Williams and Lankford state bound with a special bond

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Gruver head coach Trent Lankford, left, and Amarillo High head coach Jeff Williams share a deep-rooted bond from their coaching days in Dumas. [Provided photo]

When Jeff Williams and Trent Lankford first met back in Dumas the thought of each coaching teams at the same UIL Texas state basketball tournament was about as likely as a middle schooler dunking over LeBron James.

At that time in 2004, Williams was the head girls basketball coach for Dumas, Lankford an assistant for Williams.

“I dream big,” Williams said. “But not that big.”“No,” Lankford said. “Never even thought about it happening. Never crossed my mind.”

Well, it’s happening.

While many attending the 2022 UIL Texas state girls basketball championships today in San Antonio won’t even think about a connection between state semifinalists Class 2A Gruver (coached by Lankford) and Class 5A Amarillo High (coached by Williams), the bond is as real as The Alamo is in San Antonio.

The Williams-Lankford brother-like bond starting in Dumas has developed into a deep-rooted friendship reaching well beyond the coaching office.

For instance, Williams was in Lankford’s wedding and whenever the two are together Williams jokingly reminds those around, ‘Trent and I have been friends a long time and I was actually the best man in his wedding. The truth is, I really was the best man there.’ He hates it when I say that and always rolls his eyes.”

“I’ve heard that one plenty of times and still laugh inside,” Lankford said. “I do love it. Jeff is funny. A quip a minute when it comes to stuff like that.”

The Williams-Lankford bond includes golfing together, acting 8-years-old scaring each other with pranks, consistent text messages and phone calls, family time together, and a passion for coaching girls basketball where many of those games have been side by side.

After all, if it wasn’t for Williams, Lankford likely would never “made the best coaching move I’ve ever made” when he switched from coaching boys basketball to girls basketball.

When these two first met in Dumas, Lankford was an assistant for the boys basketball team under Andy Copley (who later led Canadian to back-to-back boys state championships).

Lankford left Dumas for a year to coach in Electra before returning to Dumas and eventually landing as an assistant with Williams.

“During that time (in Electra), I said ‘Hey, Trent, you are no longer a Dumas coach would coach my varsity at Team Camp at Eastern New Mexico,” Williams said. “Trent said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’d love to do that.’ So he coached them and later told me, ‘Hey, coaching girls is kind of fun. I like the way your girls responded to coaching. They run the things I asked them run. I really had fun and I never thought that would be the case.’

“Next thing you know he’s my assistant.”

Lankford said the Team Camp experience with the Dumas girls sealed the deal on his future.

“Jeff asked me to coach them and I got to know those kids,” Lankford said. “I would be like let’s run this and they would. It was different from coaching boys. With boys you coach attitude. With girls you coach emotions. I really enjoyed the experience. I was like, ‘Man, this awesome.’

“Jeff was the girls coach in Dumas and I was still the boys assistant at that time. I liked his program. I liked the way his girls played. They were really good at executing. Of course, they were in a district with Canyon and really good Palo Duro teams so it was tough. But I liked the way they played and when the JV coach quit Jeff asked me about possibly coming over to the girls side. So I moved over to the girls side with no intention of coaching girls when I started. Best move I’ve ever made. I haven’t looked back.”

A year later, the two were split again when Williams took an assistant job with the Amarillo High girls under Dale Blaut.

Blaut, who led AHS to a pair of state championships, retired the next year and Williams was elevated to head Lady Sandies coach. His first hire? Lankford as his assistant.

Lankford would spend two stints with Williams at AHS from 2005-2010 and 2016-2021. In between his time at AHS Lanford’s coaching highlight was leading the Gruver Lady Hounds to a state runner-up finish in 2015.

No question, when the Williams-Lankford Coaching Show gets together dull moments are few and success is along for the ride.

In 2018 and 2019 Amarillo High captured Class 5A state championships. The emotional hugs and smiles wider than the three-second lane between the two after each championship say it all – we did it my best friend.

And, they did it like brothers. A good ol’ verbal fight every once in a while, but soon back together smiling.

“Stefanie Hausen (former AHS assistant coach) can tell you the first year we got into it pretty good,” Williams said. “I needed to know how many fouls Joni Unruh had. And Trent tells me, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ I’m like ‘what do you mean it doesn’t matter? How many fouls does she have?’ We are screaming at each other. In other words, his thought process was you can’t take her out of the game she is too important. And mine was, I have to take her out of the game for a second because she is the type of kid to get her fifth foul out of frustration over the fourth. I need to sit her down for a second and remind to play hard but smart. Trent is always good at coming back and saying ‘Yeah, I should have told you how many fouls.’ I don’t think Stefanie was fond of that interaction but she realized we were good the next day. She said, ‘Man, that was intense. I wasn’t sure what to think about that.’

“Trent and I are the type we have some pretty good discussions basketball oriented, or whatever. But we are like brothers and always get back together. It’s a good bond and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Even though it’s been more than 15 years since the spat on the sidelines, Hausen remembers it quickly.

“I was like this isn’t good,” she said smiling and remembering the sideline conversation of Williams and Lankford. “But those two are both such great coaches. The best.”

Lankford knows Williams doesn’t want a parrot for an assistant, repeating everything the boss says.

“Our friendship is long and storied and it means everything to me,” Lankford said. “Jeff is such a great guy and such a loyal friend. We have had our differences but he doesn’t want a yes man. Sometimes we have two different thoughts but I think that’s what makes a great coaching staff. You can have disagreements and get past them.”

So Jeff Williams, can Trent Lankford coach?

“Trent is such a good coach,” said Williams of his friend who owns a 132-27 head coaching record. “His attention to detail is incredible and he does such a good job of skill development. He makes kids better basketball players. I can get caught in that rut of getting into schemes. He is so good at getting back to things like we need better finishers, or we need to get better with our footwork. He’s so good at the details of the game which is so very important. You can run the best offense that is deemed in the country, but if you don’t have good players what good is it?

“Trent also researchers the game and is always learning. He would bring a concept to me and I liked that. Sometimes I’d have to say, ‘I like this Trent, but I don’t know if it fits us now. Let’s table that and come back and put it in later.’ He never once said that I hurt his feelings, or anything. He was very mature in the process. He was always trying to make our program better.

“I have complete respect for Trent. He’s just one of the very best coaches around who does things the right way. Trent’s friendship means the world to me.”

So Trent Lankford, can Jeff Williams coach?

“Jeff is a such a good coach because his thing is he has such good relationships with kids,” said Lankford of his pal who has surpassed the 600 career win mark and can become the first Amarillo ISD basketball coach ever to win three state championships. “They love him. He gets a lot out of them. He builds a great rapport with those girls and they will go to battle for him in any shape or form.

“The list is long of kids he continues to stay in contact with over the years. When we made it to state in 2017 there were several letters given to him from players back in his Dumas days.

“We made a great coaching pair. He was great for me. He was great for me and my family. Because he has always been about family. I have learned so much from Jeff about taking care of what’s important in life and taking care of your family while you are coaching. He always gave me the ability to watch my kids, even when we are playing 2nd grade basketball, and I’ve always appreciated that. Then just in the coaching office conversations. He’s so funny.”

Bethany Lankford, Trent’s wife, said Jeff and Trent are as different as man-to-man defense is to a 2-3 zone in some aspects, and bonded for life.

“The first thing that comes to mind is that they love each other like brothers,” Bethany Lankford said. “They bounce ideas off each other all the time. How many people get to win not only one, but two state titles standing next to their best friend? During that state titles time one player referred to them as Good Cop (Jeff) and Bad Cop (Trent) meaning they are complete opposite personalities, which is why they get along so well.

“They are also like kids and try to scare each other by hiding in trees and closets. Even on the top of roofs.

“Jeff was the best man in our wedding because he plays such big roles in both our lives. Now they get to cheer each other on at the state tournament. They share a great passion for the game of basketball and they LOVE coaching. They not only teach the game of basketball but they teach about life, love and discipline.”

Tonight at 8:30 p.m., Williams and his impressive 32-5 Lady Sandies, survivors of a brutal Region I path, meet Frisco Memorial (36-5) in a 5A state semifinal game at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Friday morning at 8:30 a.m., Lankford and his juggernaut undefeated 31-0 Lady Hounds meet San Saba (31-7) in a 2A state semifinal game at the Alamodome.

“It’s really cool that we are both down there,” Williams said. “It couldn’t be a neater scenario. I thought all along Gruver was the big-time favorite in Class 2A Region I. I know we had hurdles to get over like the Lubbock Cooper deal and Timberview. We had something to prove after the way we exited last year. I’m glad our team was able to join them, and man, hopefully we both can bring back state championships to the Panhandle.”

Lankford said he will root for Amarillo High like crazy and he knows his buddy Williams is doing the same for Gruver.

“It’s really neat because Jeff is such a great guy and we have a great relationship,” Lankford said. “We still bounce things off each other. We have had a couple of conversations about both of us being down at state together. We are going to watch a little bit of their semifinal game. The hope is if they can win, and then we can win, we are in the same session on Saturday playing for state championships.

“What a neat story for both of us to have our teams down there with a chance to come back home with state titles.”

What a neat story even if the championships don’t come back from San Antonio.

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