Forty years ago, J.L. Williams was handed the keys to the Garfield High School wrestling program — literally.

It was the start of something special, but more importantly for the countless wrestlers he coached, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to them.

After moving to Washington from Stamford, Conn., at age 22 while working at Boeing, Williams was recruited by a friend, a Garfield alum, to help a program that hadn’t won a match in five years. In his first season in 1980, Williams helped lead the team to three straight wins to start the season.

“After that fourth match, I got handed a set of keys,” Williams said. “I said, ‘I don’t need keys, I may or may not be coming back next year as far as helping out.’ I was told, ‘No, you’re the new head coach.’”

That started a 40-year career coaching at Garfield. That career will come to an end this weekend after Mat Classic at the Tacoma Dome. Garfield senior and first-year wrestler Daniel Johnston will be the Bulldogs’ lone representative after qualifying at 145 pounds.

“It’s time for some new blood,” Williams said. “I’ve helped out as many kids as I can. I found a young man named Terrell Minor to take over. I was looking for someone to come in and take over for the old guy.”

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Minor helped Williams with coaching duties this season, and will take over as head coach next year.

Under Williams, the Bulldogs didn’t become a wrestling powerhouse.

“Garfield is a basketball school as everyone knows,” Williams said. “I did not know (when I took the job). I would find out later.”

Williams focused on the things he found to be the most important — grades, sportsmanship and the safety of his students.

“Those things are more important than wrestling,” he said.

And in his 40 years at Garfield, his teams have won several sportsmanship awards, as well as the boys team winning academic state championships in 2011 and 2012. The girls also won the academic state championship in 2012.

“I wanted to change the culture that they think Garfield is nothing but a bunch of people that fight when they lose,” Williams said. “You want to earn respect, and you want to let them know that you aren’t a hoodlum.”

When the school didn’t have enough money for equipment or to send the team to a tournament, Williams paid for those things out of his own pocket.

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“I think he did everything for wrestling at Garfield,” said Johnte Bailey, who wrestled for Williams in 2017-18. “He is Garfield wrestling. He pretty much built the program from the ground up. A lot of the times, he did it on his own. Obviously, he had some help along the way, but without him, I don’t think there would even be a program of wrestling at Garfield.”

Bailey, who attends Seattle University, showed his grit by winning a Metro League championship with a broken toe in 2018.

In Williams’ early years, the Bulldogs would often see less than 20 kids join the team. In his final season, 62 kids initially signed up, something that seemed serendipitous to the 62 year old.

Williams led the Bulldogs to their first Metro championship in 1989 and was named Metro Coach of the Year several times in his tenure. He earned so much respect from his fellow coaches that after he announced his retirement, they agreed to name the Metro wrestling coach of the year award after him.

“Any time you ask me to talk about J.L. Williams, I have nothing but great things to say,” Chief Sealth coach Maurice Dolberry said. “The number one thing (for Williams) is building that Metro camaraderie. When I first came from Florida, I didn’t really know anybody here. … J.L. and I immediately started talking and we just built a rapport. I came over to a couple of his practices and we used to talk wrestling. He really brought in that sense of Metro brotherhood. He really epitomized that.”

Also

Because of a scoring dispute, Rainier Beach was named co-champion of the Metro League wrestling tournament. Ingraham was initially named the league champ Feb. 8 by half a point, 297-296.5.