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Former Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams has passed away

Williams oversaw the most successful era of Commodore athletics.

Vanderbilt University

David Williams, the de facto athletic director who oversaw the most prosperous era of Vanderbilt University sports, has passed away. The trailblazing figure had been at Vandy since 2000, becoming the SEC’s first African-American athletic director — even if his official title started off as Vice Chancellor for University Affairs and Athletics — in the process.

The timing is bittersweet. Williams announced his intentions to step down from his post and return to teaching back in September. After one final football season — one that featured the program’s sixth bowl bid since 2008 but, in true Commodore fashion, ended with a heartbreaking defeat — the man affectionately known as “the Goldfather” turned his reins over to former NBA G League president Malcolm Turner. Tonight, February 8, was scheduled to be his retirement party.

“David Williams stood tall on this campus, in this city and in college athletics nationally as an incomparable leader, role model and dear friend to me and so many others. We are devastated by this loss,” Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said in a statement Friday. “His impact on our community is immeasurable and will be felt for generations to come. We offer our deepest condolences to Gail, his children and the entire Williams family on this immense loss.”

Williams left behind difficult shoes to fill. His reign oversaw the only four NCAA championships in university history — women’s bowling in 2008 and 2018, baseball in 2014, and women’s tennis in 2015. His work identifying coaches like Bobby Johnson, James Franklin, and Derek Mason helped restore the credibility of one of the NCAA’s worst football programs. He oversaw a successful revival of the Vanderbilt basketball program, which topped out with a pair of Sweet Sixteen appearances over a four-year span.

Most importantly, Williams had the interpersonal finesse to unite people. The law professor exuded warmth as he lumbered through the concourses or pre-game tailgates across Vanderbilt’s spectrum of sports. He found a way to make even the most disinterested or disenfranchised fans feel at least a modicum of hope. At no point did he make the job seem too big, or Vandy’s place in the SEC seem too small.

Rest in peace. Goldfather. You meant more to Vanderbilt than you could ever imagine.