New TSU coach has backing of players, story of personal triumph

Friday, April 13, 2012 at 2:39pm

When Travis Williams sits down and writes the book, “516 Maple Street,” one particular Friday the 13th certainly will make the final draft.

With his wife, Nikkya, and his five-month-old daughter, Teagan Loure’ Ann, close by, Williams realized his dream of becoming a Division I men’s basketball coach before turning 40 when he was introduced as Tennessee State’s 16th men’s basketball coach on Friday afternoon.

“A very special moment in my life,” Williams said. “To be here standing in front of you is great. ... It has really been a whirlwind but it has also been a blessing to get to this point.”

After spending the last three years at TSU as an assistant, Williams, 39, was promoted exactly a week after John Cooper left for the head coaching position at Miami-Ohio.

With athletics director Teresa Phillips contemplating a national search to find a successor, returning players came to her office to endorse Williams, who had been a head coach on the Division II level and in China. Then, on Tuesday, the entire team held a closed-door meeting with Phillips.

“The players were fully supportive of Coach Williams, came out with that support without being asked,” Phillips said. “I think that makes a little difference too. They were willing to work. They were working hard still with him over these few days so we felt we quickly make a decision if we were going to stay internal. We feel really good about it.”

As Williams addressed reporters and a crowd of more than 50 near the steps leading up to the McWherter Building, a dozen players stood behind him. The only one not in attendance was leading scorer, Robert Covington, who headed home to Bellwood, Ill. to speak at his brother’s banquet. The senior made sure to call Williams, however, to congratulate him and express his excitement to build off the Tigers’ first 20-win season in 32 years.

Only 6-foot-11 center Muniru Bawa will not return after being released by Cooper. Redshirt-senior guard Jordan Cyphers (8.0 points per game) dispelled reports that he was asking for his release and intending to transfer.

“I had no plans of going anywhere. I’m not sure how that rumor got out,” Cyphers said. “I always wanted T-Will to be the head coach. I think it was only right for Coach Williams to get the job for all the work he put in the past season.”

Williams’ biggest priority is hiring a staff. Cooper took assistants Rick Duckett and Sheldon Everett along with director of operations Trey Meyer with him to Miami.

Williams was Cooper’s first hire when he came to TSU in 2009. He had been hired by Dongguan Parklane Snow Wolf Professional Basketball Club in China’s National Basketball League not only as the head coach but to develop the game of basketball in China immediately after the Beijing Olympics.

“If you know anything about Chinese basketball, 1.8 billion folks, I couldn’t walk out in the streets without them pulling and tugging at me,” he said. “Every arena is packed. So they are diehard fans.”

Before that, Williams floated around the region, serving as head coach of Division II Fort Valley (Ga.) State for three years along with assistant coaching stints at Mercer, Chicago State and his alma mater Georgia State.

Williams was a 1,000-point scorer at GSU, where he earned his first coaching job under Hall of Famer Lefty Driesell.

“I am now a big fan of Tennessee State,” Driesell said. “Travis is a great man with high morals.”

Those values were formed at 516 Maple Street in Tifton, Ga., a community of 15,000 an hour north of Florida. As the middle child of three, when he was only 12, Williams lost his mother, Patricia Ann. She died from lupus at the age of 30.

Out of that tragedy, Williams persevered, becoming the first person in his family to attend and graduate from college. In his mother’s memory, Williams started an academic college scholarship this year to be given to two high school students in Tifton.

“516 Maple Street has a lot of significance,” he said. “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. And the best is yet to come. It’s a long way to go. We’re going to keep fighting.”

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