David Williams II spent the last two decades of his life in Nashville, Tennessee, first as a law professor, then as vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletic director of Vanderbilt University. But he was still a Detroiter at heart.
He passed away February 8 at the age of 71, just eight days after stepping down from his position at the school. He had returned to Vanderbilt Law School as a full-time tenured law professor.
Williams was born and raised on Detroit’s westside, attending Mumford High School in the 1960s, where he ran track, and played basketball and football. His father, David I, was a math teacher at Detroit Southwestern High School for 40 plus years and a Tuskegee Airman. His mother, Juanita, was an educator in Detroit as well and became an administrator.
Williams worked as a middle school teacher and coach in Detroit Public Schools from 1970-1980. He did his student teaching for Will Robinson, who became the first African-American coach of a Division I basketball team at Illinois State in 1970. He earned his doctorate of jurisprudence from the University of Detroit Law School in 1982 and a master’s from New York University Law School in 1984.
Before his passing, Vanderbilt Athletics and PNC Bank created an in-depth documentary on the life of Williams, taking him back home to his Detroit roots and childhood home. During the video, Williams shared some of his childhood memories, which included catching the bus downtown to the Grinnell Brothers store for music lessons and the 1967 Detroit riot.
“Every time I go back, you sort of go back in time, remembering your time here,” Williams said in the video. “I think what really sort of hit me is that I really never left here. This is home, this is who I am, this is where I’m from, this what I’m about.”
Williams was the first African-American vice chancellor at Vanderbilt and first African-American athletic director in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), drastically elevating the student-athlete experience while leading Vanderbilt athletics. He was successful in building a program where student-athletes could achieve exceptional academic success while competing in one of the superior athletics conferences in the nation.
Vanderbilt athletics experienced unprecedented success on and off the field during Williams’ tenure. During his 15 seasons at Vanderbilt, the Commodores won four national championships – in bowling, baseball and women’s tennis. Vanderbilt also won more than 19 league titles and tournaments, including the men’s golf and women’s tennis SEC championships and the Southland Conference Bowling Championship. The Vanderbilt football team played in six bowl games, breaking a 26-year drought in 2008.
As athletic director, Williams brought significant attention to sports’ impact on society, underscoring Vanderbilt’s rich and often troubled history during the civil rights movement. He was instrumental in leading efforts for recognition of and reconciliation with Vanderbilt pioneers, including Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard, and in educating current students, faculty and staff about the university’s past.
Vanderbilt plans to name its Student Recreation and Wellness Center after Williams.
More than 2,000 people, including elected officials, community leaders, student-athletes, alumni, coaches, university administrators, faculty, staff and athletics directors from across the SEC gathered in Nashville February 15 for Williams’ home going service. A visitation service was held in Detroit Tuesday, February 19 at the Swanson Funeral Home’s McNichol’s campus.
Williams is survived by his wife, Gail; four children, Erika, David III, Samantha and Nicholas; six grandchildren and one great-grandson. He will be interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Detroit.