Richard Williams, the 74-year-old Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer who remains the only coach ever to take a Mississippi team to the NCAA men’s Final Four, will coach again.

Williams has taken the job as special assistant to the head coach at Southern Miss, where he will work for Jay Ladner, who considers Williams a mentor.

“What an incredible addition this is for Southern Miss basketball,” Ladner said Tuesday morning, when he confirmed the hire. “Coach (Williams) is one of the best tactical basketball minds we’ve had in Mississippi or anywhere else. I couldn’t be more excited for our program. Coach’s passion is basketball and he still has a lot to offer. We just got better.”

“Coach’s duties will be multiple,” Ladner said. “He will help across the board. Obviously, he will help us from a tactical standpoint, but he will also help in analyzing what we do and in game planning for opponents.”

Rick Cleveland

Williams apparently will receive no state compensation in his new position, one that he turned down a year ago because he had committed to another year as the color analyst on the Mississippi State basketball radio network. Williams excelled in that capacity for the past six seasons.

Said Ladner, “The timing just wasn’t right last year.”

It was this time.

“I enjoyed the radio work, and you know my love for Mississippi State University,” Williams said. “I have so much respect for Neil Price (State’s radio play-by-play broadcaster) and have really enjoyed working with him and learning from him. But I just have missed really being involved with a team. I’ve missed coaching. I’m really looking forward to working with Jay again. My plan in all this is to do whatever Jay wants me to do.”

Williams said he already has observed three Southern Miss practices. “Jay’s got a lot of new players,” he said. “What I was most impressed with was how attentive those guys were to what their coaches were teaching and how hard they worked. It was fun for me, as a coach, to watch that.”

Williams said he will start his new job “at 11 a.m. Wednesday. Can’t wait.”

Ladner and Williams go way back. In 1992, Ladner was a young pharmaceutical salesman and a recent premed graduate of USM who was making good money but hating his job. He wanted to coach basketball. Jay Larry Ladner, Jay Ladner’s dad and a former coach himself, knew how hard a life many coaches live and wanted his son to stay the course. He enlisted Williams’ help.

The older Ladner set up a meeting between Williams and his son and made his intent clear. The father wanted Williams to talk his son out of coaching. Said Williams, “After about an hour of listening to Jay, I called his daddy back. I told him, ‘Coach, I got news for you. That boys of yours is going to coach basketball. Nobody is going to talk him out of it. That’s just all there is to it.’”

Jay Ladner believes Southern Miss got better with the hiring of Richard Williams.

Soon thereafter, Ladner was hired as head basketball coach at Saint Stanislaus College (actually a high school) in Bay Saint Louis. In 1998, after departing Mississippi State, Williams and his wife moved to Bay Saint Louis and Williams began to attend Ladner’s practices and games there. Pretty soon, he was on the bench as a volunteer coach.

Said Ladner, “I learned so much basketball from Coach. In my opinion, he’s as good as there is at the tactical part of basketball.”

Williams began his coaching career as a volunteer coach of a seventh grade basketball team in Natchez, where he taught math. He advanced from junior high to high school, to junior college, to college volunteer assistant coach, to college head coach, to taking the Mississippi State Bulldogs to the 1996 Final Four.

In 1986, Williams took over a struggling State program that had finished 8-22 overall and 3-15 in the SEC the year before. Four years later, State won 20 games, finished 13-5 in the SEC and won the Western Division. Six years after that, State beat No. 1-ranked Kentucky in the finals of the SEC Tournament, then upset both UConn and Cincinnati en route to the Final Four.

Since leaving State, Williams has coached in professional basketball leagues, at Pearl High School and as an assistant coach at Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech and UAB in varying capacities.

He and Ladner have remained close all along, as Ladner moved around also — from Saint Stanislaus, to Oak Grove, to Jones Junior College, to Southeastern Louisiana and now USM.

When Ladner’s Jones team won the national junior college championship in 2014, he deflected much of the credit to Williams. For his part, Ladner dedicated that championship to people he called his three mentors: his father, Williams and M.K. Turk, for whom Ladner played at Southern Miss.

Said Williams at the time Ladner was hired at Southern Miss in April of 2019: “I’ll tell you what I know about the situation. I know how badly Jay wanted that job. I know how good a coach he is, and I know Southern Miss could not have hired a coach who will be as passionate about that job as he will be. That’s his school and that’s his dream job. It’s the same as it was for me at State. Nobody is going to out-work Jay, and he’s not looking to go anywhere else.”

The obvious question: Why would Williams, at 74, return to college coaching, which has become more and more a young man’s game.

An educated guess: Williams and his wife, Diann, have no children, no grandchildren. Williams doesn’t golf. He doesn’t fish. He still eats, drinks and sleeps basketball.

Six years ago, upon his induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, Williams told me: “I never got into coaching to make money or coach at some high level. My love is teaching basketball. That’s what I like to do.”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.