Fred Williams: More Than a Coach

Dallas Wings head coach Fred Williams has made his name coaching in the WNBA. With over 250 career wins and a WNBA Finals appearance to his name, his success on the court is unquestioned.

But more than that, it is his relationships and involvement with his players off the court that have come to define him.

“Fred is what we call a player’s coach is this league,” Wings all-star guard Skylar Diggins-Smith said. “I look to Fred as a mentor, somebody that I look up to.”

Williams began his career as an assistant at the University of Southern California in 1983. He was named head coach of the Trojans in 1995, which coincided with Tina Thompson’s senior year at USC.

Thompson, once the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer, sees the influence Williams had on her career early on.

“I was lucky in that way,” Thompson said. “Even though I had three coaches in four years, I was blessed to have people like Coach Williams who cared. I was very lucky to have coaches who were good people at their core and they genuinely cared for who we were as people and for our future. That is something that I took away from him.”

Williams made the move to professional basketball as an assistant with the WNBA’s Utah Starzz in 1998 and was quickly promoted to head coach. In 2012, in his first full season as head coach with the Atlanta Dream, he made his first and so far only appearance in the WNBA Finals, losing to the Minnesota Lynx in three games.

While he works to expand his list of on-court accolades with the Wings, Williams doesn’t see that as his primary role as a coach.

“It’s about being a leader to the players each and every day,” Williams said. “It’s getting to know their lives, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. The coaching part is really all about being a mentor.”

No one knows that more now than Diggins-Smith, who estimates that she spends 250 days out of the year working with Williams on and off the court.

“He was really the one that filled my love for the game again,” explained Diggins-Smith. “My rookie year was tough, I didn’t have anyone to develop me or lead me, or anyone to look up to. When he and former Wings assistant Bridget Pettis came to Tulsa, the first thing he did was come to South Bend to see me and to have dinner with me.”

“We didn’t even talk about hoops. We just talked about what I liked. He wanted to get to know me first. You know that Fred cares about you outside the lines, and our development as women. He understands that as a pioneering coach in this league.”

In a practice he still continues to this day, Coach Williams made sure to play music before each USC practice. Thompson, now the head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers, looks back on that as an example of how Coach Williams prepared his players to play in the right mindset.

“It was probably the first time I experienced something like that,” Thompson explained. “I learned recently that he wanted to create a place of comfort at practice, a place of peace and relaxation. That this is our place. Once the music started, it was time to start shooting and get loose. We would get mentally focused.”

It’s that mindset training that Thompson leaned on and helped sculpt her into an all-time great teammate and leader.

“I was a very competitive person and I wanted to win at all costs,” Thompson said. “I learned from Coach Williams that not everyone approaches the game as I do. I had to learn to be who I was and accept others as themselves, and then figure out how to lead them to where I want to be. He helped developed those leadership skills in me.”

From Thompson to Diggins-Smith, the list of players impacted by Fred Williams is a testament to his longevity and compassionate style.

“He has coached some legends,” Diggins-Smith said. “Cynthia Cooper, Cheryl Miller, the list goes on and on. He’s like an uncle, or father figure to all of them. He was really the one that fueled me and lit a fire in me. I owe a lot of my development to him. I’m Fred’s biggest fan.”