By Hannah Lester
Greg Williams envisioned a program at Auburn that would be successful long after he was gone. Auburn’s Equestrian program is now award winning and well on its way to the success Williams’ hoped for.
Williams was honored as one of Auburn Mayor Ron Anders’ lamplighter winners in October at the State of the City address.
The mayor, each year, presents six community members with what he calls ‘lamplighter awards’.
“I’m humbled tonight to introduce six individuals who contribute to our community in meaningful ways and give me a reason to hope,” he said. “I recognize them as recipients of the 2021 Mayor’s Lamplighter Award which signifies the light that they each shine in our community.”
Auburn’s equestrian program has won six national championships since its first season in 2002.
Williams was a professional in the horse business himself before taking on a role at Auburn University. And he really wasn’t interested in quitting being a professional.
But Auburn said it wanted to grow its horse program and Williams’ said he and his wife wanted to raise their children in Auburn, so he decided to take the position.
“I shut down my pro career early and came back to run the horse center,” he said. “There was no team whatsoever then and we were making some pretty good strides in the teaching area and some in research.”
Williams said the team was formed as an IHSA program in 1996 with five students. But by 1998, he began looking at what it would take to make the equestrian team a varsity sport at Auburn.
In 2002 the varsity team was formed at Auburn.
“It was difficult for a lot of years,” he said. “The one thing that I got jealous of, is even after we had gone varsity in 2002, I was just still making it all happen. Where all the other coaches had large budgets and scholarships.”
Williams was taking on a lot of the responsibilities himself — waking up at 3 a.m. to do what needed to be done.
“We were so focused on the mission of making it a varsity sport,” he said. “It didn’t seem like work, it just seemed really busy. I mean, we were working really hard and really tired, but we were so into the dream of making it happen that it wasn’t that bothersome.”
The coach always knew that the best benefits and success of the program was not for himself, or even for the current team, but for the ones to come.
“The one thing that I told my wife is, you look at the history of all the sports, I said, ‘you just understand we’re building this for somebody else.’ And she said, ‘I know,’” he said.
But, Williams wants to continue being involved with Auburn’s equestrian program even after he steps down as head coach, he said.
“I hope that the last words I hear on this earth as somebody would just be dragging me out of the arena are the words ‘point Auburn,’” he said. “I don’t ever want to leave.”
In the future, Williams wants to grow the bond between teaching and the equestrian team, he said.
“We’re looking at starting working in conjuncture with the college of Agriculture and our college of Veterinary Medicine is starting a sports medicine program and a [management] program,” he said. “The management being for the undergraduates and the medicine being for the vet students. Now, and understand, they already do sports medicine on our horses all that time. What I want to do is keep formalizing that program and making it larger.
“I want any student that comes to Auburn University to have a huge head start on equine sports medicine and management than anybody else in the country.”
Williams, like the other award winners, had no idea he was being honored at the State of the City address.
“Ron being a friend, I was glad to go be supportive of Ron,” he said. “My wife said I was going there for her business, but I thought ‘well, it’s Ron. That’d be great.’ And I love this city. I did most of my growing up here so this was moving home for me in 1989. And I just, I love this place. And so, that was all fun. And I knew most of the people going up getting the awards. And I just loved that, loved those stories and just thought, ‘man this is great.’
“And then when Ron led off with something I say all the time, to every recruit, is I say, ‘you’ve got to be willing to plant a seed for a tree you’ll never shade under if you’re going to come ride at Auburn.’ And he led off with that statement and I thought, ‘man somebody uses a line I say all the time.’ Then he kept talking and I reached over and grabbed my wife’s hand and all of a sudden I knew he was talking about me. But I had no idea.”
Williams said that coaching to him has always been more than the score. And to receive the award was a validation of his work.
“For the sport I love and the city and university that I love to be known all over the country, for this sport, is huge to me,” he said. “That’s huge. But for the city, to feel like I’ve done something good for the city of Auburn is great. I just can’t believe I got the award.”
This is the second in a series of six pieces on the lamplighter winners from Auburn Mayor Ron Anders’ State of the City Address.