Tate: UI track aide hasn't lost golden touch

Tate: UI track aide hasn't lost golden touch

Yards or meters, the most exciting 10 seconds in sports is the 100.

Snap a finger, blink your eyes, and it's over.

That's the life of Illinois' Willie Williams: 10-second flashes. On your mark, get set, EXPLODE!

No clever strategy, just take a deep breath and let it all hang out.

A product of track-wild Gary, Ind., Williams was the hottest prospect in town a half-century ago. And he hit the UI in a golden period when Leo Johnson's forces were riding the wave of late-1940s NCAA triumphs by Herb McKenley, Bob Richards, Dike Eddleman, Bob Rehberg and George Walker.

Championships were the only thing Williams knew in his four years on campus. Illinois won eight straight Big Ten titles: four indoors and four outdoors. Williams was not only the swiftest guy in the league, but he also won the NCAA 100-yard dash in 1953 and '54.

He became even more famous in 1956 when, competing in a military meet in Berlin, he set the world record of 10.1, topping Jesse Owens' record set in 1936 in the same stadium.

Returning to the UI as a member of Gary Wieneke's staff in 1982, after leading Gary West to five state titles, the Williams touch was still evident. The UI took seven more Big Ten team titles and has been a point-producing monster in his sector of sprints, hurdles and relays.

When the 4x400 quartet of Babatunde Ridley, Tyrone Jones, Kendall McCroy and Sherman Armstrong ran 3 minutes, 11.65 seconds February in the Big Ten Indoor, it was Williams' 17th Big Ten relay champion. He also has coached 30 individual Big Ten champs.

That list of 30 began with late footballer Mitch Brookins, who took indoor sprint honors in 1984 and features a glowing lineup of Lester Washington, Rod Tolbert and Lee Bridges, long-striding quarter-milers Tim Simon, Ben Beyers and Chris Jones, football speedsters Elbert Turner, Scott Turner and George McDonald-Ashford, pure sprinters Anthony Jones and Dorian Green, and hurdlers Matt Klima and Sherman Armstrong.

Williams in final season at UI

Fifty years later, Williams is planning to retire at season's end.

He'll leave a rich tradition and a squadron of talented carryovers for his successor. Armstrong, with a 400 hurdle time that is No. 3 nationally, is a junior. McCroy and Quincy Washington are sophomores. Brandon Lloyd is a freshman.

Back from football's spring drills, Quincy Washington, McCroy and Lloyd will join the squad for Saturday's home meet, a 3 p.m. triangular with Indiana and Iowa. This is one of two home meets preceding the Big Ten Championships May 19-21 at Iowa City, Iowa.

"What we'll be trying to do Saturday is get ready for the Big Ten meet," Williams said. "We'll place each individual where he can help the most. We'll try to maximize our points."

Experimentation will be held to a minimum. It's a race for points, which is good news to spectators. All too often, athletes travel in different directions for qualifying purposes, and the athletes use April home meets for conditioning.

From Lester to Quincy

You know you've been around for a while when you coach father and son: Lester and Quincy Washington.

"They're different styles," Williams said. "Lester was a thin, finesse sprinter. Quincy is a power runner. We didn't have as much weight training in Lester's day. Quincy is a strong athlete who can handle two sports, but the demands of football are great, and we haven't had him long enough to take advantage of his natural speed."

OK, Willie, your athletes have broken every UI sprint, hurdle and relay record in the last 18 years. Who was your favorite?

"That's hard. I remember when I first saw Brookins come out from football. He had a powerful start. But our best sprinter was Anthony Jones of Danville. He has the best time (10.1). And then there's Armstrong. He reminds me of (former hurdle great) Lee Calhoun with his quickness and endurance. He has qualified for both the NCAA and Olympic trials."

Best race Saturday? Just follow Armstrong in the hurdles and relays. Williams will put together two swift foursomes with the quality leadership of Armstrong, Washington, McCroy, Ridley and Tyrone Jones.

That's Willie, still going for the gold.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.

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