Anyone who played basketball for Jim Williams at Colorado State University wouldn’t be surprised to learn their coach once had a secret ambition to be a rodeo cowboy star.
Williams coached basketball with the delicacy of a Brahma bull. He was the boss throughout his 26 years of guiding the school’s basketball program.
In the early days, when it was the Colorado A&M Aggies, until 1980 when he retired with the name Colorado State University Rams and a new Moby gym firmly in place.
Throughout the transition of one of Colorado’s most important institutions of learning, a thread of dedicated basketball players holds a legacy together.
From the early days of Hal Kinard and Boyd Grant, through the middle years of Bill Green, Lonnie Wright, Cliff Shegogg, Tom Vidakovich and brothers Floyd and Lloyd Kerr to final years of Gary Rhodes, Rudy Carey, Eddie Hughes and Bob Caton, CSU basketball flourished under the direction of Williams.
When he stepped down, the record was 352-283. The victories added up to Williams being the winningest coach in Colorado’s collegiate basketball history.
Boyd Grant is the closest Williams disciple. He played for Williams when he first came to CSU in 1955, was his assistant coach for 11 years and returned to CSU in 1988 as head basketball coach.
“I don’t know of any player who didn’t have total respect for Coach Williams,” said Grant. “He was a tough guy. He did things his way. He took no guff.” But his players were the coach’s pride and joy.
Maybe the best of the 26 teams were 1963 with Bill Green, later a first round pick of the Boston Celtics, 1966 with Lonnie Wright and 1969 with Cliff Shegogg and the Kerrs. The 1969 team defeated the University of Colorado, 64-56 in the NCAA regionals in Manhattan, Kansas. The victory over CU pushed the Rams into the final eight, the highest place Williams got in the NCAA tournament.
Williams fondly remembers his CSU days, “I just remember the defeats,” said Williams. “The close ones you could have won if you made things happen a little differently.” But winning two of four games with UCLA and Coach John Wooden is high on the list of many highlights. “I guess the victory over CU in 1969 would be the high point for some of the old Aggie fans,” said Williams. “They were in the Big Eight Conference and were independent at that time.”
He rarely was at a loss for words. Fellow coach Bill Strannigan remembers Williams as being tough on the sidelines. “He was tougher on game officials than maybe anyone else I’ve ever seen,” said Strannigan, who preceded Williams at CSU and coached against him later when he moved to Wyoming.
Would Williams do things differently?
“I guess I would have been a cowboy,” said Williams, who grew up in Southern Idaho. “I grew up on a horse. At one time in my life I wanted to do some calf roping in a rodeo.”
Williams was more than just a basketball coach at CSU. He was also Athletic Director from 1965-68 and was prominent in upgrading CSU’s athletic facilities with Moby Gym and Hughes Stadium.
“I don’t know if you can say our basketball put CSU on the map,” said Williams. “But we brought some teams on our schedule that helped our national reputation.”
Grant isn’t so modest.
“Jim Williams did more for CSU than anyone else,” said Grant. “When we needed new facilities, we needed a fighter. He was there. When I think of CSU, I think of Jim Williams.”
I don’t know of any player who didn’t have total respect for Coach Williams.