Travis Williams may not be a name you currently know, but one that all college basketball fans should keep an eye on.
Williams is coming off his first season as a head coach of the Tennessee State Tigers. During this past year, despite starting 1-5, the Tigers finished 18-15 overall, including 11-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference with a win over the OVC Champion Belmont Bruins.
It’s been a long road for Williams to get to this point. After his playing days were over at Georgia State University, he joined the Panthers coaching under the legendary Charles “Lefty” Driesell. During that time, Georgia State won their only game in the NCAA Tournament in school history.
From there, Williams had stints across all levels. He was an assistant for Chicago State, followed by an assistant for the Southern Crescent Lightning of the World Basketball Association—won the championship in the WBA’s inaugural season with Williams on staff—became the head coach of the Fort Valley State Wildcats, followed that by heading to Mercer University, and before finally ending up at Tennessee State, he spent a year with the Dongguan Snow Wolf of the Chinese Basketball League.
At least four of those locations are in the state of Georgia, and the addition of the other three make for nearly 30,000 miles worth of traveling and job changes over the past ten years. For somebody that hasn't even reached the age of 40, it's been a winding road.
One of the biggest events in his life happened at the age of 12 when his mother, Patricia Ann, died from lupus at the young age of 30 at their home at 516 Maple Street in Tifton, Georgia. Williams didn't let the tragedy limit him though, as he went on to become the first member of his family to graduate from college.
"“516 Maple Street has a lot of significance,” Williams said in an interview with the Nashville City Paper. “A lot of folks would use [the untimely death] as an excuse not to be successful. I use that as a reason to be successful."
It is a road that has been very long for Williams to eventually reach his dream of being a Division I head basketball coach, but a dream that has come to reality.
“I am very happy for Travis,” said Lefty Driesell, the only coach to have over 100 wins with four different schools and former mentor for Williams. “(Williams) has worked hard and deserves a shot of being a head coach. I am now a big fan of Tennessee State. Travis is a great man with high morals. He was a very good student-athlete at Georgia State when I coached there and he was a great assistant coach for me. I think Travis will do a great job.”
“I got started at Georgia State and getting to watch (Driesell) coach up close and personal,” Williams said, on Driesell being a major influence on him. “Being able to watch his success up close was a great influence on me.”
Williams absorbed everything from the other coaches he worked with as well, saying that “anybody I came in contact with from my high school coach to internationally” he tried to learn from.
That included a trip this year to the Final Four in Atlanta, Georgia. There, Williams was able to give back to the community of Atlanta by working with some children, watching basketball, and talking x’s and o’s with other coaches.
“Going to the games and getting a chance to see it at that level, teams battling at the Final Four,” Williams remarked on what he enjoyed about the trip. “More important though, being able to sit in those head coach meetings and see the bright minds in college basketball today.”
Being a former player at this level as well, Williams is able to connect to the players in another way.
“It helps out tremendously, having been in the heat of the battle and understanding the knowledge of the game playing as a player,” Williams said.
Williams also understands the “dedication and desire” that goes into playing basketball at a high level. That is probably why he thinks of himself more as a player’s coach.
“More of a player’s coach, but being a coach that demands accountability and responsibility” said Williams. “I truly generally care for my players.”
Williams also cares about his past teammates. One of his assistants, Rodney Hamilton, is one of the greatest to ever suit up for Georgia State. The all-time leader in points, assists, and steals, Williams was able to see a glimpse of Hamilton when Williams was in his senior season and Hamilton was a freshman. Hamilton was a starter at point guard in his first season and showed a lot to Williams.
“Being able to see how (Hamilton) runs the team and runs an offensive set, but having a point guard that is near to me on a personal and professional level. It says a lot about him,” Williams said.
Now the Tigers are battling in a tough OVC conference. They have done it by adding guys who can offer versatility, play their style, and most importantly for Williams, are strong individuals.
“We want some talented young men, but men with character,” Williams stated. “Good relationship guys.”
Williams also wants his team to buy into the ideas of defense and hustle on the court.
“We want to be in a game every day with our defense,” said Williams with enthusiasm. “When you play, I expect you to play and produce. It’s hard to teach effort in the game of basketball. Don’t make excuses in our program or when the going gets tough. Be bought in to what we do in our program. Be all about what we are doing, the culture here.”
Three of his players last year clearly bought into that. Patrick Miller was awarded with first-team conference honors, while Robert Covington (despite injuries) and Kellen Thornton made the second-team. The Tigers will be without Covington and Thornton next season, but will have Miller returning to the fold. This will be a big help following a year in which Tennessee State produced their best conference record since the 1993-94 season.
“We have a very, very good conference,” Williams said. “Just have to be ready to play any given night.”
After reaching the CIT in what was only the third postseason appearance in school history, Williams feels good about his program for the future.
“It says a lot about our program,” said Williams. “We have the capability to do it the right way. Getting close, just have to get over the hump.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Josh (@JGleas) for more sports related content.