Editor's note: Building highly successful athletics programs requires many facets. In this "Auburn Builds Champions" series, we will profile eight Auburn Athletics coaches and support staff members and their keys to success. In part two, equestrian coach Greg Williams discusses the importance of casting a vision and working hard to achieve it.
"Plant a seed for a tree you're never going to shade under" - Greg Williams
By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Long before the SEC championship and four national championships. Before the impending groundbreaking for a new barn and locker rooms. Before the celebrations at Toomer's Corner. There was Greg Williams, a horse-loving Auburn graduate and former rodeo cowboy, managing Auburn's horse program while starting rodeo and equestrian club teams.
At the time, Williams recalls, Auburn University's Horse Center was an "overgrown field."
Williams had a vision, one that has enriched the lives of hundreds of equestrian team members while raising the profile of Auburn Athletics and Auburn University.
Sensing that equestrian was a better fit than rodeo for Auburn University's mission and teaching program, Williams shifted his focus exclusively to equestrian.
He called David Housel, then Auburn's Director of Athletics, asking Housel to include equestrian updates when speaking to Auburn clubs.
When Housel told Williams Auburn would soon be adding a women's sport, Williams approached the opportunity with the intensity of a bull rider trying to stay on. But this ride lasted much longer than eight seconds.
"That became my mission," Williams said. "He was already a friend, but I dogged him to death. I don't think he could eat a breakfast or a lunch without having to walk by me at that restaurant. I had him patterned."
It took six years – "a very challenging six years," Williams remembers - for Auburn's equestrian team to become the Tigers' 21st varsity sport, in 2002.
"Something I wouldn't trade for anything in the world," he said. "It was tough earning that spot."
Tapping into an association that dated back more than a century, to Auburn's first football game in 1892, Housel encouraged Georgia to add equestrian, too.
Williams fielded frequent calls at night from Georgia AD Vince Dooley. "'Coach, let me tell you what my naysayers are saying,' Williams remembered Dooley saying. "We'd talk, and I'd answer his questions."
Williams' persuasiveness prevailed again, adding another chapter to the Auburn-Georgia rivalry.
Before Housel agreed to make equestrian a varsity sport, he asked Williams one final question.
"'Can you beat Alabama?'" Housel inquired. "I said, 'David, they can't even clean our horses feet out,'" Williams said. "David said, 'I have no idea what that means, but it's good enough for me.' He signed off on it right then."
'Horses have always been a part of my life'
Chasing big dreams has never been a problem for Greg Williams. An Arkansas native who grew up in Auburn, rodeo lassoed Williams when he was a teenager.
A talented roper – "I could win a good bit of money doing that" - Williams preferred the sport's more dangerous elements.
"My passion was rough stock riding," he said. "I'd much rather ride broncs or bulls than win in roping. I was terrible at it, but it was my passion."
So passionate was Williams that he dropped out of Auburn in 1982, his freshman year, to pursue rodeo full time.
"I left, and was not nearly good enough to make a living at it," he said.
From his hotel room in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, his wallet empty, Williams decided the time had come to return to Auburn.
"I said I'm going back to Alabama to marry Sandi," he recalled. "We had not yet been dating, but that was my plan."
Greg and Sandi had met years earlier, when they both qualified for the national high school rodeo finals.
"We were on horseback when we met, so horses have always been a part of my life," he said.
Sandi's parents were initially less than thrilled with Williams' intentions, but they soon came around. Three and a half months after Williams came home from Wyoming, he and Sandi were married.
"I'm not a patient guy," Williams said. "We're going on 35 years, so it worked."
'I do like to think big'
In 2006, Auburn equestrian's fifth season as a varsity program, the Tigers competed using a new head-to-head scoring system, one Williams created.
Auburn's coach devised a system that mirrored the one-on-one concept used in sports like tennis, where each competition's winner earns a point for her school.
Convincing his peers to adopt the change took time. Williams, as always, persevered.
In the new format's first year, Auburn won it all, a milestone on multiple levels.
"Not just because it was our first national championship," he said. "It just proved that this head-to-head format would work. That was a huge, huge feeling of pride for me."
Three more national titles have followed, in 2011, 2013 and 2016, the same year the Tigers won their first SEC championship.
Through it all, Williams keeps pushing for ways to advance his sport, and Auburn's program.
"I do like to think big," he said. "Sometime it feels like a curse when you keep coming up with new things."
Auburn's equestrian student-athletes understand they are part of their sport's evolution.
"If you come here, you're going to have to be willing to be a guinea pig, because we're going to keep changing and working until we get this sport where we want it to be," he said.
Williams' mission is to teach lessons during each student-athlete's four years that will last a lifetime.
"It's not just about the wins, but the passion that you play with," he said. "Even the way you carry yourself. You put 40 ambitious, driven girls together, they are a force to be reckoned with."
A saying, one he's used "from the very get-go," summarizes Williams' message.
"Plant a seed for a tree you're never going to shade under," he said. "You've got to be willing to do that. I do believe in leaving Auburn a better place."
Plant a seed for a tree you're never going to shade under.
-- Greg Williams
It was true in 1996, when Williams first met with students interested in equestrian.
"We're starting with nothing, but if we do this right, you're going to be impacting girls who haven't even started school yet," he remembers telling them.
Nearly two decades later, Williams understood his words had been prophetic.
"When we had won the 2013 national championship, I realized that group of seniors was the group that was in kindergarten when that [first meeting] happened," he said. "We won a national championship with that very group."
'How true the Auburn Family really is'
A rescue program for ex-show horses. That's how Williams describes the equine athletes, donated from all over the country, that form the other essential component of Auburn's equestrian program.
"It's an amazing amount of work that goes into the care for those athletes," Williams said. "The College of Veterinary Medicine does a fabulous job of working with our staff in Animal Sciences to put the best care out there."
The Horse Center's location, across the street from the College of Veterinary Medicine, provides what associate professor Dr. Jennifer Taintor calls "an incredible teaching environment" for Auburn students.
"It's a chance for senior students to have that exposure to the sport horse industry," she said. "With the idea that, over there, the senior students get to do everything."
"Sports medicine for horses is a huge growing field," Williams said. "I like to feel like we're an amazing resource for the College of Veterinary Medicine, that they can come over and work on those horses and have them in an actual sports setting.
The collaboration between student-athletes and educators makes a profound impression on future equestrian team members.
"It's a feeling that our recruits get to see," Williams says. "When you get to see the College of Agriculture, the College of Veterinary Medicine and Athletics. How they work hand in hand. Literally, they just can't get over how true the Auburn Family really is."
The ultimate payoff, Williams says, comes when Auburn equestrian celebrates a championship at Toomer's and on the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"They feel like they're you're daughters," he said. "When people speak highly of your daughters or your sons, that feeling you get. You can multiply that by 40 and that's how it feels when you walk down that street at Toomer's Corner and they're there to roll it. When you walk out on that field, you're just booming with pride.
"That the sport we love so much is being honored that way by the Auburn people, it can put tears in your eyes."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer
Auburn Builds Champions Series