MACON, Ga. - Bert Williams didn't have to look far around the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame function room Wednesday to see the fruits of his labors.
In a corner sitting at the University of Georgia table was Odell Thurman, the All-Southeastern Conference linebacker with a seemingly limitless football future ahead of him.
At the next table representing Fort Valley State was Derrick Wimbush, the 2003 Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conferece Offensive Player of the Year and one of the most productive running backs in Division II.
Considering the mission of Georgia Military College is to be a national leader in character development, Williams can point to those two young men and know that he is fulfilling his end of the process as its head football coach.
"I like having a more personal relationship with the kids," said Williams, a former star quarterback at Westside High in Augusta. "I like being a part of their lives."
Williams, 35, is starting his eighth season at Georgia Military College - his fifth as head coach and athletic director at the Milledgeville school. He led the Bulldogs to a junior college national championship in 2001, earning national coach of the year honors from the NJCAA.
Williams first arrived in 1997 with a similar mindset as the players that grace his program.
"I came to GMC with the idea I'd be there long enough to improve my marketability," he said. "I turned down a couple of opportunities because I began to enjoy it. I'm glad I've made the decisions I have."
It's easy to wonder why Williams hasn't parlayed his success into what many would consider a "better" job at a higher profile program. He has had offers that rated well "from a purely football situation." None, however, have offered the right balance both professionally and personally for the father of two boys ages 7 and 3.
"I want to get back to the Division I-A level ... but in the right situation," he said. "I want to be able to enjoy my family. I will not go to work for anybody who doesn't understand that. I don't want to see my kids when I retire.
"I'm happy where I am and I have the luxury of being picky," he added. "The right thing will come."
Not that Williams isn't pulling his share of coach's hours at GMC, where the job entails serving as counselor, tutor and advisor to students who desperately need direction. It takes a special coach to take on the challenges he faces every season.
His players appreciate the effort.
Thurman, who now carries a 90 average as a junior sociology major at Georgia, credits his experience at GMC in 2002 with forcing him to reevaluate his life and putting him on "the right path."
Same for Wimbush, who was ready to give up on football after getting bounced from Middle Georgia before Williams helped set him straight at Georgia Military during the 2001 championship season.
"He's the type that stays on you and keeps pushing you because he realizes you can do more than you're doing," Wimbush said. "He sees more than what you see in yourself."
Williams is justifiably proud of those successes as he is in some of the other 18 or so athletes every year who sign college scholarships after leaving GMC.
"There's a lot of neat stories that never see the light of day," Williams said. "But there's a flip side, sadly. The investment you put in the kids because you are so involved, it hits you a little harder when it doesn't work out."
When it doesn't, it's not for a lack of effort. Williams has gotten better and better every season at preparing young athletes.
Take his summer workout program, for instance. Young student-athletes, many with a history of academic or discipline problems, don't anticipate the shock of making the leap from high to school to college - particularly a military college. The attrition rate of freshman players when Williams arrived in 1997 was roughly 40 percent.
Not coincidentally, only a handful of players would hang around Milledgeville during the summer before the 1997 season. By Williams' second year, maybe 20 kids stuck around. In his third, about 30.
Since taking over as head coach in 2000, that number has continued to rise and the attrition rate has steadily declined. This year GMC's summer program has reached maximum density of 70 players and the attrition rate has fallen to around 10 percent.
That success creates a different kind of dilemma.
"I have more bodies than helmets going into camp," he said. "That's a good problem to have."
Georgia Millitary enters the 2004 season with a team preseason ranked No. 9 among junior colleges and loaded with talent from the region, especially on a defense that has ranked 1, 1 and 3 nationally the past three seasons.
Former Laney star J.K. Sabb is a preseason All-America linebacker who will play along side Thomson twins Jasper and Casper Brinkley and Georgia transfer Dana Graydon of Hephzibah. Blackville-Hilda standout Brandon Isaac is a second-team JUCO All-America defensive back and is joined in the secondary by Glenn Hills corner Vander Thompkins.
With a schedule that includes an unprecedented six home games, Williams believes these Bulldogs might contend for another national title.
Maybe then the right opportunity will come along for Williams as it has for so many of his players.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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