PAXTON — Steve Williams is hating this.
As he paces the sideline at Tommy Pittman Gym and returns to his chair used by longtime assistant Randy Infinger, the very man this preseason tournament was named for, the 61-year-old coach with 527 career wins, four Daily News Coach of the Year awards and a 2014 state girls basketball title looks troubled.
Not by the 17-for-20 start from the free throw line by his Bobcats, a crew so young they’re dressing 10 freshmen. And not by the scoreboard, which shows 1A Paxton leading a 6A district champion by as many as 11 in the first half.
Instead, the unrest stems from the man standing 50 feet away down the sideline: his son, Connor.
Only once before had the two been against each other on a basketball court. Connor was at his first head coaching post with Central. Steve was at Connor’s current post, Crestview.
Steve only agreed to this matchup because it helped raise money for the Cats Against Cancer Basketball Tournament and, more specifically, Alyssa Moore, his assistant coach who had breast cancer at the time.
Previously, Crestview won 49-24. And this will be the last meeting between the father and son.
Quipped Steve about the head-to-head record: “When I retire in the next five years or so … I’ll be 1-0.”
‘All the things he could’ve done, but he followed his heart’
You can’t miss Connor. 6-foot-8. Booming voice. Even louder personality.
But once he was just this precocious 3-year-old, following dad to the gym.
“I looked at him like a superstar,” Connor said. “I remember being sick in elementary school and my grandma couldn’t watch me, and dad took me to work with him and I sat in his office, but I got to sit in the corner of basketball practice. Just seeing the command he had on the court and seeing how much his players loved and respected him, it’s like you can make a difference in so many kids’ lives.
“He’s had so many players from 30 years ago who are still on his Facebook calling and texting him. That’s special.”
Growing leaps and bounds above any peer, Connor continued to play the game through elementary, middle and high school. But the girls game called to him. All those years of being on the bench with his dad, keeping stats for Paxton as a student manager from 2009-15 and celebrating a state title together in 2014 had left an indelible bond.
Connor was thriving academically off the court. “Become a doctor, become a lawyer,” n was the refrain from his parents.
“He’s so smart,” Steve said. “He was the first one to graduate here with an (Associate of Arts degree). We knew he had a chance. All the things he could’ve done, but he followed his heart.”
Crafting a coaching identity
In his mid-20s, Steve had a come-to-Jesus meeting with his mom, who basically told him, “You’re not Bobby Knight.” When he had kids, that softened him further.
So when Connor was an assistant for Steve at Crestview from 2016-20, given the reins to the freshman/JV squads his final two years, his dad warned him: “You have to keep the respect of the game. There’s only so much you can push before you’re going to get retaliation.”
And when a 22-year-old Connor took over as head coach at Central, there was plenty of retaliation.
“I think my first two years I was just really excited to be a head coach and I kind of was over-rambunctious at times,” Connor said.
Still, success came. Connor inherited a 5-22 team and, in his first year, went 8-9. A year later, Central was 15-12, a district runner-up and 22-5 collectively for the JV and freshman crews.
Naturally, when Steve left Crestview to return to Paxton, Connor was the obvious choice to be his successor. But Crestview struggled early, highlighted by a humbling 65-34 loss at Fort Walton Beach.
“I called him and just kind of broke down,” Connor said. “I told him, ‘I am not cut out for this. I don’t think I was the right pick.’ Just kind of woe is me. He reassured me. We talked about how the game went, how it could’ve gone differently.
“He’s been my biggest supporter since Day 1.”
After that talk, Crestview went 16-4 and won a district title en route to a Sweet 16 appearance, culminating in Daily News Coach of the Year honors.
Dad can learn from son, too
In that recent preseason game between father and son, it’s apparent early on how different Paxton and Crestview are built.
Paxton is young after losing five seniors from last year’s 17-9 team and schematically aren’t doing anything too nuanced based on the inexperience. But that’s Steve’s MO, rebuilding programs.
“I just feel like it goes with the kids you have,” Steve said. “We’re young and we’re not going to be able to do a lot of things we’ll maybe do in January. … Defensively, we want to make people uncomfortable. Right now we’re the ones who are uncomfortable, but come late January we’ll be better for it.”
Crestview lost leading scorers Kitiya Casey and Elesi Simmons, but Connor’s hopeful in returning sophomore Natalie Toney, juniors Madyson and Gracie Boydstun, and seniors Kennedy Baluran and Karma Rhodes.
His main focus is making sure the players feel heard, respected and trusted as he builds a defense-first, run-and-gun culture.
“One thing that really helped me last year and it’s already played a huge part this year, I made a decision to bring my seniors in and ask them what drills they want to do in practice,” Connor said. “What kind of things were they seeing on the court and what did we need to work on. I made a strong point to grab my point guard and tell her, this is what I see on the court from the sideline, but they’re going to see different things. And if I make a call, I trust my point guard enough to challenge that call. My post player last year, Elesi, said that she’d never had a coach, of all the coaches she’s played for, ask for her opinion on what she was seeing, what she was feeling. I feel like that’s something, as much as I value the coaching experience I’ve played for, that just wasn’t the style 8-10 years ago, but that’s helped us settle in.”
Steve is taking notes.
“He’s a better coach today than I was at his age,” Steve said. “It’s his enthusiasm and willingness to listen as a coach. The things he can get his players to do, he’s earned that through his own methods and just being around the game for so long. Back in the day, what he’s done, you just didn’t do that. It’s taught me some.
“I’m just proud of him.”
Steve coached collegiately at NWF State (then Okaloosa-Walton Community College) and South Alabama. But he was a family man, not equipped for the rigors of life on the road recruiting. Connor, though, is built for it.
“I feel like if he can get his foot in the door, he’s such a people person and such a player’s coach, which will help him a great deal in the recruiting world,” Steve said. “With his networking ability — he’s got a lot of people in his circle — he just has to stay the course.”
Connor’s gotten college offers, but currently he’s happy at Crestview. And he’s happy about beating up on his dad in the preseason.
After watching Paxton live at the foul line early, Connor’s team stormed back for a 53-37 win. It caps a 4-0 record against pops this preseason.
“I don’t like this,” Steve says pregame, knowing full well the looming outcome. “I don’t make no bones about it. But he’s coaching his team. He’s not looking down and feeling sorry for dear ol’ dad.”
Never. Steve remains the man who grew Connor’s love for the game. The man who trusted him on his bench. The man he calls first after obstacle or big win. The man he idolizes.
And, of course, the man who’ll remind him of “1-0.”