Rob Williams won his 500th career game last year at Lee County High School, where he has spent all 25 years of his head coaching career. Williams decided late Monday evening to hang up his cleats, then reflected on his tenure with the Trojans on Tuesday, saying, “Ultimately, what it came down to was it just being the right time.” Williams finishes with a 529-205 career record.
LEESBURG — At the very foundation of one of the brightest careers in Major League Baseball today is one man who desires little credit if the subject ever comes up.
Rob Williams, the longtime head coach of Lee County High School’s state powerhouse program who retired Tuesday after 25 seasons, never seeks recognition for laying the groundwork years ago that helped cultivate two-time World Series champion and reigning NL MVP Buster Posey into the superstar he is today.
But Posey, for one, thinks Williams should.
“I owe a lot to him. He’s a guy who’s been there for me and all his players over the years. One thing I learned from him that’s always stuck with me through my career is how he taught me the right way to play the game and how to respect the game — and I think that’s important on so many different levels,” Posey, San Francisco’s All-Star catcher, told The Herald on Tuesday before the Giants’ game against the Washington Nationals upon learning of Williams’ decision to retire. “Anyone who follows baseball knows what a humbling game it is. And Rob taught me that if you ever get too comfortable, it can bring you back down real quick.”
When Posey led the Giants to the franchise’s first World Series title in 2010 during his rookie season, it was Williams who reminded him during the offseason never to be satisfied and to begin focusing on No. 2.
After a lost season due to an injury in 2011, followed by a healthy 2012 campaign, Posey earned that second ring — all while his coach’s wise words swirled around his head.
“That means a lot, and I really appreciate (Buster) saying that,” Williams said Tuesday when told of Posey’s comments. “And he’s right, I always tell the kids, ‘If you respect the game, it will respect you back.’ So it’s nice to hear that that lesson stuck with him after all these years.
“It was definitely a dream come true to coach a player of his caliber.”
Williams, who spent his entire head coaching career with the Trojans, came to Lee County 27 years ago after eight years as an assistant at Colquitt County, then he spent four years as an assistant with the Trojans before finally taking over in 1989.
Williams, who compiled a career record of 529-205, said the decision to finally hang up the cleats was one of the toughest calls he’s ever had to make.
“It was not a quick decision, but I think I pretty much knew coming into the season this was going to be my last year. And at the end of the year, I really thought long and hard about it,” he said. “Ultimately, what it came down to was it just being the right time. These kids deserve someone who has the energy to keep up with them. And I just didn’t feel I could (meet those standards).”
Williams, 63, added that his decision to retire had nothing to do with any health concerns and that he will continue his role as Lee County’s athletic director, as well as teach physical education — just as he has for the last two decades.
“Other than a recent hernia surgery I just had, my health is just fine,” Williams said with a laugh. “Sometimes you just know it’s the right time, and this is one of those times.”
Williams, a member of the Georgia High School Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame, told his principal, Kevin Dowling, and the current Trojan players late Monday night of his decision to retire, and he said it came as a shock to most everyone — even his wife Sharron.
“She said, ‘Yeah, well, I’ll believe it when I see it,’ ” Williams joked, recalling his conversation with his longtime bride of 32 years. “I think everyone was pretty surprised I made the decision so quick (with the school year having just ended), even though some of them knew I was thinking about it.”
Dowling said there was “something in the works” to honor Williams for all his years of service to the baseball program, but with the announcement being less than 24 hours old by Tuesday afternoon, nothing firm had been set.
“Something special will be done, that’s for sure,” said Dowling, who first met Williams in 1994 and the two have been close friends ever since. “He’s a tremendous person and a tremendous baseball coach. Every once in awhile you have that one person who — when he leaves — you know he will be nearly impossible to replace or follow. I love him to death. He’s a great man, and it’s hard to imagine Lee County High School baseball without him.”
Dowling added that while Williams’ decision caught him a little off guard, he was glad Williams was “at peace with it.”
“That’s the most important thing to me, that he’s at peace with it. You can tell he is. He thought long and hard about it, and he simply doesn’t have the energy for it anymore,” Dowling said. “He’s doing this with the best interest of the kids in mind — and that’s something he’s done his entire career.”
Williams told The Herald in February of last year — after winning his 500th career game — he got into coaching only because he was merely “so-so” as a player.
“I wasn’t very good, but I was someone who loved to play,” Williams said last February. “The kids we have coming up today are a lot better than I was, that’s for sure.”
Posey knows Williams is to thank for that.
“It’s bittersweet, him retiring. He’s a guy who’s been there for so long that when you think of Lee County baseball, he’s the first person who comes to mind — at least for me,” Posey said. “It’s one of those deals where he’s had a great career and you’re happy for him, but, man, he will be missed.”
Posey wasn’t the only former Trojan star to express gratitude for his former coach Tuesday afternoon once word started to spread.
Daniel Nichols, The Herald’s reigning Player of the Year who just completed a standout freshman year at the University of Georgia, said if it wasn’t for Williams, he might not be playing major Division I baseball today.
“Coach Williams, I love that guy to death. He put me in good situations as a player coming up as a sophomore, did what was best for me to help me succeed and I owe a lot of my success to him,” said Nichols, who saw playing time as a true freshman for the Bulldogs, hitting three home runs and driving in 15 runs. “Coach Williams pretty much showed me the way. He helped me grow up and get ready for the rest of my life. That guy has been great to me and all his players.”
Of course, even with all the talent Williams had come through the program over the years, there is a crowning jewel missing from his career resumé: a state championship.
Lee reached the state playoffs 21 of the 25 years Williams was head coach, playing in 15 Elite 8s, four Final Fours and two state championship series (1991 and 2005). But that coveted ring always eluded him.
Posey, the leader of that 2005 team that lost in a decisive Game 3 to Henry County, said Tuesday he still laments how close the program came to delivering Williams a state title.
“That was one of my greatest memories with coach Williams, that state championship series my senior year,” Posey said. “I sure wish we could’ve got that one for him, but it was still a memorable season.”
Williams won’t argue that.
“You look back on that year and you definitely wish things would’ve turned out differently — especially since Buster was on deck when that final out was recorded. You wish he could’ve gotten the last at bat,” he said. “But again, yes, you look back and wish you could’ve at least won one, but when you look at the whole body of work and all that the program and the kids who came out of it accomplished, there’s plenty to be proud of.”
Surprisingly, Williams said that neither state title series was not one of the details first and foremost on his mind when he began contemplating retirement and reflecting on his career.
“Privately, this year, I would take in the different sites and the road trips we’d visit, knowing this could be it,” he said. “It brought back a lot of good memories and made me think about all the close friendships and relationships that have come out of being a coach and competitor.”
Williams, who said the search for his successor will begin immediately, added that he knows the school will likely honor him at some point — although he’s not in any hurry. After all, he hesitated to even tell the media or anyone outside of his inner circle about his decision.
“I didn’t say anything to anyone before the season began because I didn’t want this big farewell tour or anything. High school athletics is about the kids, not the coaches, so that’s why I didn’t say anything about it,” he said. “I just wanted this season — like all the others — to be about the kids.”
Posey used to be one of Williams’ “kids” — and sometimes he still feels that way. Posey knows his former coach keeps constant tabs on him from afar, and the two have communicated regularly by telephone and text message ever since Posey left Lee County for Florida State in 2005.
Posey said Tuesday that Williams’ efforts to stay in touch with him — long before he was a mega-star — has meant a lot.
“I think the special thing about coach Williams is how much he loves the game of baseball and how good of a person he genuinely is,” Posey said. “When he has players go on to college or the next level, he’s as excited as anybody.”
Speaking of excited, Tuesday’s announcement brought a little of that for Williams, as well.
“The good thing about retiring that I was telling Buster when we talked (Tuesday), is that now I’ll finally have some time to go out and see him play in San Francisco,” Williams said. “I already have my tickets to see him June 14-16 when San Francisco comes to Atlanta, but I can’t wait to watch Buster play in front of those home fans who love him so much. That will be great.”
And not a bad way to start retirement.