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Joe Williams, who coached the small college Jacksonville men’s basketball team to its greatest glory — the 1970 NCAA championship game against John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty — died Saturday. He was 88 years old.
Williams died in Enterprise, Mississippi, while in hospice after a long battle with cancer, his son Joe Williams Jr. said.
Williams was best known and will forever be remembered as the leader of one of the most memorable Cinderella stories in NCAA tournament history. His 1970 JU Dolphins team, led by Artis Gilmore, had a stunning run to the NCAA Finals, losing to UCLA and Coach Wooden in the championship game, 80-69 .
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“Joe had this dream, in my opinion, to make us as good as we can be,” said Tom Wasdin, who took over from Williams as head coach after the 1970 season, according to the Florida Times-Union. “We were trying to outplay everyone and found that talent was more important than training. We didn’t have guys good enough to play against the big schools.”
Williams was an assistant coach at Furman before coming to JU in 1964. The Dolphins competed in the NAIA for one more season before moving to Division I.
In Williams’ sixth and final season with the team, she completed her impressive run, beating Western Kentucky, Iowa, Kentucky and St. Bonaventure before losing to UCLA. The win gave UCLA its fourth consecutive national championship and sixth in seven years.
Gilmore and Rex Morgan were both All-American players for the Dolphins, who started the season unranked. Gilmore played his first two seasons in junior college before signing with Williams and Jacksonville.
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“So we went out and brought in some very good gentlemen [Pembrook] Burrows, Gilmore, Morgan, Chip Dublin, and the rest is history. He turned JU from a NAIA school into a Division I powerhouse. Joe never got credit for being as good a coach as he was. He won everywhere he went,” Wasdin added.
In 22 seasons, Williams compiled an overall record of 336-231 as a head coach at JU (1964-1970), Furman and Florida State University. Williams left Jacksonville after the title match appearance to return to Furman, where he coached until 1978 before heading to Florida State.
What made Williams different was his willingness to recruit black players from Southern colleges at a time when many coaches still refused to do so, his son said.
“He was one of the first coaches in the South to do that. When dad was traveling with the team, if there was a restaurant that wouldn’t let the whole team eat together, dad would pack the whole team, and they were going to a restaurant where they could,” Joe Williams Jr.
“Dad was never one to get on a soapbox and talk about stuff like that. It was more that he always did the right thing. …He’s been through a lot. He received death threats in the mail. But he just realized that all of his players were equal and wanted to treat them the same. It was about teaching his players how to be a good human being,” his son added. .
Williams became a coach by accident, his son said. Williams was a high school English teacher in Jacksonville until someone realized he was playing basketball in college and asked if he wanted to help the coach.
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“He realized that was his passion and that’s what he wanted to do,” said Joe Williams Jr.
The Associated Press contributed to this report