Joe Williams, who coached tiny Jacksonville University to 1970 NCAA title game against UCLA, dead at 88

Williams died in Enterprise, Mississippi, while in hospice care following a lengthy battle with cancer, his son Joe Williams Jr. said. 

Williams was best known and will be forever remembered as the leader of one of the most memorable Cinderella stories in NCAA tournament history. His 1970 JU Dolphins squad, led by Artis Gilmore, made a stunning run to the NCAA finals, losing to UCLA and coach Wooden in the championship game, 80-69.

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UCLA Bruins coach John Wooden, left, is congratulated by Jacksonville coach Joe Williams after UCLA beat the Dolphins, 80-69, in the national championship March 21, 1970, in College Park, Md.

UCLA Bruins coach John Wooden, left, is congratulated by Jacksonville coach Joe Williams after UCLA beat the Dolphins, 80-69, in the national championship March 21, 1970, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/File)

“Joe had this dream, in my opinion, to make us as good as we could be,” said Tom Wasdin, who succeeded Williams as head coach following the 1970 season, according to the Florida Times-Union. “We were trying to outcoach everybody and found out talent was more important than coaching. We didn’t have guys good enough to play against the big schools.”

Williams was an assistant coach at Furman before arriving at JU in 1964. The Dolphins competed in the NAIA for one more season before moving up to Division I. 

In Williams’ sixth and final season with the team, it made its impressive run, beating Western Kentucky, Iowa, Kentucky and St. Bonaventure before losing to UCLA. The victory gave UCLA its fourth consecutive national championship and sixth in seven years.

UCLA coach John Wooden on the sidelines yelling alongside assistant Denny Crum during a game against Jacksonville in College Park, Md. March 21, 1970.

UCLA coach John Wooden on the sidelines yelling alongside assistant Denny Crum during a game against Jacksonville in College Park, Md. March 21, 1970. (Rich Clarkson /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Gilmore and Rex Morgan were both All-American players for the team, which started the season unranked. Gilmore played his first two seasons in junior college before signing with Williams and Jacksonville.

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“So we went out and got some very fine gentlemen in [Pembrook] Burrows, Gilmore, Morgan, Chip Dublin, and the rest is history. He turned JU from an NAIA school into a Division I power. Joe never got the credit for being as good a coach as he was. He won every place he went,” Wasdin added. 

Artis Gilmore (53) of the Jacksonville University Dolphins grabs a rebound during the finals of an NCAA tournament against UCLA. 

Artis Gilmore (53) of the Jacksonville University Dolphins grabs a rebound during the finals of an NCAA tournament against UCLA.  (Getty Images)

Over 22 seasons, Williams compiled an overall record of 336-231 as head coach at JU (1964-1970), Furman and Florida State University. Williams left Jacksonville after the title game appearance to return to Furman, where he coached until 1978 before heading to Florida State.

What made Williams different was his willingness to recruit Black players to Southern colleges at a time when many coaches still refused to do so, his son said. 

“He was one of the first coaches in the South to do that. When Dad would travel with the team, if there was a restaurant that wouldn’t let the whole team eat together, Dad just packed the whole team up, and they went to a restaurant where they could,” Joe Williams Jr. said.

“Dad was never one to get on a soap box and talk about stuff like that. It was more that he just always did the right thing. … He went through a lot. He got death threats in the mail. But he just realized all his players were equal and wanted to treat them equally. It was about teaching his players how to be a good human being,” his son added. 

Williams got into coaching by accident, his son said. Williams was a high school English teacher in Jacksonville until someone realized he played basketball in college and asked if he wanted to help coach.

“He realized that was his passion and that’s what he wanted to do,” Joe Williams Jr. said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report