Everybody has a David Williams story.
That much has become clear over the last few days since the former athletic director and law professor tragically died on Friday morning at Vanderbilt Medical Center. Anyone who has been associated with Vanderbilt Athletics or Vanderbilt Law School over the last 18 years has at least one memory of the way Williams impacted their lives.
It could be something as simple as a handshake or a conversation in a hallway. It also could be as big as support during a time of grieving, or an act of kindness in the face of adversity.
Those memories are what makes his sudden passing so difficult to process. The man who impacted so many lives and was a trailblazer in everything that he did is gone far too soon.
In the faceless, behemoth industry that is collegiate athletics, Williams was a shining light and an example of how a university and an athletic department can still work to serve the student-athlete’s best interests.
One could write an entire book on how Williams elevated Vanderbilt Athletics while he was in charge. All of that success was built on the way he connected with people on an individual level. Everyone from parents of student-athletes to fellow SEC administrators have felt his impact.
Even Austin Crowley, a 2019 men’s basketball recruit that was never going to play at Vanderbilt while Williams was in office, felt a connection to Williams after his official visit.
He knew everybody, but he wasn’t a schmoozer. He wasn’t flashy, yet he commanded every room he walked into.
In what would turn out to be his last interview, Williams said how much those close relationships meant to him in every aspect of his life.
“Years ago, when some of the students asked me why I do this, it’s about them,” he said. “It’s funny because today I was over on the other side of campus and one of our student-athletes was getting out of class, and we stopped and talked, and then another one came. It was interesting because I wasn’t in the athletic world, and neither were they. They were in the student world and then as I came back across campus, I saw another one of our student-athletes and his dad. They stopped to talk. I’ve gotten a lot of emails and calls from former student-athletes. I would say that is probably the most gratifying thing, the personal relationship.”
As an example, he mentioned one Saturday in August when he got a text from former Commodore football player Jordan Matthews, announcing that he and his wife had their first child. Later that night, Williams and his wife attended the wedding of Vince Taylor, another former Commodore. His relationships transcended generations of Commodores, and didn’t end once student-athletes graduated.
Everyone has a David Williams story, and so do I.
Last Fall, a close relative of mine, Donna Johnson, retired from her post as executive director of alumni relations for the university. Before she left, National Commodore Club director Mark Carter and Williams surprised her by naming her honorary captain for Vanderbilt Football’s game against South Carolina. She got to walk on the field for the coin toss with the Vanderbilt captains.
She didn’t even work in Athletics, but Williams helped to make sure she got a proper send-off. That meant a lot to her, and it meant a lot to my family. It was a small gesture, but it’s something we’ll never forget.
If you talk to other former student-athletes, coaches or staff members, they’ll tell you the same thing: he loved getting to know the people he worked with on a personal level, and that’s what made him special.
One quote from his last interview stands out in particular about what he will miss the most about his job.
“I think that the thing that I will miss the most is the relationships and the friends, not only on the staff but the kids that come through,” he said.
We miss that too, David. And we miss you already.