NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — David Williams was affectionately known as the "Goldfather". He was as much a mentor, teacher and father-like figure as he was the Director of Vanderbilt Athletics for 15 years.
That’s why his sudden passing on Friday has left Nashville and the sports world in shock and mourning the loss of a life well-lived.
“He was just a tremendous man,” Vanderbilt basketball coach Bryce Drew said Saturday night. “What he stood for in college athletics is what I believe college athletics is about. It’s about graduating. It’s about helping people in the community. About giving back. And obviously about representing Vanderbilt to the best of your ability.”
As the arms race for facilities in the NCAA took off in the early 2000’s and coaching salaries skyrocketed, Williams wanted to make sure Vanderbilt did things the right way. He never allowed his athletic department to lose sight of the university’s academic mission even while striving for championships in the SEC.
“We are all about the student-athlete experience,” Williams told me last fall as a guest on Sportsline on Newschannel 5+ following the announcement of his retirement. “We want to make sure that when their careers are through they leave here as better people. We’re proof you can do that and still compete at a high level.”
Williams' focus on the individual didn't mean Vanderbilt programs took a back seat. Over his 15 years as athletic director the Commodores had unprecedented success. The football team ended a 26-year bowl drought in 2008, going to six bowls in all during his tenure.
Vandy teams won 19 conference titles in all and captured four national championships. The first came in women’s bowling in 2007, a title the Commodores reclaimed last spring. The other two NCAA crowns came in baseball in 2014 and women’s tennis in 2015.
It was a model that set Vanderbilt apart. It also helped attract his successor Malcolm Turner when Williams announced that he would be retiring.
“I couldn’t have a stronger impression as I admired him from afar,” said Turner, who replaced Williams as Vandy A.D. February 1st. “How he’s gone about his business, his approach to the student-athlete and what that means. You know, it’s really been a model and big reason for why I’m here.”
Williams' impact wasn't just limited to Vanderbilt. Student-athletes and coaches from around the country valued his wisdom and guidance. Alabama basketball coach Avery Johnson, a former NBA champion and coach, said Williams reached out to him after he was hired by the Crimson Tide.
“He strategically sought me out when I first got the job here at Alabama,” Johnson said. “Spent some time talking to me about coaching in college and just making that transition. He was just very kind - I didn’t know him at all – but just a great man that really loved to serve.”
Williams was a pioneer in college athletics. He was the first black vice chancellor in Vanderbilt University history, and served as a role model for many young students.
But he was most proud of being a father. He and his wife Gail had four biological children; Erika, David III, Samantha and Nicholas who made David a grandfather of six and a great grandfather.
He has thousands more kids that wore the black and gold.
“It’s life-changing for many of the people who have gone here as student-athletes,” Drew said. “His legacy will continue with his family, but it will also continue on with a lot of student-athletes that were here. I think we’re all a little bit better people because of our time with him.”
David Williams -- gone too soon -- at just 71 years old.