Chandra Johnson, far left, and Joseph Thornton, second from left, speak to a packed house Friday night in Cuthbert during the dedication of the brand new Randolph-Clay gymnasium in honor of former Red Devils boys basketball coach Joe Williams, who died last year. Johnson, who is Williams’ only child, and Thornton, who is Williams’ grandson, hold a jersey — which reads “RCHS Joe Williams 1015 WINS” to signify Williams’ 1,015 career victories — that was framed and placed on the wall as other members of Williams’ friends and family look on. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CUTHBERT — Chandra Johnson, the only child of the late legendary Randolph-Clay boys basketball coach Joe Williams, started to answer and then paused.
How special was this night to her and her family?
With wet eyes, she cleared her throat and continued.
“It’s a special night. It was kind of hard to walk into the gym and not see him,” Johnson said of her father, who passed away last year. “It’s bittersweet. This gym, this school was the love of my father. He would rather be here than at home. And even when he was at home, his heart was here.”
Williams, a man who meant so much to so many in Cuthbert and beyond, was honored at halftime of Friday night’s boys game between Randolph-Clay and Calhoun County in the newly-renovated Red Devils gymnasium. In front of a capacity crowd of more than 1,000 and standing on the newly-named “Joe C. Williams Gymnasium” court along with Williams’ family, Randolph-Clay principal Ronald Gadsen unveiled an encased jersey with the number 1,105 — representing Williams’ school-record amount of wins during his coaching career at Randolph-Clay.
As the crowd erupted in applause in appreciation for the coach who captured six state titles — four at Randolph-Clay — and won 90 games in a row between 2003 and 2006, Johnson grabbed the microphone to share her own appreciation for the crowd that came to remember her father.
“He loved his players,” Johnson said. “And even when he was at home, he would sit in his chair and draw up plays.”
About 15 feet behind Johnson in the corner of the gymnasium was an open chair, sitting in a spot now affectionately called “Joe’s Corner.”
“He would always sit right there by me, and we would watch the games together,” Randolph-Clay athletic director Daniel McFather said, pointing to the open chair where Williams retired three years ago. “I remember asking him, ‘Coach, do you miss it?’ He said he missed it some, but not the practices. He just enjoyed being around kids and being around the game.”
Williams may have missed coaching basketball, and on Friday night it was evident how many people missed him.
“Thank goodness that we had Coach Joe come our way,” Gadsen said before the ceremony. “He’s one of the best individuals I have ever met, so to see everybody come out (Friday night) and pay homage to him is just a special feeling.”
Gadsen was part of Randolph-Clay’s first graduating class in 1981 and remembers meeting Williams back when he was a student.
“He was Coach Joe. He was always even-keeled,” Gadsen said. “I never saw him panic. I never saw him upset. I don’t think I ever heard him yell or scream. He was just a likeable guy. Everybody liked him, and he produced basketball players.”
Basketball players weren’t the only things Williams produced. Joseph Thornton, Williams’ grandson who played four years at Randolph-Clay for his grandfather, remembers him as a teacher of life.
“He didn’t just coach basketball, he coached life,” Thornton said. “It’s very emotional for me right now. I have always been around my grandfather, and coming back here and retiring his jersey and everything, it’s just not real. He has been gone for a short time, but I can’t believe he’s gone.”
They came by the hundreds to honor Williams on Friday night, wearing T-shirts that read, “Gone but not forgotten.”
Retiring the jersey, creating Joe’s Corner and renaming the court wasn’t all that the school did to honor one of the greatest coaches in Georgia’s history. The boys and girl teams wore patches on their jerseys with the initials “JW,” and Gadsen said he planed on keeping those patches on the jerseys “until they tear the gym down.”
Williams’ traditional red jacket that he wore to each game will also be draped over a chair on Randolph-Clay’s bench during every home game.
Johnson was grateful for the tribute, and she said she knew just what her dad would have said had he heard about the ceremony.
“He would probably say, ‘Why are they doing all of this? It’s just a ball game, and I just want the boys to go out there and do their best,’ ” Johnson said. “And his last sentence would be, ‘It’s just that simple.’ ”
And if Williams would have been present to witness the hundreds of people paying tribute, Thornton knows exactly what he would tell his grandfather.
“Job well done,” Thornton said. “I would tell him, ‘Job well done.’ ”