King's Williams celebrates a 41-year career

King's Williams celebrates a 41-year career
February 18, 2013, 1:00 pm
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Lonnie Williams describes himself as a living fossil, not a dinosaur. A product of the segregated South in the 1950s and 1960s, he has been coaching football at King High School for 41 years. But he shows no signs of growing old or retiring to play golf or go fishing. He still has some unfinished business to accomplish.

Many of his friends are gone now...coaches who, like Williams, helped to build the Chicago Public League's reputation as a producer of talented young athletes...Carl Bonner, Luther Bedford, Bob Hambric, Lee Umbles, Jim Brown, Larry Hawkins, Al Scott, Andre Thomas. Others are retired...Sherman Howard, J.W. Smith, Lexie Spurlock, Roy Curry, Terry Lewis, Ben Ward. Only Williams and Glenn Johnson (Dunbar) still are coaching.

This is Black History Month and Williams helped to write a chapter in the chronicles of Chicago high school football that began with the likes of Walter Eckersall and Fritz Pollard and George Halas and went on to include Bill DeCorrevont and Buddy Young, then Dick Butkus and Abe Woodson, then Otis Armstrong and Darryl Stingley, then Jim Grabowski and Al MacFarlane, then Russell Maryland and Howard Griffith.

"I came in with the greatest class of coaches ever in Chicago...Smith, Curry, Lewis, Ward, Scott, Bedford, Johnson, Bernie O'Brien, Mike Pols, Bob Jurka, Bob Stepanek," Williams said. "Carl Bonner and Sherman Howard were the first, the dean of coaches. Black coaches were just being accepted in the city as head coaches.

"I recall when the first Mayor Daley stepped up at a Prep Bowl banquet and said everybody should recognize the Public League's Blue-Green Division coaches. Until then, the lower division never got any recognition. I always respected him for that."

Williams, who was 70 last December, earned respect from the get-go. After helping to launch the football program at old Forrestville High School, he was the first teacher to enter the new King building in 1971 and will be the last of his group to leave.

At Forrestville, the first head coach left so school officials asked Williams to replace him. He said he was a "basketball guy" and didn't feel qualified to coach football.

"I knew something about the game but I wasn't comfortable about it," he said.

But he took on the challenge, like so many he has embraced in his long career. In 1968, his team lost to Luther Bedford's Marshall team, which was led by future Purdue and NFL star Darryl Stingley, in the championship game of the Blue-Green Division.

"Once I got into it, I fell in love with it," Williams said. "I knew once I went to clinics and read books and asked people about football, picking their brains, I could get very good at it. I had good players. I got away from basketball. I realized football was a great sport to build character and build young men."

In 2005, more than 200 of his former players from Forrestville and King honored him at an appreciation dinner.

"They called me the Man-Maker. It was the greatest honor I ever had," he said.

Now he plans to coach at least two more years, until grandson Robinson Williams graduates from King. Lonnie wants to coach the 5-foot-11, 170-pound sophomore. He has great talent and bloodlines and projects to be a Division I prospect. He is a running back, cornerback and safety who started as a freshman and sophomore on the varsity.

Will the last great player he coaches also be his best? Better than safety Kenny Wilson, a 1982 graduate who played at Purdue with future Pro Football Hall of Famer Rod Woodson? Better than tackle Jeff Allen, a 2008 graduate who was an All-Big 10 selection at Illinois and currently plays for the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL? Better than Bill Tolson, who quarterbacked King to the 1974 Blue-Green championship, then played at Kentucky?

"My only regret is we never got to the Prep Bowl," Williams said. "We have been up and down. We once had an eight-man team. We were down at the bottom and came back. King was a football school before it was a basketball school. But the younger generation only remembers the basketball program (of the 1980s and 1990s). But we won football titles before that.

"The problem is basketball is supreme in Chicago. I regret that some of the greatest football players at King never played because they thought they were basketball players -- Johnny Selvie, Fred Shepherd, Levertis Robinson. They could have been great football players.

"Shepherd was offered football scholarships at Michigan and Kentucky as a freshman. He was a great athlete. They wanted him as a tight end. Selvie could have been a great defensive end and Robinson a great tight end. They could have made me a greater football coach."

It all began in tiny Tylertown, Mississippi.

"I didn't know it at the time but a friend from Texas called me and said our county, Walthall County, was the poorest county in the United States at that time," Williams said.

It was the worst of times in the racially segregated South...separate washrooms and drinking fountains, separate windows at the local hamburger stand, blacks sitting in the balcony at the movie theatre, blacks allowed to attend the county fair on certain days, whites on other days.

"I saw and lived segregation every day," Williams said. "I never went to school with white folks. We didn't play sports against whites. It was a segregated town. We weren't allowed to do certain things in the town."

His parents were farmers. They didn't own a television set. His father was the first black retired Navy person in Mississippi. He taught Lonnie discipline and how to get ahead.

"In my county, we were too poor to have a football team at our school," Lonnie said. "We had three high schools but no indoor gym. It was easier to play basketball by shooting in the backyard. We played on dirt fields."

On the day he graduated from Alcorn State University with a bachelor's degree in physical education, he hopped the first train north to Chicago.

"It was the only place I knew to go. My older brothers were here. There weren't many jobs offered to blacks in the South besides teaching. I felt there would be opportunity in Chicago. So many blacks from the South came North in the 1960s. I was one of them," he said.

His first job was as a substitute teacher at Phillips and Forrestville for a couple of days a week. Then he landed at King. He started the school's first baseball team and also coached football, track and girls basketball. He fielded his first football team in 1967.

He found segregation in Chicago, too. While working part-time as a social worker at Newberry Center on the West Side, he took a group of boys to Rainbow Beach at 79th and South Shore Drive. He didn't know blacks weren't allowed on the beach and soon they were surrounded by a band of militant whites who didn't take kindly to the intrusion.

"I learned how to work with people," Williams said. "I learned to build a system by watching others and looking at film and studying the game and getting information from a lot of people."

His system?

"Defense first and always. A hard-hitting team. Rough, clean, hit people. It changes football games. Hit them hard, hit them clean, hit them early. My teams wouldn't be out-hit. And run as much as possible. Run the football at them," he said.

"I haven't changed my philosophy. If they don't want to hit, they don't play for me. I don't get the kind of players I used to get. I do what I can with what I have. Kids are less disciplined now. They have more options to do other things. They don't like to work hard. They don't want the discipline. They want everything now.

"But you can't build a man by being easy on him. You've got to make him be a man. Our kids have to be good when they go to college. Jeff Allen was the best tackle in the state when he went to Illinois. I put my best into him. People didn't believe me. But he was All-Big 10 and started with the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL as a rookie.

"He wasn't the best lineman I ever coached. But he knew what he wanted and he was willing to work for it. The others fell short in other areas. He was tough and physical and disciplined, one of a kind. Only Illinois and Northern Illinois offered him a scholarship. No one else wanted to talk to him. But he proved them wrong."

In 41 years, Williams' teams have posted a record of 212-157-3, a winning percentage of .574. He never had a winless season. He didn't have a losing team in his first 10 years and hasn't had a losing team in his last nine years. No Prep Bowls, no victories in eight state playoff appearances. No regrets. But a few laments.

"Today, you can't put a good football team on the field in the city because there are so many schools and the talent is spread around so much that there isn't enough talent anywhere," Williams said. "Most kids would rather play basketball and sit on the bench than play football. Look around you. The programs at Lane Tech and Dunbar and Sullivan and Hubbard and Morgan Park and Julian and Bogan aren't what they used to be."

He blames the administration of the Chicago Public Schools for "putting high school sports on the back-burner." He argues that coaches, like himself, who once asserted that athletics was an important part of the educational process, have been ignored in recent years.

"I just want to see the school system embrace athletics more," he said. "They make sports seem insignificant today. I think athletics and academics go hand-in-hand. You can't teach a kid all day every day all the academic things and not teach character things. You need sports to hold their attention, to make them want to be involved and come to school. Instead, they cut social centers and extra-curricular activities and kids are on the street."

It would help, Williams insists, if young coaches were more dedicated to their programs and took advice from those who came before, the coaches whose shoulders they are standing on, the ones who built the system that they have inherited.

"My advice to young coaches? If you can, talk to the older guys who have done it for a long time," Williams said. "In the Public League, they don't really embrace guys like J.W. Smith or Roy Curry who have been there and done that. You have to be dedicated to what you are doing and take advice from people who know.

"In addition, be sure to get a job at the school you coach at. If not, you will have a problem building a team. You have to build relationships with players. You can't do it if you aren't in the school. You can't show up at 3 in the afternoon every day and build a program."

Finally, there are the parents. Someone said: "High school sports would be OK without parents." Williams admits parents are a difficult problem today.

"You have to let them know how their kids will be coached from one level to the next. Parents always think their kids are the best or better than they are," he said.

He reminds of a sage comment that the winningest coach in state history, Mount Carmel's Frank Lenti, once told him.

"He said: 'I tell parents to be the best parent they can be and I'll be the best coach I can be.' It works for him. He puts the best players on the field. That's what coaching is," Williams said.

"I meet with my parents to make the realize that their kid might have been the best player at his grammar school but he might not be the best in high school or college or the pros. They have to understand that kids must have certain skill sets to play at the top."