Richie Tang had no clue who was trying to reach him when he got an out of the blue phone call from a random number. He picked up – and a soft voice spoke.
'Hey coach, you don't know who I am but my name is Jean Williams'.
Tang, who was just settling in as the new volleyball coach at Florida Gateway College, was surprised to hear from his predecessor Williams. His astonishment is understandable – it's not everyday you receive a phone call from a legend.
"Our first conversion she said hey you got to recruit well'," said Tang. "She didn't know our girls for anything, but the first thing I saw was the old coach in her."
At the ripe age of 77, Williams still carries the same assertiveness and leadership that helped bring the FGC volleyball program into national prominence during the 70s. For decades the retired coach and educator has been a fixture in the sports community. With the enforcement of Title IX in 1972, Williams built the volleyball program from the ground up and turned a ragtag bunch into perennial contenders.
This season Tang has picked up where Williams left off as the Lady Timberwolves are back on the court for the first time since the program disbanded in 1982.
"She's done so much," he said. "I marvel at the things she's done for our program in softball and volleyball. If I am even just a fraction of that, I'll be a pretty good coach. She has big shoes to fill."
Williams still makes her occasional appearances on campus, sometimes joining fans at home volleyball games. Mostly just an observer these days – and that's how she likes it. Williams still gets a kick out of watching the ever-changing game, which led the way for local women to get out of the shadows of male-dominated sports.
The former athletic director is surprised how much the game has evolved today.
"The sport has changed a lot," said Williams. "It's so different now in terms of the number of club volleyball teams there are for kids to start at very young ages. And the opportunity to play at a high level before even reaching high school. Recruiting is a lot different and teams are a lot tougher than they used to be."
Williams remains a firm-believer in getting out on the recruiting trail – a philosophy she's made clear with Tang. She hopes the college will continue to be competitive in this regard. Recruiting was the cornerstone of the Lady Timberwolves' success.
The tide of program really began to turn, Williams says, when Title IX was passed.
"That's when scholarships became legal for women," she added. "Most of the community colleges started off with tuition waivers and books and that was about it. Then gradually, because of Title IX, increased their scholarships to the place where they were on par with the mens programs. We went from no scholarships when I first started [in 1971] to ending with a fairly good package including books, tuition, dormitory and some food money. We could compete with anyone in the state, and we did. The same schools could compete with the big schools."
After 11 years at the helm, Williams relinquished her head volleyball coach position which allowed her to focus strictly on Lake City Community College's softball team.
No longer coaching both sports, the Hall of Fame coach later cemented her legacy, going on to lead the Lady Timberwolves to seven slow-pitch national titles. Despite the success, the softball program would have the same fate as volleyball's. Budget crunches after Williams' final volleyball season forced the team to be dropped – staying dormant until this year. One of the biggest contributors to womens athletics, Williams is as excited as anyone that competitive sports are back at FGC.
"It's just so important to a small school," she said of sports. "I
think it gives you a recognition that you can compete with the big boys. I think there was something lost at the college. It didn't have the same feeling. So there's a lot of excitement with it coming back."
Williams, who turns 78 next month, will continue to stop by FGC but only as a fan.
"I told Riche I can't do much to help on the floor – but I'll keep a scrapbook."
FGC plans to honor its esteemed coach with a Jean Williams Day hosted at the college sometime in the near future, says athletic coordinator Rebecca Golden.
"She's a huge part of our history," said Golden. "We might do [her day] in the spring. I've talked to some of her past players who are excited and would love to see that happen."