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Coaching legend deserved better treatment from his alma mater

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. I love St. Augustine’s University.

Back when none of the deluge of college basketball scholarship offers I was delusionally anticipating materialized – I guess Dean Smith, Norm Sloan and other ACC coaching luminaries had no use for a molasses-slow high school point guard who could barely leap over a telephone book – St. Aug’s was the only college that offered me a chance to possibly play.

That’s why the Raleigh school will always have a special place in my heart.

That said, it was heart-breaking to see the shabby way the school treated its legendary, longtime track coach George "Pup" Williams in 2020: it unceremoniously took away his whistle and stopwatch - I mean they kicked him to the curb harrrrrrrd - after 48 years and only perfunctorily acknowledged all that he’d meant to the school.

How’d he feel when he was let go? I asked Wednesday.

“Man, I pulled over to the side of the road and cried,” he said.

That ain’t no way to treat a legend, a man whose name is synonymous with track & field excellence and, by extension, with St. Augustine’s.

You know how you’re supposed to treat a person like that?

You let him leave on his own terms, you fete him, you let him take a victory sprint around the track of life.

Oh yeah – and you could also name a stretch of highway after him.

When I saw recently that the NC DOT had named stretches of highway after basketball coaches Dean Smith and Roy Williams – deservedly so for both – I thought “You know what? That would be a fitting tribute to Coach Williams.”

Student/athletes from around the world descended upon St. Augustine’s to study and train under the man whose teams won 39 national titles, 282 individual track & field titles and produced 42 Olympians. He won more than 150 coach of the year honors and was the U.S. Olympic Head Track & Field coach in 2004.

He is the winningest coach in NCAA track & field history.

Because of his success, schools with bigger athletic budgets often tried to lure him away but, he said, his allegiance was always to St. Aug’s.

“I always felt I owed something to the kids I’d recruited. I turned a lot of schools down because I also wanted to help my alma mater… I don’t regret staying. Maybe I wouldn’t have become the Olympic coach if I’d gone to one of those bigger schools.”

Just because he’s no longer at St. Aug’s doesn't mean he’s not still coaching. He is - and still sounding as excited as ever. Duke University, he said, allows him to use its track, and most mornings he’s there training aspiring Olympians.

“I’ve still got some more Olympians, kids trying to reach their dreams the same way we did,” he said.

Does he have any relationship with St. Augustine’s now?

“I haven’t heard from them... I haven’t been over there since I left. I’d probably need to use my GPS to find my way over there.”

That’s disgraceful. Somebody at the school needs to rectify that situation. As much as Duke University's magnanimity is to be applauded, there is no reason Coach Williams shouldn't have access to the track at his alma mater. The stadium is, after all, named for him.

Williams also served as assistant basketball coach at St. Aug’s when I tried out for the team and was quickly cut by head coach Harvey Heartless – I mean Heartley. That’s why I only attended the school long enough to eat lunch and began a fruitless trek to several other colleges trying to make a team.

Decades later, Williams told me that he’d come looking for me on campus in the second semester to see if I were still interested in playing. By that time, though, I’d already stuffed my clothes and hightop Converse in a matchbox, caught an armful of Greyhound and taken off looking for another school at which to play. And another. And another.

I’ve always suspected Coach was just trying to assuage my still-battered ego when he said he'd come looking for me – and it worked.

But even if he was jiving me, don't hold that against him. He is still deserving of any honor the state can bestow upon him.

I’d be honored to drive on George “Pup” Williams Highway - and I wouldn't need a GPS to find it.

Come on, St. Aug's: do the right thing and e-establish a relationship with this man - because y'all could be driving on his road before long.





Meet Barry Saunders

For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  


Want more? Get your own copy of one of Barry's published books featuring reader favorites (and not so favorites) from his years writing columns for The News & Observer. Titled "Do Unto Others...And then Run" and "...And The Horse You Rode In On Saunders!", they're full of guaranteed entertainment. 


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