Hall of Fame track and field coach William "Bill" Wilson passed away late Sunday night. He was 81 years old.
Bill Wilson Jr., Wilson's son, said his father had been battling various illnesses for the past six years. His death was not COVID-19 related, his son said.
"He fought like a champ to the very end," Wilson Jr. said. "He never wanted to take the credit whenever one of his athlete's did well. He used to say that he just drove the bus to the contests.
"The Lord has his bus driver now. I told him (Sunday) night just to keep both hands on the steering wheel."
Wilson, who was inducted into the Florida High School Athletic Association's Hall of Fame in 2001, led Vero Beach High School to state titles in 1989 and 1990 and was an assistant football coach when the Fighting Indians won the state championship in 1981.
He also was inducted into the Florida A&M University Sports Hall of Fame in 1984, the USA-Florida Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1995. Wilson received the Ida S. Baker Distinguished Black Educator Award in 1991 and was the Exchange Club of Indian River’s Book of Golden Deeds recipient in 1992.
"It’s a profound loss," said former Sebastian River High School athletic director Michael Stutzke, who was coached by Wilson at Vero Beach High School and also coached with him at both schools. "There are a lot of fine people who are coaches, but there is no one finer than Bill Wilson and the impact he had on young people’s lives for six decades. Very few coaches have had the kind of impact he did on young people, and that's not even to mention the state titles, regional titles, individual state titles.
"There will never be another Bill Wilson. There was never student-athlete that he didn’t take the time to get the best out of. He was my mentor. All roads, as it is for many of us in Indian River County, lead back to Bill Wilson. He was a very unselfish human being."
A caring coach
Wilson Jr. said his father had a lot of insight into how student-athletes would respond to situations and didn't believe in yelling during competitions. If he had to raise his voice, he would do it during practice.
The father-son duo coached together on Vero Beach's state championship track teams, and Wilson later served as his son's assistant when they won AAU state basketball titles in 2000 and 2002.
"As far as a coach goes, he was the coach you wanted," said Matt Parris, who was a pole vaulter on Vero Beach's state championship teams. "He was quick to call you out, but then come and love on you. In football, he was the running backs coach and I was the quarterback, so I worked a lot with him. I can tell you this: I was like one of his kids. He never ever made you feel different. He loved on me, got on me, just a good man. He wasn’t a big yeller. He had such presence about him. You just respected the man. There are people who you just respect because of their presence. He was that guy."
Born in Tallahassee, Wilson was a halfback on Florida A&M's undefeated team that won the Black college national championship in 1961. After graduating from Florida A&M in 1961, Wilson signed with the Houston Oilers but had his career cut short because of an injury in his second season. Wilson returned to Florida A&M and received his master's degree in physical education in 1967.
Wilson coached at Gifford High School from 1966 until the school was integrated with Vero Beach High School in 1968. He coached at Vero Beach for 29 years, winning 19 consecutive district championships and seven regional championships.
Wilson later coached track and field and was an assistant football coach at Sebastian River. The school hosts the Bill Wilson Relays each year to commemorate his accomplishments and contributions to track and field in Florida.
"He is what you would call a legend," said Vero Beach assistant football coach Randy Bethel, who was coached by Wilson and later coached with him at Sebastian River. "Coach Wilson was in this business for 50 years, coaching and teaching and developing. You can’t say enough about a person who treated everyone right. He was an example to me as a father, husband, coach and mentor. There’s not enough you can say about coach Wilson. He’s one of the main reasons I’m here."
Outpouring of support
Wilson Jr. said he received dozens of texts and phone calls from his dad's former students and athletes on Monday.
"It’s a great feeling to know people felt so good about your dad and how he impacted their lives," Wilson Jr. said. "A lot of people are saying if it wasn’t for him, they wouldn’t be around or as successful as they are. I never took it for granted. I knew how he did things. He was first a family man, but there were so many outside kids he brought in as his own kids.
"I feel like I have a ton of brothers and sisters here because he seemingly raised everybody. He taught them or coached them. It's all good stuff. I've never heard anyone say anything bad about my father. That in itself says a lot about his character."
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