Bowling the eighth frame of the NCAA title match, Vanderbilt’s Emily Rigney stared down the lane. With the No. 2, 4 and 7 pins standing on the left, and the 10 across on the right, this wasn’t going to be easy. The sophomore lefty released the ball near the middle of the lane, the ball gently drifting left as it approached the pins.
It did exactly what Rigney wanted it to do.
It struck the two-pin a split-second before it hit the four. That pin shot abruptly to the right and slammed into the 10, sending it flying into the gutter. The ball spun left off the seven-pin, easily enough for it to take out the two remaining pins.
Rigney leapt in the air and turned and slapped hands with teammates. The match with McKendree University was over so long as Katie Stark and Maria Bulanova did their jobs in the next two frames, which they did.
Moments later, Stark, a senior who had fouled earlier in the match, only to recover with seven-straight strikes, ran over and grabbed the championship trophy and hoisted it over her head as teammates celebrated around her.
Vanderbilt coach John Williamson, the only coach the program has ever known, stood feet away out of the camera’s eye, holding one-year-old son Tucker to his chest.
This was another big stop along his unlikely journey.
An unlikely candidate
Williamson wasn’t sure what he wanted to do once college was done. He had a few ideas. At no point was bowling included.
The former all-state football player at Franklin Road Academy had walked on to the Ole Miss football team in the late-1990s. Although playing time didn’t materialize—(“I was attempting to play college football—I always joked that I was practicing college football, I wasn’t really playing it,” he remembers), athletics was in his blood.
As was athletic administration.
John’s father, Rod Williamson, spent 33 years at Vanderbilt in marketing and promotions. He retired in late-2016 as an associate director of athletics, where he led Vanderbilt’s media relations and marketing efforts as they pertained to sports.
The son spent his summers in Nashville working out. There was some tension between him and his father over what he should be doing. Rod kept urging John to find a job or an internship that could lead to full-time work upon graduation.
Unwittingly, John already was.
Looking for an inexpensive way to blow off stress between workouts, he discovered $5, all-day bowling at the now-defunct Melrose Lanes on Nashville’s 8th Avenue.
“A group of us would meet and we would bowl from like 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. We were nuts about it,” John remembers.
“I have become a believer that there is a grand plan in place, because, he was working out, he was trying to see if he could get some traction on the Ole Miss football team. He’d been a pretty good high school football player. And yeah, he reported to me that dad, I’m looking for a job. I’m just too late, I can’t find a job,’” his father remembers.
“And then we’d talk a little bit about bowling. We didn’t talk a lot, because he knew it was a sore subject, because he’d go to that bowl-all-day-kind-of-a-thing. It was just kind of hard to imagine that what he was doing was getting him the job, because the truth is sort of stranger than fiction.”
After graduating at Ole Miss in 2002, John got his first job as an administrative assistant for Vanderbilt baseball coach Tim Corbin, who had just arrived at VU. John loved baseball and loved Vanderbilt. But after two years, he realized a career in a high-major sport wasn’t for him.
“I didn’t think the idea of a revenue coach was very glamorous,” he recalls. “I didn’t like the idea that you couldn’t go to a restaurant without people telling you how smart or dumb you are, I didn’t like the idea of moving around. … My family is from Middle Tennessee and I wanted to stay in this area.”
So, Williamson was preparing to take a job as an athletic fundraiser at VU. In the meantime, Vanderbilt announced plans to start a bowling team, which had escaped John’s knowledge.
“That’s the rock you live under when you’re in the middle of your season in a revenue sport, I guess,” he says.
Months earlier, the athletics department staff had a group outing at—you guessed it—Melrose Lanes. John rolled an impressive game or two. Word spread to VU athletics administrator Brian Reese. He was in the midst of searching for a bowling coach, but not finding candidates he liked.
“Brian Reese came up to me and said, ‘I hear you’re a really good bowler,’” John remembers. “I sort of sheepishly said, ‘yes,’ not knowing where this was coming from. … So then, he asked me, would you be interested in becoming the bowling coach?”
“I said, ‘I don’t know, I’d have to think about it.’ I didn’t know anything about college bowling.”
But a knowledge of bowling wasn’t the prerequisite then that it is now. What mattered was knowing how to run an NCAA-sanctioned program, and knowing how to recruit. Two years under the detail-oriented Corbin, who was in the midst of recruiting what would become America’s top-ranked recruiting class for 2005 prepared him for that.
John realized that he had most of the qualifications. The anonymity that came with the position was perfect. With Corbin’s help, he hatched a perfect plan to get the job.
“I sort of pitched the idea, because bowling had only been an NCAA sport for one year, that you wouldn’t find anyone who knew the NCAA better than me, and that I could learn the bowling side faster than anyone could learn the NCAA side.”
And just like that, John Williamson was a bowling coach.
The last guy to know? His father, who believed that fundraising was his best job fit, and that he should look outside Vanderbilt for jobs.
Rod remembers the day he learned about it.
“So one day Brian Reese walked into my office and shut the door, and since he had responsibilities around the building, I thought it was a matter of maybe football or something not in order. He looked at me and said something to the effect of, ‘I’m on the verge of hiring you son to be our bowling coach. What do you think about that?’”
“I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine (it). We talked for a minute or two and I called home to my wife and said, ‘Are you sitting down?’”
She thought something terrible (had happened) “I said, ‘I think John’s going to become the new bowling coach.’”
“We both were dumbfounded.”
Williamson’s first job was to find players for the 2004 season. He was hired on Labor Day just as school started. So, his only option was to pick from what was already on campus.
He placed an ad in the student paper, estimating 30 women would show up for tryouts, and that he’d cut the roster to 10.
“I think there were 11 people (who showed up). And I’m like, ‘Well, I guess you guys are all on the team!” he remembers.
“Most of (the bowlers) had no formal bowling experience,” Williamson said. “There were two of them that came with their own balls. So they at least knew something. But the other ones were basically as novice as could be.”
There were missteps before there was even a match. Like a proud father, Williamson had “Vanderbilt bowling” shirts custom-printed for his pupils and handed them out.
“That’s a cool shirt, too bad it’s spelled wrong,” said an observer who noticed that the “V” in “Vanderbilt was missing.
“What have I gotten myself into that I can’t even spell ‘Vanderbilt’ on the t-shirt?” Williamson remembers with a laugh.
It was a harbinger for the season, as Vanderbilt went 12-69 in 2004.
Being a bowling coach
Three years later, nobody was laughing.
In 2007, Williamson led a team of scholarship bowlers, led by tournament MVP Josie Earnest, who’s now his top assistant, defeated Maryland Eastern-Shore to win the eight-team NCAA Championship that year. It was the first national title of any sports in Vanderbilt history.
“You know, the irony, I sat at my desk for many years and wondered, like everyone, would Vanderbilt win a national championship, (and) what sport would it be?” Rod recalls. “Would it be tennis, which knocked on the door—this was a little before baseball was a power—(and) who would be the coach?”
“And if somebody had have told me, your son is going to be the coach, I’d have thought it was some funny gag.”
There are no more ads pleading for players. Williamson has five bowling scholarships to divide among, what this year, was 11 players. His 2018 roster came from Australia, Singapore and Russia and the U.S. In the States, they hail from Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington.
And yes, there’s strategy. Competitive bowling isn’t like the game much of America plays on Friday nights over beer and pizza.
“(There’s) physics, friction, all this kind of stuff. He called back one night and said ‘I’m not sure I’m smart enough to be a bowling coach,’ because they had all this science they were trying to do with the ball,” Rod recalls.
Lanes are oiled in patterns, of which the coaches are given charts before matches.
“The pattern is not designed to lead to strikes,” John says. “And so when you throw a ball down the lane, it picks up oil down the lane, just kind of like your tire does when there’s oil on the road, and it’s raining. … The oil gets pushed around, moved around, and that’s why you have to move, because you have to find the right balance of oil and friction. And when your ball finds oil, that’s when it starts to hook.”
Bowling balls are designed to do different things. Vanderbilt has a plastic ball it uses for spares; it’s designed to go straight. At other times, sandpaper is used to dull the ball.
Bowlers get feedback from coaches on footing and shot tracking. At Vanderbilt, that’s Josie Barnes’s job. (Yes, that’s the former Josie Earnest.)
“She’s about as good as you get about doing that and making adjustments,” John says.
Finally, there’s the psychological aspect of coaching. Vanderbilt displays a chart it calls “Jacob’s ladder” that tracks practice mistakes. VU players hate it, but there’s a purpose there.
“It’s the closest thing we can do to simulate a loss, because, when you get to a tournament and you don’t make a shot, you lose,” John says. “And nobody really likes losing. So it was the closest thing we could get to losing that the girls actually despise.”
Talent gets you in the championship picture. Strategy and things you can’t control factor heavily from there. At least that’s how it happened for Vanderbilt in 2018.
“We were going through the practice sessions (at the eight-team national tournament), and the left side looked to be fairly play-able, which, we have two left-handers, and it was more or less at that moment I was like, ‘Well, if the left side is good, and we’re good, then we’ve got a chance, because not many other teams that were there have left-handers who can play. And the reason that matters is, if there aren’t that many left-handers, then the look on the left side doesn’t really go away.”
Those lefties, Rigney and Stark, walked away as co-Most Valuable Players in this year’s tournament.
A family man
In the midst of professional success, John Williamson’s life has taken a dramatic turn over the last year and a half.
Williamson and his wife, Melissa, married in December 2009. For most of their marriage, there was a presumption they wouldn’t have kids.
But John and Melissa watched in horror as three nephews on Melissa’s side of the family, now in state custody, bounced from one foster home to another within the state of North Carolina. Again, John intuitively knew that wading into unfamiliar territory was the right call.
“We didn’t ever have a discussion, me and her, just because they are family, we just sort of said we’ll start the (adoption) process,” John said. “We contacted the state of North Carolina to foster them, then to adopt them. That started January 10, 2016 and the boys came June 10, 2016, and the adoption was finalized July 7, 2017. And so we had the boys for a little over a year.
“About two weeks after we started the paperwork with North Carolina, my wife told me she was pregnant with a child, and that’s Tucker. So, from January 10, 2016, to October 5, we went from zero kids to four.”
Life with Landon (12), Eli (nine) and Gabe (five) comes with challenges, but John says he wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“We didn’t necessarily expect to have this kind of life with four kids, and t-ball, and all that kind of stuff. But it’s funny how fulfilling things become and how your perspective changes when you have kids,” John said. “It’s really interesting now because I used to think that I was so busy before we had kids. But now I’m still able to do all the things I used to do, and, sporting events on nights and weekends, and all that kind of stuff.
“It more or less helps prioritize what you try to do. I’m honored that they’re my boys and that I get to help try to raise them and teach them some things. They’ve definitely teaching me some things about being a parent, and about patience, and stuff. But it’s been a really rewarding experience.”
Just as he did with his son’s first crazy, life-changing idea, his father met the idea of John adopting three boys with some skepticism.
But once again, it didn’t take long to change Rod’s mind. He also jumped in with both feet. If you attend one of the kids’ many baseball games, you’ll often find Rod there. For a family that could use a taxi service, he’s been there for that, too.
A week after John’s second title, his father was still on Cloud Nine. But it’s John’s adoption decision that has him beaming more than anything else.
“That is his single greatest accomplishment… It’s the thing I’m most proud of. … He and his wife, within a three- or four-month span, they went from zero kids to four. … He’s a better guy than me,” Rod says.