I walked into his office and tried to get him to give me some advice,” Jackson recalled. “And I think he really respected me coming to him and looking up to him because when I first got here, his teams were beating Stewart-Quitman something like, 140-40 or 130-30, but when I took over, they’d only beat us by 30 points or so — even though they could’ve beaten us by much more. I think that was his way of saying to me, ‘I respect you and I’m not going to crush you — but I’m still gonna beat you.’ ”

Despite Jackson’s goal to keep moving up the head coaching ranks, when he got a call from Williams with an offer to join his staff as an assistant in 2006, Jackson said he dropped everything and moved to Cuthbert to “learn under a legend,” knowing Williams wouldn’t be coaching that much longer.

“Oh man, it’s hard to narrow down the biggest thing I learned from him or the best piece of advice he gave me,” he said. “Really, every word out of his mouth was something you could learn from to make you better. I guess if there was one thing that always stuck with me about Coach Joe was that he always knew how to get the best out of every kid — no matter their talent level or position they played. He would take ordinary kids and make them extraordinary, and his teams would end up being stacked — and not like some of the other teams in the state that can pick and choose their kids, but he’d do it right here with the talent he had in his own city.”

When Williams retired in 2008, Jackson was initially passed over for the job and the program was left in the hands of another one of Williams’ assistants, Tyrone Kellog. But after a very un-Randolph-Clay-like 4-8 start to the 2008-09 season, Kellog was replaced by Jackson, who took over the team midseason and vowed to right the ship.

“A lot of people don’t realize all that went on out there. There was dissension. We lost our principal and our head basketball coach in the middle of the year and some of the kids (on the team in 2009) had their parents telling them to quit. It was just a difficult situation. There was a definite rift,” Jackson told The Herald last December. “The season was horrendous and people weren’t happy with how things were going. And after I had helped coach Joe with the team (in 2007 and 2008), by 2009, I wasn’t helping at all and I just figured if I ever got my chance, it would come some time later or at another school. Which was fine (with me). Like I said, I just figured it wasn’t my time.”

Jackson went 9-4 the rest of the way after taking over midseason in 2009, then returned for his first full season this past year, leading the Red Devils to an 18-9 record and a trip to the GHSA Class A Sweet 16.

Of course, he did it with a little help from — who else? — Coach Joe.

The duo exchanged regular phone calls from the time Jackson took over, leading Jackson to call the former Red Devils’ coach’s advice “invaluable” as he sought to restore the program to prominence.

“It helps,” Jackson told The Herald in December when asked about his talks with Williams. “That’s for sure.”

Williams coached such prominent players as Thomas Davis — who went on to a football career with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers — as well as former Naismith National Player of the Year and McDonald’s All-American Donnell Harvey. He’s also touched the lives and influenced the coaching careers of some of the most successful prep coaches in Southwest Georgia, including Terrell County head coach John Davis, who was Williams’ assistant for 13 years at Randolph-Clay. Davis went on to build the Greenwave into a dynasty all their own, getting to the Class A Final Four the last two seasons, including the state championship game last year.

Davis told The Herald on Tuesday he was devastated by the news.

“My heart is heavy,’’ said Davis, who all but broke down talking about Williams on Tuesday. “I wouldn’t be what I am today without him. There is a piece of him in me. He was a great coach, a great mentor. He taught me to be the coach I am today. He was something ... Just a great man. He was a great mentor to me throughout my life.’’

But Davis said Williams was more than a coach.

“He touched so many lives,’’ Davis said. “His legacy is basketball, but he was also a father, a coach, a mentor, a Christian and a great man. We all have been touched by him in so many ways.’’

On the court, Williams just didn’t coach Xs and Os, he brought the best out of his players, and always lifted them to heights they could not have imagined. He wasn’t a great coach because he had great players. He was a coach who made players great.

“The thing he taught me was how to take an average player and make him above average,’’ Davis said. “He could take any average kid and make him feel he was the best player on the court. I watched him take a kid who was not developed, kids who could not dribble or make a jump shot, and by the time they were at the end of their sophomore year they had the knowledge and the skill and the will to win and to get the job done on the basketball court.

“He could lose seven to 10 players every year and keep winning. Everyone would think Randolph-Clay will be down this year, and he would win. People would say, ‘Who moved in?’ But no one moved in, but Randolph-Clay won because Joe Williams could take an ordinary kid and make him extraordinary.’’

Davis said Williams was a man of passion, a man who loved the game, and passed that passion on to his players.

“When they heard Joe Williams’ voice, they would play hard and play smart and play with passion,’’ Davis said. “If you didn’t have passion you couldn’t play for coach Williams.’’

Jackson joked that he expects half of Southwest Georgia — and then some — to turn out for Williams’ funeral. And while he said he’s not certain who among the mourners will know Williams’ big secret of his true age, Jackson is certain there will be years upon years of Red Devils faithful turning out to pay their respects to the man who had such a powerful impact on so many lives.

“The main thing he instilled in me was just being proud of the name ‘Randolph-Clay’ — because it’s a name that, when teams would hear it, or know they had to play them, they already knew they were beaten,” Jackson said. “Teams would be excited just to be in games at halftime with Randolph-Clay, but they knew what was coming. And now, I’m proud to say I’m a part of it. No one will ever replace him, all I can try to do is continue what he started.”


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Herald sportswriter Mike Phillips contributed to this report