It was Nov. 29, and like any other Saturday, Tom Williams kicked back in front of the television with his wife in the living room of their Jacksonville home. On the eve of another pressure-filled NFL game day, the Jaguars assistant coach took a moment to indulge in one of his favorite passions — college football.
As Williams settled down to watch Auburn battle rival Alabama, a familiar thought resurfaced. Watching the game was, for him, one of those flashes of another reality, a world where he always imagined himself as a head coach.
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While most would be enthralled in the game, Williams, a regular observer, saw the unsuspected news at the bottom of the screen. The announcement of Jack Siedlecki’s retirement as Yale’s head football coach scrolled by on the ticker of the CBS telecast.
“God, that Yale job would be a great job,” Williams told his wife of almost nine years, Tonya.
The next day, Williams sent an e-mail to Yale Athletics Director Tom Beckett to express his interest in the job. Within a couple days, Beckett reciprocated interest, and Williams became a candidate in what became a 42-day search for Yale’s 33rd head football coach.
Williams soon emerged as one of several names — albeit the most obscure — floating around the rumor mill . The other top candidates were widely known in the coaching ranks and by college football aficionados throughout the nation.
But the 39-year-old Williams — a candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship at Stanford University and a one-time assitant to Bill Walsh — brought the combination of a strong academic background along with mentorship under coaching greats. In person, he radiated confidence, offering a firm handshake, a smile and an unmistakable love of football. And even though Williams was not a household name, these credentials ultimately caught the eye of Yale administrators and helped him nab the title of Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach of Football at Yale.
And as he has done his entire life, Williams saw an opportunity and seized it.
‘A RENAISSANCE MAN’
Tonya Williams describes her husband as a “renaissance man,” one who can quote Shakespeare and dictate football drills in the same breath.
Playing football on a full-freight scholarship, Tom Williams wanted to embrace all of his opportunities as an undergraduate at Stanford. So while some athletics made sports the be-all and end-all of their college experience, Williams took another path.
He sung in the gospel choir. He went abroad and studied in Italy. In between football practices and classes, he studied piano. When he was a senior, Stanford nominated him for the Rhodes Scholarship.
In other words, Tom Williams was not your average Pac-10 linebacker.
“I got there, and I found out how much was available,” Williams says of his experience at Stanford, where he graduated with honors and a GPA above 3.5. “I wanted to try to take in as much as I could.”
Sitting across from him, it is difficult to imagine Williams’ stocky fingers grazing piano keys. Williams comfortably sits in his new bare-walled office, his only personal object being the laptop next to him (with over 500 unanswered congratulatory e-mails). With his prowess in front of the microphones, he seems more like a politician than a scholar or artist.
But his demeanor and appearance are so fundamentally outgoing that it seems wholly plausible that he won over Yale administrators as much for his stories about studying Italian in Florence as for his football acumen.
Born to a working mother and a father bouncing between multiple jobs, Williams is the younger of two boys. He grew up on the predominately black South Side of Fort Worth, Texas, a different world from New Haven, to be sure.
And while he and his older brother, Ken, were both athletes, his parents made one thing clear: Academics came first. They would’ve killed him if it were any other way, he says.
Ken was his first mentor, for he excelled at both sports and school. So that’s what the younger Williams tried to do, too.
“There was never any question about what was most important,” Williams says. “I always had to do my homework as soon as I came in the house from school.”
But if schoolwork was his occupation, football was Williams’ passion.
Birthed into the Texas mentality of football as god, Williams excelled at running back and linebacker through his high school days at Trinity Valley College Prep and aspired to play at a “football powerhouse” college in the Southwest region.
But Stanford came into the picture as a surprise. It was only when the school’s dean of admissions visited his high school that Williams gave consideration to being a member of the Cardinal.
Although interest letters were pouring in for Williams from Ivy League schools — including Yale — and other prestigious academic institutions, Williams says, he committed to Stanford because it offered a Pac-10 football experience along with a world-class degree.
There, Williams was a four-year letterman at linebacker for the Cardinal and captained the 1992 squad to a 10-3 record, a share of the Pac-10 championship and a No. 9 national ranking his senior campaign. He was named first-team Academic All-Pac 10 and a District 8 Academic All-American following his junior and senior seasons and was an honorable All Pac-10 performer his senior season.
Fred von Appen, Stanford’s defensive coordinator during Williams’ senior season, recalls that Williams would lead the defensive unit every Friday night in creating five goals to accomplish in the next day’s game.
Von Appen, who later hired Williams for his first paid college coaching job at the University of Hawaii, remembered the night before the Cardinal took the field against nationally-ranked Penn State in the Blockbuster Bowl. That night, he says, Williams led the defensive side of the team in the brainstorming.
“The coaches left the locker room, and we could hear the damndest arguing for 40 minutes,” he says. “But they came out with the goal set because they were a mature group.”
Von Appen pauses for a moment. “And it was because of Tom,” he says.
CHECKING OFF THE BOXES
After spending the 1993 season on the San Francisco 49ers practice squad, an aggravated left shoulder injury from college left Williams pondering his future in football. Unsure of whether to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL, he sought the counsel of Hall of Famer Bill Walsh, then the coach at Stanford.
“He was the first person to suggest coaching to me,” Williams says of Walsh, who passed away in 2007. Williams says he simply responded, “Well, Coach, I’m flattered.”
This meeting with Walsh, to whom Williams refers as “the godfather,” would jump-start what became a nomadic coaching career, with Williams moving from Japan to Hawaii and back to the continental United States. But first, Walsh invited Williams to help coach practice at his alma mater, and the eager disciple jumped at the opportunity.
Williams says he began coaching drills with the linebackers and linemen during the spring of 1994 and found his calling. “Two hours went by like two minutes, and I was drenched in sweat,” Williams says. “And I had this big, ol’ goofy smile on my face.”
When Walsh subsequently offered him a position as a graduate assistant, Williams says, he immediately took the GREs and applied to Stanford’s School of Education. After earning his master’s degree in university administration, Williams took his coaching career overseas.
Williams, then 25, decided to take a job as defensive coordinator with the Fujitsu Frontiers. The Japanese semi-pro team was owned by Fujitsu, a computer software and hardware company that had a partnership with Stanford.
“Going to Japan was a unique opportunity,” Williams says. “How often do you get to coach in another country?”
Williams headed back to the United States — though not the mainland— when he became linebackers coach at the University of Hawaii in 1996. He quickly rose through the ranks in the Aloha State, becoming the Rainbow Warriors’ defensive coordinator in 1998.
A SERENDIPITOUS MEETING
It was during a recruiting trip while at the University of Hawaii that he found the future head coach of the Williams’ household, as he puts it.
Williams attributes meeting Tonya, his wife and mother of his four children, to serendipity.
One weekend during his tenure at Hawaii, Williams was 30 minutes late for an already delayed flight in San Francisco. Tonya, a petite, blonde Atlanta-native, was a Delta Airlines flight attendant assigned to his plane. But as he was flustered from barely making it onboard, Tonya recalls, Williams barely noticed her.
“I just thought he was really cute,” she says. “I gave him an exit row, and I asked him if he was married. I didn’t see a ring.”
His response, Tonya adds, was that once a ring went on his finger, it was staying.
Williams took Tonya to lunch the next day, where she ordered a pulled-pork sandwich instead of a salad, as he expected.
“That,” she says, “is what did it for him.” (Little did she know that Williams’ father once ran a barbecue joint.)
The couple dated for almost two years until Williams proposed on New Year’s Eve in 1999 as they watched fireworks with friends on Hermosa Beach in California.
Beyond physical attraction, Tonya says she was prompted to approach Williams on that flight 12 years ago because he looked distraught, or, as she puts it, as though “he needed her help.” Indeed, she has been his best friend ever since, supporting Williams through coaching stints from Hawaii to Florida.
“Coaches are worse than a sewing circle with gossip,” says Tonya, suggesting that coaches are often aware of impending changes in the coaching profession. To stay updated herself, she would search the Internet for new coaching positions that her husband could pursue.
RISING THROUGH THE RANKS
Together, the married couple drifted from job to job.
Williams truly became a rising star in the profession when he moved up to the University of Washington to be linebackers coach with the Huskies. Williams saw Washington, a school in the Pac-10 conference, as a significant stepping-stone toward landing a head coaching position.
From 1999 to 2001, Williams helped the Huskies appear in three consecutive bowl games, including a victory in the 2001 Rose Bowl over Purdue. He returned to his alma mater in 2002 to coach the linebackers and become the co-defensive coordinator at Stanford in 2002. In 2004, he became associate head coach, his most senior position before landing the Yale job.
His adventurous career was not without a purpose. Williams had an agenda — to become a head coach. And with his stints up and down the West Coast, he thought he was on his way.
But a detour soon emerged. Williams did not like the direction in which the newly-hired Walt Harris wanted to take the Cardinal, so Williams decided to move on and take the defensive coordinator position at San Jose State, a member of the Western Athletic Conference, a seeming step down from the Pac-10.
But Williams quickly found success, as the Spartans won the New Mexico Bowl in 2006 during his second season in San Jose. The team’s head coach, Dick Tomey, says he was impressed with Williams’ football background as well as his welcoming personality.
“To be a good coach, you have to have good instincts and strong leadership,” Tomey says. “Tom has a tremendous football background, and he has the ability to truly connect with his players.”
But Williams still had his eye on the prize: being a head coach. In 2006, he was selected to participate in a NCAA-run academy to help prepare minority coaches for head-coaching positions. The program even included a mock interview with a faux university president, which Williams said at the time “will enhance my chances in the future.”
“My ultimate goal is to be a head coach,” he was quoted as saying in a San Jose State news release.
But Williams found a head-coaching position more elusive than he thought.
Williams says he believes race never inhibited his career, but he admits that he does believe that his African-American colleagues have not had the same opportunities whites have enjoyed in the college football world.
“What I’ve been able to observe, like anyone else has, is that there doesn’t seem to be as many opportunities for accomplished African-American coaches to get those opportunities,” Williams says. “I’m talking about guys that have paid their dues, have been successful in those coordinator-type roles or associate head coach-type roles, that don’t seem to get those same phone calls as our white counterparts.”
Regardless of the reason, although he interviewed for head coaching positions at Stanford and Sacramento State, neither was willing to take a chance on Williams at the time.
“I said, ‘Well, OK, I need to do something else, what’s the next step?’ ” Williams recalls. “And the next step for me was the NFL.”
Williams got his opportunity when he applied for and was given an assistant position on the Jacksonville Jaguars coaching staff. In his first year with the team, the 2007 season, Williams was an assistant special teams coach and worked in all areas of the kicking game.
Last year, he moved from special teams to his specialty, defense. As a defensive assistant, he served under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and planned practices with him. On game days, he charted the defensive calls in the coaches’ booth.
That coaches’ box is a long way from the sideline of the Yale Bowl, where Williams will be standing this fall. He will not be charting plays. He’ll have people to do that for him.
The national announcement of Siedlecki’s retirement came a few days after the Bulldogs’ disappointing 10-0 loss against Harvard in The Game.
While the Athletics Department was tight-lipped about possible candidates during the head coach search, names including then-UMass head coach Don Brown, Holy Cross head coach Tom Gilmore, and Florida assistant and former Cheshire (Conn.) High School head coach Steve Addazio circulated in various reports during the early stages. Williams’ name did not appear in the pool until late December. At that point, he became the dark horse.
Williams’ late entry into the race was due to his reluctance to begin the interview process during Jacksonville Jaguars’ season, which did not end until Dec. 28, right around the time by which Yale officials had initially said they had hoped to introduce Siedlecki’s successor.
Yet despite his late entry into the interview process, Williams emerged as the number-two candidate behind Addazio, according to people familiar with the search. Addazio was formally offered the job first, but he chose to accept a promotion to offensive coordinator and remain at Florida.
Williams — a complete unknown in the Ivy League, and to most people at Yale — suddenly became the frontrunner.
Beckett commissioned four search committees — separated into students, faculty members, athletics department members and football alumni — and tasked them with describing the perfect coach. Across the board, Beckett says, all four groups wanted a leader who could understand the life of a student-athlete, namely the life of a Yale football player.
Tom Williams fit that description. Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway, a member on the faculty search committee and a teammate of Williams at Stanford, was looking for a candidate who could fully appreciate the residential college system and the role it plays in every Yalie’s life.
He saw that appreciation in Tom Williams.
“Right away, he talked about how this whole academic side appealed to him,” Holloway says. “He knew that he was the guy, and I know that he is that guy.”
Moreover, Williams was the first choice of the student committee, according to a person familiar with the search. The student-athletes on the search committee felt they could relate to Williams’ experiences and were attracted to his charismatic personality from the outset.
“He really impressed me from the beginning,” says h-back John Sheffield ’10, one of the committee’s members. “He’s an intelligent, articulate guy who you would want to play for. He wants to connect, he’s upbeat, and he has a lot of energy.”
But Williams was no safe choice. He had no previous head-coaching experience, no experience recruiting in the Northeast, no experience in the Ivy League and no experience on the offensive side of the football.
But to Carmen Cozza, who coached the Bulldogs to 10 Ivy League championships over 32 seasons from 1965 to 1996, those were not deal-breakers.
“Tom has proven himself on defense,” Cozza says. “In order to be a great defensive coordinator, you must know offense and how to stop it.”
Williams, for his part, says he won’t be a timid rookie on the sideline next season. “I feel like I’ve checked off all the boxes of things that you’re supposed to be able to do before you have an opportunity to be a head coach,” he says.
Yale officials agreed and decided to give Williams a chance. After all, they argued, even Bill Walsh had to be a rookie head coach at one point in his career. University President Richard Levin signed off on Williams, and after his wife visited the Elm City and gave her blessing, the coach accepted the job.
And while Williams is in many ways on the opposite side of the spectrum compared to Siedlecki — the former coach had nine years of head coaching experience before coming to Yale — Williams has the approval of his predecessor.
“I think they wanted to hire the best fit for the head coaching job at Yale, and Tom Williams was the best fit,” Siedlecki, now an assistant athletics director, says.
REALIZING THE DREAM
While Tonya did not find the Yale opportunity for her husband, she says she knew that once he got his foot in the door, “it was a no-brainer” to get the job.
As Williams now moves into Siedlecki’s office, piece by piece, he says he looks forward to creating change, beyond the memorabilia on the walls.
Not that it will be easy. University of California, Los Angeles head coach Rick Neuheisel, under whom Williams served at the University of Washington, says he gave Williams simple advice when he recently called him to congratulate him on the Yale position.
Slow down, Neuheisel said. “You’re going to feel like you’re behind and trying to catch up all the time,” he recalls telling Williams.
Of course, Williams has already made progress on moving forward with his new team. One objective on the itinerary is allowing his players the opportunity to be involved in extracurricular activities besides football. To do that, Williams is considering early morning practices at 6:30 a.m., allowing the players to use their afternoons for other activities.
“There is a lot of dead time with guys sleeping; that’s just a fact,” Williams says.
Although Sheffield admitted he is less than enthused about the idea of early practices, he says he knows that the whole point is to win football games.
“I’m not really excited about it at all, but if it does happen, I’m willing to try it out,” he admits. “It will certainly help curtail Toad’s nights.”
Holloway, who was a senior linebacker at Stanford when Williams joined the team, says he had to be especially critical of Williams to avoid being biased. He was extremely excited not only at how strong of a candidate Williams was, but also for the plans Williams had for the football program.
“This is a great football team, but I didn’t sense an excitement about football,” Holloway says. “Sure, you want it to be intense, but you also want it to be fun. And Tom Williams is electric.”
ON THE GRIDIRON
As for football strategy, Williams is a firm believer in running the football and stopping the run.
Although his squad will be losing one of the most prolific running backs in Ivy League history, Mike McLeod ’09, Williams believes his team will — and will need to — run the football to win games.
“I think running the football is a basic tenet,” Williams, who mentioned running the ball in a variety of different ways as a possibility, explains. “We’ll have to figure out what’s the best one for this group of men here and then the guys that are coming in.”
Injecting new life into the Yale offense will be one of the coach’s biggest challenges in his first season in New Haven. Despite returning McLeod and six other offensive starters for the 2008 season, the Bulldogs were a shell of the offense they were in 2007 when they finished eighth in the nation in rushing.
The offense’s struggles were evident in the team’s final two losses of the season — a home defeat against Penn and the shutout loss to Harvard. In those two contests, the defense allowed just 19 combined points, but the offense managed just a single touchdown in the two games.
Players say that a new regime could help revitalize the offense — even if their coach is not an expert on that side of the ball.
“Even when we were good on offense a couple years ago, we were pretty predictable and were just better than the other teams,” Sheffield says. “I think everyone is just really excited.”
Defensively, Williams is going with an “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” approach. The Elis primarily run a 3-4 defense over the last few seasons and each of the two campaigns concluded with Yale sitting atop the nation in scoring defense.
While Williams says he will reevaluate the coaching staff, he does not see the need for a complete overhaul. “Guys are comfortable in it, they understand it, they know it, but I think we can tweak it,” he says. “It’s been really good here, but I think we can make it better.”
Of the nine assistants on the staff from the 2008 season, only Rick Flanders and Duane Brooks will be retained for the 2009 season, while former running backs coach Larry Ciotti will take an administrative position in the Athletics Department. Flanders, who served as an associate head coach and defensive coordinator for Siedlecki, will serve in a new capacity after the Honolulu Advertiser reported last week that University of Hawaii defensive assistant Ikaika Malloe will be Williams’ defensive coordinator.
Williams would not confirm the report on Malloe’s hiring, though he says his staff is in place. “I feel very, very good about the staff, once it’s announced,” he says.
WHAT IS SUCCESS?
In his first public appearance as Yale’s head football coach at the Jan. 7 press conference, Williams stated that every season will bring two goals for his team — beating Harvard and winning the Ivy League championship.
Tim Murphy, the head football coach at Harvard, says he was not surprised by Williams’ declaration. “I’m no different than any coach,” says Murphy, who notes that Willams’ statement was put up in the Crimson locker room the next day.
When asked if his team will be using it as motivation, the Cantab head coach replied, “You can say that.”
But at the same time, Williams says the Yale football program will not just be about wins and losses.
“I want them to have felt that they are better men because they came to this program; they’re better husbands, they’re better fathers,” he says.
Players on the team say they have already noticed Williams’ sincerity toward his players. Bobby Abare ’09, the team’s captain this past season and member of the players’ search committee, says Williams seemed genuinely invested in his players.
His twin brother, strong safety Larry Abare ’10, echoed those sentiments. “I left feeling like this coach would make me not just a better football player but a better person,” he says.
Indeed, when Williams talks about his past stints, it’s easy to understand why he gravitates to the field, where the coach role combines magnetic leadership with intense passion.
“I always say I just want to enjoy the moment, enjoy the journey,” he says. “This is certainly a great place to coach; this is a great University to be associated with.”
Though passing plays and defensive strategies for the new Yale football squad are constantly bouncing through William’s mind, Tonya says family definitely takes top priority for Williams.
Williams, after all, goes on weekly dates with Tonya and is flying back to Florida tonight to attend a father-daughter dance with his oldest, Grace, who is almost six. Four-year-old Thomas Earl Williams III — known as Tre — is the family’s only boy, and 22-month-old Anna and 4-month-old Lauren round out the Williams clan.
For now, as he and his wife search for a house near campus, Williams is crashing at the Jonathan Edwards College Master’s House — an ostensible upgrade from his previous temporary home, the Courtyard by Marriott, for Williams now has the chance to begin interacting with students.
In fact, the family hopes to find a home near campus so players can have an “open door” to their coach, as Williams puts it. At the University of Washington, for instance, Williams and his wife hosted his linebackers at their home for regular dinners.
Williams’ most recent boss, former Jaguars and current New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, says that’s what makes Tom Williams special: his intangibles. His understanding that football is above all a team game, in addition to his constant support and belief in every player he has coached, is what made Tom Williams stand out in Jacksonville.
“One of the first things that I noticed about Tom was his dedication to his family,” Gregg Williams says. “You could tell that that quality would transfer over to our football family. He believes in every player he coached, and they wanted to work hard for him because of that belief.”
Upon her first visit to Yale, Tonya says, she immediately fell in love with the campus. At the annual football banquet on Jan. 24, Tonya and her husband were surrounded by reporters, football players and their parents, all of whom jostled to get a word with her and Williams. Beyond the grandeur of Commons dining hall, Tonya says she is taken with Yale’s neo-Gothic architecture and storied history. And though she has never lived in a place with Williams for more than five years at a time, she says she could see New Haven being their home for longer than that.
Williams smiles. “I’m not in a hurry to go anywhere,” he says. “I can see myself being here for a very long time.”
After all, Tom Williams now has what he always wanted: to be a head coach.