Buildings have been torn down and others have risen in their places over the last 23 years on the Georgia Military College campus.
Leadership at the two-year institution has also changed hands once in that just over two-decade span, but there’s one aspect that has remained constant until just recently.
Bert Williams, longtime junior college head football coach and athletic director, announced his retirement from GMC last week, citing a need to focus on his ongoing battle with mantle cell lymphoma. Williams was scheduled this weekend to undergo a round of chemotherapy conditioning to help prepare him for an upcoming bone marrow transplant that will hopefully stave off the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in his system. He was diagnosed with the cancer almost a year ago.
“It’s a long road, which is one of the things that precipitated this decision (to retire), but it’ll be a successful one,” Williams said.
GMC on Monday held a retirement ceremony to honor Williams and thank him for all his contributions to the college, especially in the realm of athletics. Since becoming head coach in 2000 he amassed a 156-58 record, which is good for a .729 win percentage. Williams led the Bulldogs to one National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Championship in 2001 along with two other title game appearances in 2002 and 2013. He has four National Coach of the Year awards to his name stemming from the program’s success in those three seasons, and is the winningest coach in GMC football history. Williams is also the only active head coach to be named to the NJCAA Football Hall of Fame, an honor added to his resumé in 2010. His work helped build GMC football into a consistently elite and nationally-recognized junior college program.
Just as impressive, or perhaps more, than all those football honors is the fact that under Williams’ watch the GMC Athletics Department has grown from one program (football) to now nine counting both men’s and women’s offerings. The department has added men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s soccer, softball and a rifle team. Besides the football championship, six other national titles have been won by GMC, three in men’s golf and three in rifle. Every program save one, the still young women’s golf team, has at least gone on to compete for the national prize. In addition, facilities have been added or improved, and by all accounts he’s leaving the department better than he found it.
Even with all those accolades and while sporting his own national championship ring from 2001, Williams says his proudest career achievement has more to do with developing young men through the sport he coaches.
“The No. 1 thing I really get the biggest kick out of is seeing our guys go on and do well,” Williams told gathered media members following Monday’s ceremony. “I don’t necessarily mean NFL and major college football. We’ve had plenty do that, and I’m very proud of them, but there are so many of our young men that break the cycle. They come up in a tough way, maybe without a father figure… but they break the cycle and become great husbands, fathers and members of their community out there making a difference. That means more to me than anything in all honesty just to think that maybe I had a little bit to do with that in helping them figure things out and get them on their way.”
Producing men of character was chief among Williams’ marching orders when he was awarded the GMC head coaching job. Williams came to GMC from Union College in Kentucky in spring of 1997 and served as the Bulldogs’ offensive coordinator his first three years until the head position became available. Maj. Gen. Peter Boylan was the institution’s president at the time.
Boylan recalled Williams’ elevation to head coach in a recent telephone interview with The Union-Recorder saying, “I think one of the most important memories I have of Bert is that he was instructed, ‘I don’t care if you lose every game, but the day you fail to produce gentlemen from that program will be the last day you work for me.’ Over the years, he did exactly that. He produced gentlemen from young men who were untutored, and did that at some expense to himself.”
Williams heeded Boylan’s words even with junior college football’s biggest prize on the line. The team was playing for a national championship in the Golden Isles Bowl when the head coach was faced with what many would classify as a difficult decision.
“He benched two or three of his starters because they had broken team rules and we lost the game,” Boylan remembered. “But he did the right thing, and that was a lesson not just for the football players, but I thought to all of the people that worked at Georgia Military College because he was a person who did the right thing in the face of considerable adversity. It’s difficult to find people like that. Going back to my days in the Army, Bert is one of the first people I would have wanted at my side. He’s a fine, upstanding man that raised a great family. I could not say enough about Bert Williams. He’s a terrific gentleman, coach and athletic director, and a fine man that every male should emulate and aspire to become like.”
Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, current GMC president, shared similar sentiments at Monday’s retirement celebration.
“There are certain expectations that Coach Williams has always had for his players,” Caldwell said. “Character — that’s what he instilled in them, that’s what he’s taught them and that’s evident as they’ve gone on and done other things.”
“Other things” include moving on to four-year schools where players go from playing JUCO football in small stadiums to taking the field inside massive college football cathedrals. Some even move on to play professionally on Sundays. Longtime GMC assistant coach and defensive coordinator Rob Manchester shared some of those statistics Monday. Under Williams’ watch, GMC football has sent 430 players to four-year colleges and universities. Since 1992, 49 GMC players have earned spots in the NFL, and 37 of those 49 have occurred since Williams became head coach. Currently there are four GMC products on NFL rosters. Manchester also mentioned that 63 Bulldogs have earned All-America honors under Williams, and two have been recognized as junior college Players of the Year.
But it’s not just the players whose lives have been affected by Williams and GMC football. Manchester shared that he “did not hesitate” when offered the opportunity to come to Milledgeville, even without a place to live. The Williams’ opened their home to a young coach who was still finding his way in the profession.
“In turn I essentially became a part of the Williams family,” Manchester said.
GMC Prep head football coach Lee Coleman is another whose life was touched by Williams’ influence. Coleman served on Williams’ staff mostly as wide receivers coach before making the move to the high school level.
“I’m forever grateful for him,” said Coleman. “When I was a GA (graduate assistant), he gave me my first opportunity to actually start recruiting and coach my own room. At that time I was only 24 or 25 — just a young coach trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how to do it. It was a lot of trial and error, but he gave me that opportunity, which has allowed me to get to the point where I am now… The best move that happened was when he switched me from coaching receivers to running backs for a spring. That changed my whole outlook and allowed me to learn football at a deeper level. When he made that change, he met with me just about every day to go over blocking schemes so I could coach the running backs. Those few months really elevated me as a coach in my opinion.”
In-person attendance at Monday’s retirement celebration was limited to mostly family and co-workers, but the event was streamed live online so others could watch. Williams was there looking a slimmer version of the man who often coaches with his sunglasses on and arms folded on the Davenport Field sideline. He was joined by his wife Cathy and their two sons Parker and Zach, both GMC Prep alumni. There were proclamations read by state elected officials and letters from United States Rep. Jody Hice and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, along with another from NJCAA President Dr. Christopher Parker. David Elder, commissioner of the Georgia Collegiate Athletic Association (GCAA), of which GMC is a member, sent a statement to The Union-Recorder on Williams’ impact on junior college athletics.
“Bert and I started about the same time in the GCAA and his longevity provided stability, expertise and leadership not only from an institutional level but from a conference perspective as well,” Elder said. “He spearheaded the growth of other sports in addition to football at GMC which led to more opportunities for student-athletes. His willingness to serve as an assistant region director and his perspective were valuable within the region and nationally. I had the distinct pleasure to present his NJCAA Hall of Fame plaque at the halftime of a Bulldog home game a few years back. But most of all I appreciated Bert’s friendship and the friendship and hospitality from Cathy, GMC staff and Bulldog Boosters every time I came to Milledgeville to watch the ‘Dogs play a game.”
The icing on the cake Monday came once the formal ceremony was over. Coach Williams and his family walked down the brick pathway leading from the Old Capitol Building to GMC’s south gate. The entire walk was lined by GMC employees, student-athletes and Bulldog supporters all cheering and thanking the longtime head football coach and athletic director for his service.
“I’m extremely touched by everybody who came out here to wish me the best,” Williams said. “One of the best things about GMC is the people here. It’s just a special bunch that really does embody family. We support each other. We may not get along sometimes in the day-to-day, but when you need help everybody’s there to help push the GMC family forward.
“I’d just like to thank everybody that’s supported Georgia Military College. Athletics is a part of what we do, but there are a lot of parts to what we do. It’s all geared toward the same goal of developing young men and women that are part of our institution whether it be in the prep school or the junior college, whether it be the Milledgeville campus or all of our other campuses across the state. I just appreciate the people that come to school here and take the opportunity to learn at GMC.”