Back in the game

The Associated Press

PEARL – The only coach to take Mississippi State to a Final Four now has an office that was, until recently, a storage closet.

As coach of Pearl High School's basketball team, Richard Williams has to clean the floors after home games, ride the school bus to road games and occasionally monitor detention after school.

Recently, an old friend dropped by the gym after a game to find Williams pushing the dust mop over the hardwood.

“He said to me, 'It's a long way from the Final Four, huh?”' Williams chuckled.

Eight years ago Williams reached the pinnacle of his coaching career, leading his alma mater to the national semifinals.

Two years later, at 52, he retired, saying 12 years of transforming the Bulldogs from patsies to powerhouse had left him frazzled.

These days, while Mississippi State climbs the national rankings, Williams is back in his hometown, reviving another moribund program. If not for the diamond-studded NCAA Final Four ring on his left hand, he would look like any other high school coach.

For Williams, it's not a step back, just a return to his roots.

“I think that might have been an issue with other people,” he said. “It never was with me, because, in all honesty, every time that I spoke at a clinic over the last several years, I've always made it a point and very sincerely so that I'm a high school coach who got a break and got a chance to coach at Mississippi State.”

Williams never played college basketball, but always aspired to coach.

His career began at South Natchez High School in southwestern Mississippi in 1972, and from there he moved on to the junior college ranks. He landed a spot as an assistant with Mississippi State in 1984.

Two years later his dream job practically fell into his lap, when outgoing coach Bob Boyd recommended Williams to succeed him.

The program, however, was in nightmarish shape and a far cry from the one that regularly challenged Adolph Rupp's Kentucky teams in late 1950s and early 60s the teams that Williams rooted for as a student.

Mississippi State won 55 games in five seasons under Boyd.

“If you really want to know the truth and I say this facetiously sometimes but really it's the truth I got the job because nobody else wanted it,” Williams said.

Williams rebuilt his beloved Bulldogs by recruiting Mississippi kids and working them relentlessly.

“We made it so hard on those kids the first two years,” Williams said. “It was brutal the things we put them through in practice.”

It paid off.

Williams' first recruiting class went on to win a share of the Southeastern Conference title in 1991 as seniors.

In 1996, with a pair of future first-round NBA draft picks in Erick Dampier and Dontae' Jones, Mississippi State reached the Final Four. The Bulldogs lost to national runner-up Syracuse.

Dampier and Jones both left Mississippi State after that season, foregoing their senior years, and the Bulldogs slipped back into mediocrity.

In 1998, after 30 years as a state employee, Williams decided to start collecting a pension.

He retired as the school's winningest coach at 191-163.

“Greatest decision I've ever made,” he said.

A couple of mid-major schools talked to Williams about coming out of retirement shortly after he went in, but since then, he says, he hasn't had any opportunities to return to the college game. Nor has he been looking.

His only full-time coaching gig since 1998 was with the Memphis Houn'Dawgs of the ABA, a minor league that lasted one season.

Williams spent most of his retirement living in Bay St. Louis on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, helping out with the local high school team.

Last year, Williams and his wife, Diann, were considering a move to the Jackson area to be closer to her ailing father.

Even so, he had little interest in becoming the basketball coach at the high school he graduated from in 1959 when he was first approached.

He warmed up to the idea eventually and inherited a team that went 7-18 last season and hasn't played in the state tournament since 1993.

The Pearl Pirates were a little star struck at first.

“It took me about a month just to get comfortable around him,” sophomore Cason Burk said. Some of the shots that I normally took when I was in ninth grade, I was afraid to take them around him.”

Williams was as demanding as ever, running his team ragged.

Again, it worked.

The undersized and not particularly talented Pirates were 19-9 after Friday's victory.

“It's mostly him,” senior Justin Sanders said. “It's basically the same talent we had last year. We all knew that we could play, but he knows how to put it on the court. How to get it out of us. “

Williams says he isn't particularly interested in returning to big-time college basketball, though he'd listen if somebody asked.

Besides, coaching is coaching as far as he's concerned.

“The biggest difference is obviously the talent level and the size of the players,” he said. “As far as the coaching itself: I coach this team just like a I coached my teams at South Natchez high, just like I coached my teams at Co-Lin junior college, and just like I coached my teams at Mississippi State.”