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Nobody would have blamed Auburn University equestrian head coach Greg Williams if he had spent some time celebrating his team’s 2012-13 season. Instead, less than a month after leading the Tigers to the National Collegiate Equestrian Association’s 2013 National Championship, he was on the recruiting trail, his sights set, not on the coming season—“That’s already taken care of,” he says—but on his 2014-15 team.
“Recruiting is the biggest thing in this sport, and we’re on the ball to try to do it again,” Williams says.
Recruiting for equestrian riders is just as competitive as recruiting for college football players, Williams says. But while football recruiters typically focus on regional players, Williams looks nationwide. Proof of that can be found by looking at his 2012-13 roster. Out of 40 listed riders, only four were from Alabama.
That means Williams spends a lot of time in the off season traveling the country to visit potential recruits. Obviously his strategy pays off: The 2013 championship was the Auburn equestrian team’s third in seven years. The other titles came in 2006 and 2011.
Williams and Auburn’s equestrian program go together like rodeos and cowboy hats. The program wouldn’t be where it is today if not for Williams.
Williams grew up in Auburn, where he acquired his love for horses and horseback riding from his mother, Carolyn, an equine enthusiast. He earned his animal sciences degree from the College of Agriculture in 1986 and worked as a professional horse trainer and riding coach before returning to Auburn in 1989 as manager of the university’s Horse Center on Wire Road.
One of his first moves was to revive Auburn's dormant Horseman's Club. Then, over the next few years, he put together an impressive competitive equestrian team that in 1996 was officially sanctioned by the university as a club sport.
But Williams dreamed of bigger and better things, and in 2002, six years and a lot of hard work and vigorous campaigning on the part of Williams and his team later, equestrian was awarded varsity sport status at Auburn University, jointly sponsored by the Athletic Department and the College of Ag.
In the 2013 national collegiate championship showdown in Waco, Texas, Auburn clinched the hunt seat title, but the battle for the overall title came down to a ride-off between Auburn and the University of Georgia. In a ride-off, each team selects two riders, one to compete in hunt seat and the other in Western. Williams tapped Elizabeth Benson for the former and Cheyenne Cracraft for the latter, and their performances gave Auburn the win.
The equestrian team won the national championship on April 20, the same day that, back at home, tens of thousands of Auburn fans converged had gathered for Auburn football’s annual A-Day Game and what was to be the Final Roll of the two cherished oaks at Toomer’s Corner.
But, in fact, it wasn’t.
On April 21, about the time that work crews were to begin the post–final roll cleanup of Toomer’s Corner, the Auburn equestrian team rolled into town after a 13-hour drive home and celebrated its victory by rolling the oaks one last time.
“I was talking to (Auburn Athletics Director) Jay Jacobs on the phone after we won, and he told me the team should come back and roll Toomer’s,” Williams says. “I thought it felt right, to celebrate the last rolling of the Toomer’s oaks with a national championship.”
As for the 2013-14 equestrian season and Auburn’s chances to win back-to-back national titles, Williams won’t go there yet.
“We’ll see,” he says. “I’m part of the selection committee that ranks the teams, and we’re just beginning the process of putting together a preseason poll. But I think we can be pretty good next season.”