by Andrew Kenney
photographs by Geoff Wood
Coach wears black athletic gear today. There’s a blue sky above his brick-red running track, a shadow on his face from his ball cap, and a ring with seven diamonds on his finger. He blows his whistle once, lets it drop, and mouths a few words as his runners jog toward him.
This is George Williams. This track and field, named for him, sit at the end of a crumbling road, also named for him. He is 72 years old, and he eats lunch every day at St. Augustine University’s cafeteria. He is widely considered one of the best track coaches in America.
His team knows to sit for his talk. They’re months into the season already –Williams’ 38th year coaching on this gated campus near downtown Raleigh – but his speech goes, as always, to fundamentals more fundamental than running.
“We’re here to work with you,” he says, clear and quiet, “so you can get you an education, and if you can, go to the next level, or get you a job. Get a job that pays good money – pays more than $10 an hour.”
His runners have reason to listen, because others he has coached have become not just Olympians and All-Americans, but lawyers and coaches, too. Williams has taken 33 national championships and come to know thousands of athletes as he has ushered them to better lives.
Recognized nationally but little known to the public, this Division II coach led the U.S. Olympic men’s track and field team in Athens in 2004 and still trains a corps of some of the fastest professional runners in the world.
In England they call him Sir George; in South America, Señor Jorge. In Afrikaans, he’s Die Magtige: The Mighty One.
In Raleigh, where they call him Pup, he’s worried.
“We’ve just got to get this program back going like it used to be,” Williams tells his runners.
Like many other historically black schools, St. Aug’s faces a financial crisis. The university’s board in April fired its longtime president, Dianne Boardley Suber, amid questions about the school’s financial viability. An audit showed problems with financial controls and plummeting tuition revenue from dropping enrollment.
Coach doesn’t mention any of this to his athletes, because it’s not all that new. He’s used to hardscrabble, just like he’s used to winning, and he chose this path. An upgrade to the George Williams Athletic Complex sits on hold, his track hurdles are loaners from Duke University, and he paid for the team’s three sets of starting blocks himself.
He has turned down head jobs at the University of Southern California and the University of Cincinnati in order to stay here. He’s used to fighting for talent with schools that can give duffel bags of clothing and other perks to their pampered athletes.
“I think you’re on the right track. I think you’re on the right track. I think you’re on the right track,” he tells the men and women sprawled around him.
Then the speech is over, and Coach pulls a young man from the ground – “Help the old man up.”
He’s joking with the guys, joking with the young women, doling out his instructions for the day. Then he’s blowing his whistle again, unleashing heats of runners into thundering sprints that quiet as they round the other side of the track.
“The least you can do is run well for him,” says world champion and Olympic medalist Bershawn Jackson, 31. “There’s no better sergeant to have.”
Jackson was barely 20 years old when he learned he’d have a daughter. He told George Williams first.
Jackson had run for St. Augustine’s for only a year at the time, but his coach already was his mentor on and off the track. Coach Williams told Jackson that he had to be a good father, and that he would be.
The runner had no doubt, because coach had never been wrong.
They’d met in 2004, when Jackson was just another fast kid in Miami. The young runner grew up in Overtown, once called Colored Town – the same place George Williams did. Jackson says he comes from a “dope family:” Some of his uncles and cousins sold cocaine and weed, and whatever else they could.
“When I was a kid, nobody ever told me I could make it,” he says, stretching in warm-up gear at St. Aug’s small, brick-walled gym. “My surroundings, my neighborhood, was killing, violence. I thought that was my calling.”
Coach Williams tells stories about his own childhood in “O-town,” too. He remembers the same parks, the same sports, the same fine line a clean kid had to walk. He brags about his skills back then – they called him “Dog,” which later became “Pup” – and he remembers that gangs left the athletes alone.
“They saw a future for us,” Williams says. “There’s always a way out. Back in the ’60s, that was a way out for kids.” He shakes his head at the memory.
Things had changed by Jackson’s day, according to the younger man. He says Overtown is “10 times worse” now – but track still was a ticket to college. Jackson had fought, he’d been in trouble, but by the end of high school, he was in talks with big schools, Division I schools.
A former coach suggested Jackson meet George Williams, but the young runner was hesitant. He had never heard of George Williams, who had followed such a similar path out of Miami, and he hadn’t given a thought to St. Aug’s Division II program.
“I go, ‘No, I’m D-I quality,’” Jackson says. Yet soon enough he was boarding a plane for Raleigh, toward a first meeting and a change of heart. He trusted Williams from the beginning, he said, especially because they shared a hometown. In that first meeting the coach was laying the groundwork, looking for his runner’s trust so he could begin to guide the young man.
“Coach said, ‘I’m going to let you do things you’ve never done,’ ” the runner recalls, marveling at the memory. “And I believed him. We had that connection. It came so fast.”
Style of his own
Part of Williams is obsessive, zeroed in on the stretch of the calf and quads, the way his runners’ legs pull their floating bodies along the lanes. This is George Williams as stickler, the boss who wants perfection.
Then there’s the fatherly coach – almost grandfatherly now – who just wants to see his kids do well. Sometimes he’s both.
“I don’t worry too much about it,” he says, watching his jumpers crash down into the long sandpit at another practice. “Anything my kids do is all right with me, as long as they tried their best…” Suddenly, one of them does something he doesn’t like.
“Whoa, whoa, you didn’t do it! You went back to that same old stuff!” he tells a woman who has leaped long and landed off-balance.
Everyone says coach doesn’t yell, but he is audibly omnipresent in his athletic complex, and he turns a good phrase.
“Don’t worry ‘bout nobody but who? … You!”
“HEY, YOU MISSED TWO CONES, GIRL!”
“Swing your arms back, baby! Let ’em go, let ‘em go!”
“You need to get yourself together, young lady. You need to see the trainer.”
“I’ll take that all day with you. I like that.”
The sprinters are grimacing and bending to catch their breath, and they can’t think about running 10 more steps, but they nod at Coach’s advice and they change their stride a bit when they’re back between the white lines. Over time, those words work.
“Hearing it from him, it does something, it gives you a boost,” says Gerkenz Senesca, a Jersey native who runs for his parents’ Haiti, on that country’s national team. “When he tells me I’m ready, I believe him.”
Shana Cox had been running for 15 years before she met Coach, setting eight records at Penn State, a school with about 60 times the enrollment of St. Aug’s. Yet when she began her professional training here, it seemed as if Williams had everything to teach her.
“The most important thing was the way he broke down my race. I kind of felt like I learned to run the 400 all over again,” said Cox, who lives in Cary with a fellow runner and competes for Great Britain.
Williams’ talent, according to many of his runners, is making sense of the hundreds of mundane laps that make up a season. He can tell you how a shift in your balance will change your turns. More than that, he can tell you why a faster time matters, or why schoolwork matters, or why anything matters – and it’s not so much in his words but in his urgency.
“I was talking to the kids today. I broke down. I started crying. ‘You got to make it. You got to make it,’” he says one day, the creases on his face tightening, his voice even in the recounting of it somewhere between a plea and an exhortation. “You’ve got to make it, got to. If you don’t make it here, life will eat you up.”
Community at the heart
People talk about community, but Williams was raised for it. In Overtown, everyone who left for college expected to come home. Some of his childhood teachers had returned to O-Town from St. Augustine’s in Raleigh, 800 miles north.
“In our neighborhood, we thought if we could go to college, and sports could help us pay our way, then we could be that doctor in the neighborhood, the lawyer around the corner,” he says. “You thought if you got a little education, you could be one of those.”
Williams thought he might be a teacher if his basketball dreams didn’t work out. He majored in education at St. Augustine’s, with an athletic scholarship paying for 75 percent of tuition. He met some of his future mentors during those years, both at St. Aug’s and on the staff of rival teams.
He swung from graduation toward a try at the big league. But the Detroit Pistons wouldn’t take him, so in the late ’60s he became one of the first black teachers in the then all-white Cary Elementary School.
Williams was grooming kids even back then, preparing young basketball and football players for Cary High School. He did his job well enough to get the attention of St. Augustine’s Prezell Robinson and Wiley Davis, who offered him a job in alumni affairs when he was in his late 20s.
Williams was an assistant basketball coach within two seasons. In those early years, as a recruiter and basketball lieutenant, he showed an intuition for the slippery topics of motivation and trust.
“The head coach always has their head in the clouds,” says Addison Ingram, 66, who played basketball and ran track under Williams. “Then you’ve got Pup. Pup was one of those assistant coaches that was a bridge between.”
Williams stayed on the better part of a decade, well into his 30s, before the administration offered him the head track job in 1976. It wasn’t the job or sport he’d imagined for himself, and he wasn’t exactly ready for it.
“No, it was not good, it was not good,” Ingram says of Williams’ first track season. He was one of the few guys Williams had convinced, mostly through good will and trust, to join the struggling transitional team.
“I had never run the quarter, the 400. I said, ‘Coach, how I run the 400, man?’ He said, ‘You start off fast and finish fast.’ I said, ‘Coach, there’s got to be a better way, man.’ ”
So Williams set out to learn, and he asked Winston-Salem State basketball coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines and N.C. Central track coach LeRoy Walker for help. Then Williams came back with some adjustments for Ingram. “Take it easy on the backstretch,” he said.
And, in what may be the first example of Williams’ magic, it worked. Ingram started putting up points. He felt a little bit of confidence take hold.
Unfortunately, the rest of the team wasn’t doing so well. In the locker room and over lunches, at the pre-meet gatherings and in the huddle, Williams’ athletes and mentors were telling him they needed something more.
“I said, ‘Homeboy, you got to go and get some runners, man,’ ” Ingram said. “And he said, ‘Hold on, I got some coming.’ ”
Williams headed first to the Miami neighborhoods and coaches he knew as a kid. He came back with eight guys from Miami-Dade Junior College, now Miami Dade College. They were good already, so he had to make a hell of a pitch.
“He explained to them what we had, which was nothing,” Ingram says. He remembers meeting the new prospects at the end of their campus tour, wondering whether Williams had won them over, knowing the program depended upon it.
“They said, ‘Is he really the same way he seems to be?’ ” the runner recalled. “I said, ‘What you see is what you get from him.’” Then Ingram asked if they’d come back. The Miami runners said they’d bring the whole team.
That’s when the streak began. They broke records the next season. They caught fire. They had the rest of the student body coming out in droves to cheer.
They went to nationals with a program so broke it couldn’t afford full uniforms, which nearly disqualified them.
“They said he had to write a reason why he didn’t have the same matching top and shorts,” Ingram said. “Coach sat down and wrote that up…I have no idea what he wrote – but whatever it was, it was good, because they let us run.”
Two years later, Williams had a leadership role in the yearly national meet, Ingram recalls. And nearly 40 years on, Coach still travels to Miami, to cities across the country, and to the Caribbean to find fast kids who need a chance.
Williams claims he doesn’t have to recruit any more, but that’s the biggest joke he ever told. Track is built on Coach. He’s taking kids coached by his own former runners, or from island communities that he has tapped since the ’80s, recruiting on decades of trust.
He’s the one who showed a thousand runners what a little college in downtown Raleigh can do.
Today scores of people circle Williams’ modest life in Raleigh. He wakes at 6:30 each morning to take tea while his wife drinks coffee, thinking all the while about the sprinters and hurdlers and relay runners and walk-ons who will be waiting for his advice that day. Some of them are long past graduation.
“He’s quiet, but he talks to every individual athlete. He’ll give you time. He never abandons anyone,” says Senesca, 23, who finished St. Aug’s last year.
Bershawn Jackson, the fast kid from Overtown, has made sprinting a career. All through the decade of his starry streak as an Olympic medalist and a world champion, he has kept Williams as his only running coach. Ten full years have passed since his only year of undergraduate running, yet he’s at the George Williams Athletics Complex five times a week to seek Coach’s advice.
Few of Williams’ athletes are able, like Jackson, to live on running alone, but dozens of them come back to St. Augustine’s anyway.
“That’s the thing about Coach. You can always come back. He always willing to help,” says Laurias Eugene. He burned out on running, taking years off to work as an advocate for low-income families through Turning Point Family Care. Coach was waiting when he was ready.
Sandy Chapman, a former runner, was a bail bondsman for nearly a decade before he returned to St. Augustine’s as a coach. He volunteered for years before he got his break. And, in the reverse, Williams in many cases doesn’t take payment from his post-collegiate athletes, Jackson says.
That indelible dedication, his students say, makes it hard to ignore Williams’ advice on school, work and sprint starts.
“He can be anywhere, any school, but he invests so much here, in St. Aug’s,” says Shana Cox, 29, one of his professional runners. “To him, it’s not just another athlete or another team or another year.”
George Williams is speaking from memory when he talks about running.
“Gosh, I miss it a lot,” he says as another heat of runners lopes over the hurdles that St. Aug’s had to borrow from Duke. It looks easy from a distance, from far enough away that a visitor can’t hear their feet pound and their sharp breaths.
“Every time I see them, my legs wanna say, ‘Hey, you can do it,’ ” Williams says.
He knows he can’t, of course. He mostly walks for exercise now, and he jogs only when he’s at the beach. He’s getting old, and he thinks that’s kind of funny.
“I’m’a show you how old I am,” Williams says as an undergrad jogs past. “That kid just passed you? His mother ran for me.”
Williams won’t tell his runners yet when he’ll quit coaching for the university. He knows how much of the program is built on him, and he doesn’t want St. Aug’s undergrad talent to transfer out to other schools. He admits it could come soon.
He’s weary, in part, of his limited resources. “You don’t get tired of the kids,” he says. “You get tired of the equipment. You get tired of asking your friends for stuff.” But there’s also the fact that he’s a decade past retirement age. Great coaches tend to work long into old age, but there’s only so long it can last.
In these twilight years, Williams sees his successes all the more clearly. He names athletes who went on to coach their own teams, or to practice law in New York. Yet he can’t be finished, because he sees his youngest runners coming from the same cities and the same poverty as his first teams.
“Most of them come from disadvantaged neighborhoods,” he says. Many of their parents were first-generation college students, but their education hasn’t brought economic balance, Williams says. “They’re better off academically, but not financially.”
More than ever, Williams believes that historically black colleges and their athletic programs are necessary – and are obligated – to guide teenagers coming out of impoverished areas.
He’ll leave an endless legacy when he does. There are his dozens of records and trophies, and there are sheaths of certificates and honors, mostly packed up in boxes at St. Augustine’s, and there are alumni all over the world, and there’s his ring with seven diamonds, for seven national championships in a row at St. Aug’s.
Maybe most importantly, there’s the philosophy of a man who still looks back to Overtown, and to his own mentors. He still relies on his memories of people like the late LeRoy Walker, his friend and the first black president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“I’m still standing on his shoulders, still using his workouts,” Williams says. “He’s still winning.”
Coach Williams’ protégés will remember him the same way. Bershawn Jackson and Gerkenz Senesca are coaching now, too – Jackson with local youth at nationals, and Senesca with the young Raleigh Rockets. Maybe, they say, they can do for these kids what coach did for them. George Williams is an anchor for these men and women, even after the running’s done.
“Everything he says, I grasp at. I try to absorb as much as I can,” Senesca says.
“I got good guidance,” says Jackson. “Coach Williams ain’t going to steer me the wrong way.”