Loading, Please Wait...
Daily Journal
     January 30, 2020      #79-30 KDJ

Female Sports Citizen of the Year: ONU's Williams

By Cody Smith

When one walks past Olivet Nazarene University’s Athletic Hall of Fame Wall, it’s hard to look past recently retired volleyball coach Brenda Williams. The 2011 ONU Hall of Fame inductee put in 23 years of hard work to build the Tigers’ volleyball program from the ground up into what it is today, a perennial contender in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference.

Williams recently retired from coaching but still can be found around the school as a women’s athletics assistant, and her effect is found in countless former players, making Williams this year’s Daily Journal Female Sports Citizen of the Year.

“I am very shocked and very humbled,” Williams said. “It’s an honor that I was not expecting. So, it’s really nice.”

Williams grew up with a multi-sport background, with volleyball eventually winning her main affection. She said the unique team aspect of volleyball, where every aspect of the game is reliant upon other teammates, is what won her over.


“I fell in love with volleyball during my career because it is such a team sport,” Williams said. “I played softball and basketball, but volleyball, everything depended on each other. I just really fell in love with the team aspect of volleyball.”

Her love for the sport blossomed when Williams began her coaching career in her home state of Alabama at the University of Alabama-Birmingham (NCAA Division I) in 1980. She spent 12 years as the head coach and two years as the assistant coach at Alabama-Birmingham before taking a break from coaching to move to Illinois with her husband in the mid-1990s.

Being that God has had such an influence on Williams’ life, it’s no surprise she wound up coaching again at a religious-based university such as Olivet after taking some time off. Her ONU career started because she  helped coach former athletic director Larry Watson’s daughter, Holly, who practiced at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School at the time.

An open position and backing by the administrator’s daughter is all Williams needed to resume her college coaching career.

“They gave me the opportunity, and [Watson] wanted me to build it,” Williams said. “That was his goal, and he said, ‘You know we want you at the top of the conference; we want to build the program, and we want to try to provide for you what you need.’ And I said, ‘Well, give me three years to see what we can do.’”

It was a huge task for Williams, given the lack of focus to the volleyball program before she was hired, but she was more than ready for the challenge.

In her 23 years spent at ONU, Williams turned its volleyball program into one of the best in the Midwest. Some of her teams’ achievements include 11 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Tournament appearances, 11 CCAC regular season championships and back-to-back NAIA national championships in 2001 and 2002.

“It was really special that they knew who we were and that we were a Christian university, and we weren’t going to hide away from that like some people do,” Williams said. “I think that’s what made us different.”

On top of her teams’ successes, Williams racked up numerous individual awards as well. In her time spent at ONU, she has been awarded dozens of coaching awards and was inducted into the CCAC Hall of Fame in 2005.

What’s even more impressive than any singular accomplishment is Williams’ ability to routinely keep her teams competitive year in and year out. She finished with just four losing seasons during her Olivet tenure. This feat allowed her to total more than 900 career wins, which ranked fourth among active NAIA coaches before her retirement.

“I’ve had a really blessed time,” Williams said. “It’s the people I’ve met through volleyball, the people I’ve coached but also people I’ve played with and against. It’s been a fun ride to come here and be able to build this program off 24 years of hard work.”

Unfortunately, her plans for retirement came a little earlier than expected because of a shocking medical illness. Williams was diagnosed with a lung disease four years ago which has hindered her ability to coach the past couple of seasons.

After a couple of surgeries in the summer of 2019, she no longer could travel far distances with the team, which ultimately made her decide to step down. Her staff essentially took over this past season, and she retired in December.

“I wasn’t ready to step back yet, but I didn’t really have a choice,” Williams said. “Then, the school saw I was struggling, and I did not want to do it to the girls either, and they [administration] backed me and said, ‘You’re right. If there’s anything we can do, how can we get you through ... if you want to retire in December, we can help you out.’”

One of the things Williams will miss most is her team-bonding trips. Every year Williams would make her team fund raise in order to take trips around the country to expose them to fresher competition as well as a way to bring her teams closer together.

“That was always really special,” Williams said. “I loved just watching what the girls did outside of volleyball. They are involved in so many different things.”

That was what made Williams different from other coaches. She did more than just coach volleyball; she immersed herself in her players lives outside of volleyball.

“She is a very dedicated coach,” Alex Ewalt-Ruby, one of Williams’ former players, said. “She absolutely invested in every single player’s life, not just on the court but also in life. She really cared about each individual as a person and not just a player.”

Still unsure of what to do with herself now that she has all this free time for the first time in 40 years, Williams knows one thing for certain: She will spend more time with her grandkids as well as the rest of her family.

Williams now can enjoy her retirement life with her husband, Steve Williams, who has been nothing short of supportive in Brenda’s career choices. His endless support for his wife has allowed them to be married for almost 46 years.

Brenda said during her time at Olivet, the school can hold what her and the program have accomplished in high regard.

“I think Olivet can be very proud of what we’ve done here,” she said. “And I hope it continues, and I hope it’s something the women feel very good that they were apart of. And that’s what means the most, is if they feel they were successful and had a good time.”

Whoever takes over the head coaching position surely will have big shoes to fill. Athletic director Gary Newsome said it will be a tough task to find someone who can fill those shoes.

“Brenda had such a great career here,” Newsome said. “Between her players and the love she had for the school and the game made her very special.

“Sometimes, you might find one or two of those things, [but] it’s difficult to find somebody who does all three of those things, and Brenda did that.”

1 of 1