Head coach, equestrian team
Equine enthusiast Greg Williams had five years' experience as a professional horse trainer and riding coach under his belt when he returned to his childhood home and college alma mater in 1989 to manage the Auburn University Horse Center. With him, he brought his passion for the spirited graceful beasts, and it proved contagious. In no time, he had Auburn's dormant Horseman's Club back in action and over the next few years built an impressive, competitive equestrian team that in 1996 was sanctioned by the university as a club sport. But Williams dreamed of bigger and better things, and in 2002, six years and a lot of hard work and vigorous campaigning on the part of Williams and his team later, equestrian was awarded varsity sport status at Auburn University, jointly sponsored by the Athletic Department and the College of Agriculture. In the decade since, Williams, a 1986 Auburn Department of Animal Sciences alumnus who inherited his fervor for all things equestrian from mom Carolyn, has led the team to two national championships - first in 2008 and again in 2011 - and, going into the second half of their 2011-12 season, the defending national champs are ranked No. 1 in the country with a 6-1 record. Spring competition begins Jan. 28 at home when Auburn takes on Oklahoma State at the Horse Center. As is true with all equestrian meets, admission is free.
1. As head coach of Auburn's equestrian team, you've brought home two national championships, not to mention numerous regional and national division titles. What's the key to having the best team in the country?
First is tremendous talent, but it's also about being more physically and mentally fit than your opponents. It is critical that every athlete performs as one team, which means putting 39 other girls in front of themselves. Everyone loves to watch sports movies and see the tough coaches and the team's hard work, but it is much harder to actually live it. Both of our championship teams not only lived it, they embraced it. We not only win, but I would put our ability to be a united team up against anybody's.
2. What's at the heart of your coaching philosophy?
I guess what I'm most quoted for saying is that you have to be willing to plant a seed for a tree that you will never shade under. That just means working now for benefits that you won't be around to see. These girls are always working to build this program and its prominence, and that will benefit future Auburn riders. We're all very competitive and like to win, but I do want them to have an impact on this program, university and town, and when you see one of our riders giving an Auburn kid his or her first horseback ride at one of our meets, you know they are making a difference. My goal is for equestrian to be one of the best athletic programs for a student to be involved with at Auburn.
3. Auburn equestrian is always well-represented on the Southeastern Conference academic honor rolls. To what do you attribute that?
We do put a strong emphasis on academics because all of our riders are here for a degree even if they are turning pro. I think their academic success is due to the fact that they are used to hard work - studying, practicing, competing and working with their horses and around our facilities - and high expectations. These expectations come from the home and from within the team members themselves.
4. You mentioned future Auburn riders. Obviously, a national championship is a big plus on the recruiting trail, but what other factors play a role in landing the country's top prospects?
How sound your program is, a proven record, a great staff - and I think that I have two of the best coaches in the entire country in Lisa Helfer and Jessica Braswell - and having on-campus facilities are all key elements, but I believe that the town of Auburn and Auburn University sell themselves well. If you come to Auburn, you are going to have a home here, and I think that is really important not only to recruits but maybe more so to the parents.
The regular recruiting season is in April, but there was an early signing period Nov. 9-16, and we came out really well on that. We signed nine top-notch high-school riders from across the country that we're really excited about. And, by the way, one of our signees was Hasbrouck Donovan, daughter of Billy Donovan, head basketball coach for the University of Florida. With Hasbrouck, the biggest advantage we had was that Florida doesn't have a varsity team, but she and her family really liked the feel of Auburn and loved our program. The family feeling that you get here is hard to describe to people until they experience it.
5. Do you foresee a day when the Auburn equestrian team's national acclaim and athletic prowess will resonate more widely with Auburn Tigers fans?
We have always had good crowds at our meets, and I feel that's due largely to the team's hard work and community involvement. I think the awareness continues to grow about how family friendly our events are, too, and what an excellent set of role models these athletes are. I don't even begin to compare ourselves to the big three sports, and it doesn't bother me that our win-loss record isn't on everyone's mind, but I love it when the Auburn Family gets to claim another championship because of these girls.