Former Vanderbilt vice chancellor David Williams, the SEC's first African-American AD, dies

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/31196/" data-ylk="slk:David Williams">David Williams</a> was the first African-American athletic director in the SEC. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
David Williams was the first African-American athletic director in the SEC. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Former Vanderbilt athletic director and vice chancellor David Williams, a trailblazer in his field, died on Friday, the university announced in a news release.

Williams became the first African-American athletic director in the SEC in 2003 – officially gaining the title in 2012 – and helped push for more diverse coaching hires. Williams announced he would step down as AD and vice chancellor of student affairs last September and handed the position off to NBA G League president Malcolm Turner, who became the fourth African-American AD in conference history.

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Williams’ last day as AD came on Jan. 31, although he continued to teach as a tenured law professor at Vanderbilt, a position he had held since 2000, until his sudden death. According to a report by The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks, Williams collapsed while eating near Vanderbilt’s campus  on Friday morning, the same day his retirement party was scheduled.

“The Vanderbilt family is saddened to learn of the passing of David Williams,” Turner said in a statement. “David authored a remarkable legacy at Vanderbilt, one defined by blazing trails and championing the student-athlete. In my short time at Vanderbilt, I was fortunate to have cultivated a friendship with David, who most proudly coveted his role as a husband and father. All of Commodore Nation mourns the loss of David.”

During his 16 years leading the athletic department, Williams oversaw the first four national championships in Commodores history: women’s bowling in 2008, baseball in 2014, women’s tennis in 2015 and women’s bowling again in 2018. The Vanderbilt football team qualified for six bowl games in his final 11 years after making just three in the school’s 99 seasons before his arrival, thanks in part to his smart hiring.

Williams embraced diversity

Despite most college football players being African-American, there are very few minority coaches. Among the 130 FBS schools, only 12 will have African-American head coaches next season. That figure has dropped significantly from its peak of 17 in 2011.

Williams made a bold hire in 2011 of James Franklin – just the third African-American head coach in SEC history – and the former Maryland offensive coordinator rewarded him greatly. The Commodores made bowl games in all three years – winning two – and pulled together a 24-15 record that is tied for the school’s most wins over any three-year stretch.

After Franklin left to coach at Penn State, Williams hired Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who was a finalist for the 2012 Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant. Mason became just the fifth African-American head coach in SEC history, making Vanderbilt the first school to hire two minority candidates, and Mason has led Vanderbilt to two bowl games in the past three seasons.

Williams leaves behind a powerful legacy

Williams was a powerful figure around college athletics. In 2013, USA Today reported that Williams was the highest-paid athletic director in the nation at $3.24 million – nearly $2 million more than anyone else – although the title AD alone belied his complete role at the university.

With a nickname of “The Goldfather,” Williams was beloved by the city of Nashville and Commodore fans and known to travel to as many games as possible. Williams was quiet and thoughtful, and he had command of the room when he spoke.

“David Williams stood tall on this campus, in this city and in college athletics nationally as an incomparable leader, role model and dear friend to me and so many others. We are devastated by this loss,” Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said in a statement. “His impact on our community is immeasurable and will be felt for generations to come. We offer our deepest condolences to Gail, his children and the entire Williams family on this immense loss.”

Williams is survived by his wife, Gail, and his four children, six grandchildren and great-grandson.

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