Midland College head golf coach Walt Williams was in the parking lot Tuesday evening at Ranchland Hills Golf Club in Midland, Texas, getting ready to head home after a 36-hole day at his team’s home tournament, the TankLogix Collegiate, when he spotted Tyler James, a young first-year coach at University of the Southwest, loading up his team van.
Of the 10 schools teeing it up, James’ squad, which also included four members of the women’s program playing a separate four-team event on the same course, was the only team, Williams said, not to be staying in a nearby hotel. Instead, USW was commuting each day from campus, about 100 miles – and just over an hour and a half – away in Hobbs, New Mexico.
USW was set to return the next morning for the final round.
“I said to Tyler, ‘We’ll see you in the morning, bright and early,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir,’” Williams shared with GolfChannel.com on Wednesday morning. “Then he hopped in the van and drove away.”
It wasn’t until later that night that Williams heard about a two-vehicle accident about 45 minutes north of Midland near Andrews, Texas. When Texas Department of Public Safety officials revealed that one of the vehicles involved was a college bus, Williams had a gut feeling that it was likely a team from his tournament. He soon discovered that the Ford passenger van belonged to USW, a private, Christian college that competes athletically in NAIA.
Authorities have since confirmed that nine people were killed when a pickup truck, traveling southbound on FM 1788 near SH115, crossed the center line of the two-lane road before hitting USW’s van head on. James and six of his players were killed in the fiery crash. Two other student-athletes were airlifted to a Lubbock, Texas, hospital and remain in critical condition. The two people in the pickup were also killed.
“It’s shocking and devastating,” said Williams, a coaching veteran of over three decades who is in his fifth year at Midland. “I’ve been coaching for 30 years, and I’ve certainly never experienced something like this. You see teams having crashes … it’s just something that you never think would touch your life. Tyler was a good friend, I watched his team play yesterday, great kids; it’s just tragic.”
As school representative could not comment on the matter, only to provide a statement released by the university:
“The USW campus community is shocked and saddened today as we mourn the loss of members of our university family. Last night, the men’s and women’s golf teams were traveling back to campus from competition in Midland, Texas, when their bus was struck by oncoming traffic. Nine passengers, including the coach, were on the university bus involved in the fatal accident. While the accident investigation is still underway, reports indicate that seven passengers aboard the bus were killed in the crash. Two of the passengers are in critical condition undergoing medical treatment in Lubbock, Texas. USW is coordinating with Texas DPS to assist with the investigation and public information efforts. University administration is communicating with families of the students and coaching staff to provide more information as it becomes available.
"USW counseling staff and the worship team will be available on campus today to provide support for students, faculty, and staff. Please keep the families of students, coaching staff, and the USW community in your prayers as we come together to support one another during this difficult time.”
The Golf Coaches Association of America also released a statement, saying, "We are devastated by the news that took place yesterday evening. ... Our coaching community is extremely tight-knit and it is in times like this that we come even closer together." Any Given Tuesday, a golf podcast hosted by college golf coaches, started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the victims' families.
Chris Hill, a former college golf coach who now coaches at Westwood High School in Austin, Texas, considered James, who had recently celebrated his 26th birthday, his "little brother."
"I was his mentor," said Hill, who first met James in 2015 while he was head coach at Concordia-Texas University and James was a player at Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.
James grew up in Killeen, Texas, the son of two high-school coaches, and Hill said James was constantly asking him how to break into college-golf coaching. Hill helped James get his first job, as a graduate assistant at East Texas Baptist, where James "fell in love with recruiting," Hill said.
James served as an assistant at Howard Payne and then head coach at Brownwood High before being hired to lead USW's golf programs last year.
"Want to talk about a good, young coach who did things the right way," Hill said of James. "He believed that it didn’t matter about your score, if you wanted to get better, he was going to get you better any way he could. And there aren’t many young dudes who are willing to take on projects and mold them. He loved golf, loved recruiting and his smile always lit the room up."
Hill said he had texted with James on Tuesday afternoon. James was asking him between rounds how to fix the swing of one of his players, who had been pulling the ball. Hill told James to look at the kid's ball position.
"He was always trying to get better," Hill added, "and he cared. He cared for his kids."
The names of the players killed have not been released as authorities work to notify the families. Williams said that not all the USW golfers were on the van, as a couple of them were from the Midland area and had opted to stay the night at their families’ homes. He added that it is common for smaller schools to commute during tournaments when the event is within a couple of hours from campus.
“It’s a little farther than we normally do,” he said, “but it’s not terribly uncommon.”
Hill called the fatal crash "every coach's biggest fear."
"Talk to any coach, and they'll tell you that," Hill said. "After coaching all day, all week, you’ve gotta hop in the van and drive other parents’ kids home, and you’re in charge of them, and you’re tired and it’s been a long week; I mean, it’s dangerous. Coaches at smaller schools don’t have the luxury of taking chartered planes to take kids home. … And if he had to commute between rounds, that’s even more dangerous. You’re out there between warmup and 36 holes and then cool down, that’s so much golf. There aren’t many people who have to work 16 hours a day and then drive home with 14 other kids that you’re in charge of.
"I hope something changes from this."
Still mourning from Tuesday night’s tragic news, Williams texted the other coaches early Wednesday morning to tell them that the final round had been canceled out of respect to the victims. He did invite the teams back to Ranchland Hills so that they could all grieve and pray together.
Six teams took Williams up on the offer.
“We prayed for them, prayed for the kids and their families, and our kids who had lost friendships,” Williams said. “Everyone was saying that this certainly puts golf in perspective. They were out on a beautiful sunny day, enjoying the day and enjoying the camaraderie of college golf, and enjoying the beautiful weather and beautiful golf course – and the next day, they’re gone. You never know. You’re not guaranteed any minutes or any days.
“I’ve lost a good friend, but a lot of parents out there lost beautiful kids. It’s tough for everybody.”