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Meet Trojan Men’s Basketball Coach Jimmie Williams

Written by Andrew J. Beckner

The center of the basketball universe is in Springfield, Massachusetts. Everyone knows that.

It was there, in the winter of 1891 at the local YMCA, that the Rev. James Naismith, a Presbyterian minister born in a small province in western Canada, was having trouble keeping unruly kids busy and focused. So, he invented a game to keep them occupied. He called it basketball.

Well, no, actually it’s Madison Square Garden, where the court is lit like the grandest stage, where the human drama that involves very tall humans running up and down a hardwood surface attempting to put a leather ball into steel hoops has played out in front of thousands of fans over the years.

Or is it somewhere less specific? Some undefined place in the endless plains of Indiana, where for generations the game became a quasi-religion? After all, Indiana is the only state whose moniker is synonymous with basketball: the Hoosier State.

No. You’ve all got it wrong. Just ask Jimmie Williams.

It’s Kansas—full stop.

That’s where Williams grew up with a ball in his hands and dreams of hoops immortality in his head. He got started on those dreams at an early age. As a teenager, he was a star shooting guard at Olathe East High School, where in 1998 he led the Hawks to their first—and thus far, only—Kansas 6A State Championship. From there he played collegiately at MidAmerica Nazarene University, also located in Olathe, Kansas. During his four years, the Pioneers won 117 games, and Williams was twice named to the all-conference team.

After five years away from basketball—a time he calls “a huge void in my life”—Williams came back to the game as an assistant coach for MidAmerica Nazarene, his alma mater. From there, it was off to Texas (that’s where his wife, Stephanie, grew up), first as head coach at Stoutland High School before stints as an assistant at Texas Wesleyan University and Southwestern University.

In basketball you have to truly rely on your teammates. You can have a deep and impactful relationship with each of your teammates. And I know each one of them on a very close and personal level. I know their families. I know what’s going on in their lives. And that’s so important.

Jimmie Williams
Trojan Men’s Basketball Head Coach

The vagabond life of an assistant basketball coach brought Williams to North Greenville University in 2010. His arrival coincided with a historic four-year run of success for the Crusaders, including a school-record 22 wins and NGU’s first conference title and NCAA Division II Tournament appearance. Williams’ stock rose further at William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, where, as an assistant (and, later, associate head coach) WJC was among the best NCAA Division II men’s basketball programs in the country. Jimmie Williams in 2021 took over as the fifth head men’s basketball coach for the Trojans era as a four-year institution. Previously, he was a lead assistant at Furman where, during his last two years on the bench (2018-2020), the Paladins won 50 games and appeared in the AP Top 25 for the first time in school history.

Today, Coach Williams is preparing for his second season at AU, ready to build on what he’s learned about the University, his program—and himself.

(Editor’s note: the following interview was conducted in April. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

Coach Jimmy Williams Q&A

Do you consider your first season a success?

If the question is, “Did you win a championship?” the answer is that we didn’t. The world would say they didn’t have a great year. But our guys still to this day look forward to being around each other. And when you see them on campus, they’re together. When they need each other, they’re leaning on each other. And I love that.

Clearly you have institutional support and a president and athletic director that believe in you and what you’re doing. How did you feel about the fan support?

Anderson supports their athletic teams. Now, I had heard people telling me that Abney is rocking on game day. I always heard that, you know, but my thought was—and I don’t mean this to sound negative—but where I come from, Timmons Arena (at Furman) is really rocking. That’s what I was coming from. But I’m telling you, it was every bit as loud in here. Those fans at Abney are right on top of us. They’re right there. Man, that student section is kind of like Duke University. They’re jumping up and down and they’re
on top of you. We didn’t have a great season in terms of our win-loss record. So, it would have been easy in February for fans to stop showing up. But that was when our fans were peaking. They showed up all season long. Our home opener was rocking and our last game on senior night was rocking. At 99 percent of schools in the country, if you’re winning, they’re coming. And if you’re not, they’re not. That’s not the way it is at Anderson University.

Did you always want to be a basketball coach?

I don’t know if it’s always what I wanted to do. I’ve always had a deep love for the game of basketball. My mom had 10 kids—seven boys and three girls; I’m the oldest boy. So I guess coaching has always kind of come natural for me. Relationships matter when you have a big family. Having younger brothers was a big part of it.

I played a lot of basketball in high school and college, and then I played professionally for a little while before using my business degree to get a job outside of basketball. But there was a huge void in my life. I didn’t realize how much I would miss the locker room, the relationships, the competitive side of sports. I missed it so much.

My wife was the one who told me I should get into coaching. We had only been dating for a month or so, and I was thinking about going to law school or finding a job on Wall Street or whatever. And she was the one who told me I should be a basketball coach. That was how my coaching career started.

Sports have always been a big part of my life. My dad pitched for the Montreal Expos and played in the minors, too. He was a big-time baseball guy. So I grew up playing just about every sport with a ball. Basketball was the one I loved the most. I’ve always been a competitive guy, whether we’re playing checkers or whatever. I’m the kind of person who is always trying to find a way to win. So coaching fits my skill set. But I also know it’s my calling, which is what makes it easy when going through the hard times. When you know you’re called to do something and hard times come along, you don’t wonder, “Should I be doing this or not?” Instead, you think about solutions and how to fix things.

Absolutely. To truly love what you do for a living, it has to be more than a career, right? It has to be a calling. But, of course, every coach or player that aspires to success realizes you have to put in the work, too. Passion only gets you so far. When did you come to that realization?

I was homeschooled until sixth grade, and I would shoot 1,000 shots just waiting on my friends to get home from school. And then when they came home from school, we would play nonstop until dinnertime, right there in my driveway. We loved it. Every day in my neighborhood was a great day. Now, it doesn’t seem like there are driveway pickup games going on anymore. If your heart’s in it, you’re going to be the best you can be.

This was back in Kansas, where you grew up, right? Obviously that’s a basketball hotbed. Kind of like Indiana, I suppose.

No, no, no. Come on now! Basketball in Kansas is above Indiana level, for sure. When was the last time the Hoosiers won a national championship? Basketball is king in Kansas.

OK, OK. Fair enough! How is the athletic culture in the Midwest different than it is in the South?

Where I’m from, there’s a little bit of interest in football, and then there’s a little bit of interest in baseball. But basketball is above all that. Now you go a little bit north to North Carolina and a little bit south to Atlanta, basketball is big time, too. But we’re smack dab in the middle of SEC country here, so there’s a lot of focus on football, and that’s great. But I’m used to it. I dated a girl from Texas (who became his wife, Stephanie Williams.) She grew up in Midland, Texas. We’re talking Friday Night Lights country. So I had a hurdle to get over with her family as a basketball guy. When I first went to Texas to meet her family, they were like, “Basketball? Really?” The way she was raised, there’s only two sports: football and spring football. And basketball is not one of those. But where I’m from, basketball is a big deal. I grew up with a ball in my hand, and I loved every minute of it.

OK, let me preface this by saying basketball is my favorite sport, too. And this may sound like a dumb question, but I’m just interested in your response. What’s so great about basketball?

My favorite thing about basketball is that a team is the perfect size. It’s not football with 120 guys on your roster, and it’s not tennis where it’s just you and you alone. In basketball, you have to truly rely on your teammates. You can have a deep and impactful relationship with each of your teammates. As a coach, I have a locker room with just 15 guys. And I know each one of them on a very close and personal level. I know their families. I know what’s going on in their lives. And that’s so important.

For example, my college coach would literally pick me up in his car and drive me to a grocery store if I needed a ride. But he’d also look over at me and ask, “How’s your spiritual walk with the Lord?” Or, he’d say, “You seem down lately, how’s everything going?” So I became a coach partly because I was like, “Man, this is what I want to do.” When I was in college, coach was like a second dad to me. Now, I had a wonderful dad growing up. But when you go away to college, and you’re 18 to 22, you’re at a fork in the road of life. I tell our guys all the time: going to church is not going to get you into heaven. But for the first time, you’re setting your alarm. Now, instead of your mom yelling at you, “We gotta leave in 10 minutes for church,” now you’re setting your alarm. Now you’re making sure your pants are clean and your shirt’s not wrinkled, and you’re going to church on your own because you want to. That’s where you develop your own relationship with the Lord where it’s because you want to. It’s like getting in the gym and shooting. If I tell them, “You should be in the gym shooting,” they’re not going to get the same joy out of it, or the same response out of it, than if they do it on their own.

I’ll give you an example. Sunday night I came to work; I had to grab something out of the office. It’s like 9:30 at night. I’d tucked the kids in and had to come grab my laptop. And I heard a ball bouncing: one of our guys is in the gym (and) shooting. I didn’t go in there and tell him I saw it. But it just gave me so much joy that on a Sunday night at 9:30 I hear a ball bouncing and one of our guys is in there sweating. Like that’s where you get good. That’s where you love the game. Some other guys might be sitting at home playing video games or whatever, but this guy is in the gym. That’s the love of the game right there.

That’s a good segue. When you see a young man you’re looking to recruit, what are you looking for? What is it about a guy that reveals to you that it’s someone you want in your program?

It’s a great question. The three core values in our program are involved in every recruiting decision we make. It’s Character, Connection, and Compelled. All three of them are their own specific silo. But in basketball, they blend together. So we’re going to vet a player’s off-the-court character more than their on-the-court game. Basketball is the easy part. We go to a couple games, we watch a couple games on film, have them come in here and play with our guys. The basketball part is pretty self-explanatory. He either can play or he can’t play.

For us here at Anderson, we get to be picky about who we bring in. At some other schools, they take the best basketball players they can. Not only can we be picky about the core of who they are as people, but we also can be picky about their fit into how we play. Whereas a lot of coaches around the country will take the most talented group and then figure out their style of play based on that one really special player, our way works from a character standpoint. What’s their family component like? What is their relationship with their teammates? What are their AAU and high school coaches saying about them? Are they involved in things other than just basketball? You know, a simple question I ask is actually a test. I ask, “Hey, man, what do you want to study when you go to college?”

If their answer is, “I don’t know, Coach, I just wanna play ball,” that’s a red flag for us, because we’re going to invest in them off the court more than we will invest in them on the court. And I want them to already be thinking about their future. They don’t have to have it all figured out. But I want them to think about what they are going to be doing with their life when they are 40-years old. We want those questions to be already starting to turn in their hearts. And so character is a big part of it.

Then, there’s connection. We’re not going to bring anybody into our locker room that doesn’t value a connection with their teammates. Here the whole roster gets to be close. And then the last one, and this is usually where the rubber meets the road: are our players compelled? If you’re compelled, you’re going to do more than what the coach asked of you and you’re going to bring a couple teammates with you. You know you’re going to pull everybody else up because just below compelled is committed. Just below that is compliant. At the bottom—which is the worst—is cynical. Everybody has one of those four and the whole trick to building a program is can you get more compelled people than your opponents can and can you get rid of all this negative stuff? That’s a big part of it. You’ve got to get the negativity out because misery loves company. I love our locker room because we don’t have complainers. We don’t have gossipers. We have guys who love being around each other. We have guys that love each other. We have a core group that we’re bringing back next season, and this spring has been so much fun. Look, we didn’t have a great season from a win-loss standpoint. But we grew in such a great direction. And the guys we have coming back are awesome.

I keep thinking about that last core value. Compelled. I imagine that’s the exact word that came to mind when you walked in here at 9:30 at night and heard that basketball hitting the floor.

Right. That guy is compelled, no doubt about it. It’s easy to show up to practice from 3 to 5 every day and work hard.

But are you willing to do more? What you do in the dark will come out in the light. That’s a big thing. What are you doing with your excess time? We have guys that are wired to get in here and work. When you’re bored, what are you doing with that time? I think some guys, when they’re bored, they fill their time with other things. And we’re constantly challenging them and asking them about what they are consuming. In every aspect, what are your eyes looking at? How are you spending that free time? What are you taking in? And is that something that’s making you better? Or is it something that is making you worse?

What did you know about your team before you were hired? What have you learned that confirms those opinions? And what have you learned that surprised you about this team?

That’s so good. I knew what I watched from a basketball standpoint. So I got some film and took a look at it. That’s the great thing about film. There’s no hiding. There are no secrets with film. What I saw on film is that how we play now and how they played last year could not be more different. And both ways can be successful. The style (AU) had in the past was more about getting the matchup you want and attacking one-on-one. And we’re going to get the match we want, too, but it’s based on ball movement. We’re going to chart assists per field goal. Last year, they were in the bottom 10 in the country on assists per field goal. In my last four years at Furman, we were in the top 20 in the country every single year in assists per field goal. If we’re going to score 40 field goals in a game, we want 30 or 35 of those to be assisted. So shot quality is a big thing.

So, I knew that would be a struggle coming in. I also knew what I learned through the interview process, what they were looking for with this hire as far as the relationship component which has always been something that’s important to me. And when I learned that that was something that was important to them, I knew it was a really good fit. They were really thorough with me on my day here. I got to meet with all the administrators, I got to meet with all the head coaches, I got to meet with (Vice President for Athletics Dr.) Bert (Epting) a couple of times and I got to meet with President Whitaker.

You know the culture is right when you’re meeting with multiple departments and they’re all saying the same thing. At AU you have different voices speaking the same message. I love that I heard a whole bunch of different voices in different departments. But the message was the same. We want the culture of men’s basketball to match the culture of the University. When I came, that was what we really dove into on day one. The day after the press conference where I was announced as the new head coach, I met with each player one-on-one, and I spent 45 minutes to an hour sitting down with each person. I could tell they were craving connection. I could tell it mattered.

Now that the first season is under your belt, how do you build moving forward?

Everybody was learning at the same time during that first season. What I’m looking forward to in year two is that we have a bunch of returning players and we have a staff that is going to be able to say this is how we do it instead of everybody looking to one person for answers. Now we’re going to have our veteran players telling the young bucks, “This is how we do it at Anderson University.” That’s way more valuable than me blowing the whistle and saying, “Everybody listen to me.” I don’t want my voice to be the only one heard. What surprised me about this group, though, is they embrace that. For example, the whole team was at my house last night. And as I was sitting on my deck, I was watching a pickup game going on and seeing guys having meaningful conversations.

As I sat and watched from up there on the deck, I was thinking, “Our team loves to be around each other.” That’s awesome.