In the wood-paneled Varsity Room at Ray Tompkins House on Wednesday, a few yards away from a case displaying the jewels of Yale athletic championships of yore, Tom Williams strode to the lectern, surveyed the crowd and flashed a smile.
“First and foremost, good afternoon,” he said, “and welcome to a new era of Yale football.”
Williams, 39, a defensive assistant for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, was introduced as Yale’s 33rd head football coach last week, ending a 42-day search to find the successor to Jack Siedlecki. He becomes the first African-American to hold the position.
At his first press conference, the first-time head coach wasn’t shy to let his goals be known, promising that his team will strive for nothing short of an Ivy League championship every season.
“And secondly, we’re going to beat Harvard,” Williams said. “We’ve got to turn The Game back into a rivalry. You know, it’s been a little bit one-sided these last few years. A rivalry is only a rivalry when there’s some give-and-take, and the last few years there’s been too much take.”
A graduate of Stanford, Williams was a standout linebacker for the Cardinal and was nominated for the Rhodes Scholarship. After college, he served as an assistant for 11 years at Hawaii, Washington, Stanford and San Jose State before spending the last two years as a defensive assistant for the Jaguars.
“Tom has all the qualities that we were looking for in a head coach, and he not only shares the vision of the experience we want for our student-athletes here at Yale, but he lived it as a student-athlete himself,” said Athletics Director Tom Beckett, who got to know Williams when he was an administrator at Stanford and Williams was being recruited to play football.
At the press conference, Williams reminisced about his extracurricular activities at Stanford, including singing in a choir, studying Italian and playing piano. To University officials, that kind of mentality — “I think my experiences have uniquely qualified me for this position as the head football coach here at Yale,” Williams said at the news conference — made the coach a perfect fit at a school like Yale, where football players do much more than just play football.
“He’s a person who truly understands what Ivy League athletics is and can be,” University President Richard Levin said in a telephone interview. “He’s a scholar-athlete himself of the best kind and he’ll both do a great job with our football team and set a great standard in making sure our student-athletes are fully engaged in the life of the University.”
Just as it helped win over Levin and Beckett, Williams’ experience as a student-athlete was especially appealing to the student-athletes on the search committee.
“All you have to do is sit down with him for a little bit and you realize what an impressive person he is,” cornerback Paul Rice ’10 said. “Coach Williams is a young, bright guy who will bring a very different personality to the head coaching position than we have had in years past.”
Yale officials offered Williams the job after their first choice, Florida offensive line coach Steve Addazio, decided to stay with the national champion Gators and accept a promotion to offensive coordinator. The University then immediately set its sights on Williams, according to sources familiar with the search.
His hiring comes amid national controversy surrounding the lack of African-American head coaches in college football. The Fort Worth, Texas native becomes only the second African-American head football coach in the history of Ivy League football, following Norries Wilson, the head coach at Columbia.
“I look forward to the day when it doesn’t matter what the color of the skin of a coach that’s hired at any place is, but unfortunately I don’t think we live in that era yet,” Williams said. “Movement is glacial; it’s happening, but it’s glacial. And I’m proud to wear that banner for African-American coaches.”
The hire also resonates with African-American football players in Yale’s storied past. Former all-pro running back Calvin Hill ’69 said Williams’ hiring should send an important message in college football.
“I’m going to go back to what people were saying about black quarterbacks 20 years ago — that we didn’t have the essentials,” Hill said. “Many people in charge of hiring head football coaches don’t think that we have the essentials. The fact that a place like Yale says that it doesn’t matter, it should tell people something.”
Williams was a captain of the 1992 Stanford team that went 10-3 and won a share of the Pac-10 title. An undrafted free agent, he spent the 1993 season on the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squad but returned to Stanford the next year to earn a master’s degree in university administration.
While there, he served as a graduate assistant under coaching legend Bill Walsh before spending the 1995 season as a defensive coordinator for a Japanese semi-pro team in Fujitsu.
In 1996, Williams joined the coaching staff of the University of Hawaii, where he spent three seasons, including one as the Rainbow Warriors’ defensive coordinator. He then moved on to the University of Washington, where he served as the linebackers coach under Rick Neuheisel from 1998 until he returned to his alma mater in 2002.
At Stanford, Williams was co-defensive coordinator for two seasons and in 2004 was named associate head coach. The next season, he went to San Jose State, where he was co-defensive coordinator and helped lead the team to a 9-4 record and a win in the New Mexico Bowl in 2006. After that season, he moved to the pro level and joined the Jaguars.
“Tom has extensive experience as a coordinator on the college level, and that along with the knowledge he gained in the NFL will serve him well as a head coach,” Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio said in a statement. “He has shown strong leadership qualities and is a very good communicator. I’m happy for Tom; this is a great opportunity for him.”
The hiring of someone who the late Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh called one of the rising stars in college football brings up the question of whether Williams will be in it for the long haul at a Football Championship Series school. But people involved in the search process said they were confident that Williams is in it for years to come.
“During the interviews, we asked all of the coaches about their investment in Yale and why they chose it and Coach Williams established that he is ready to spend a long time at Yale as coaches in the past have,” wide receiver Reid Lathan ’10 said.
“Some of us, once we leave Stanford for Yale, never go back,” added Levin.
Williams succeeds Jack Siedlecki, who resigned in November after 12 years as Yale’s head coach and accepted an administrative position in the Athletics Department. Siedlecki posted a 70-49 record as head coach, but his team lost seven of the last eight games against Harvard, drawing ire from students and alumni.
The new head coach will be at the American Football Coaches Convention this week, where he likely will look to hire assistants. At the press conference, Williams would not discuss whether he plans to retain any of Siedlecki’s staff, but a source within the football program said Siedlecki’s assistant head coach, Tony Reno, a Sturbridge, Mass., resident, has decided to take the special teams coordinator position at Harvard. Steve Conn, the director of Yale Sports Publicity, would not comment on the status of any of Siedlecki’s assistants.