After only three seasons as Yale’s head football coach, Tom Williams resigned on Dec. 21 amid a flurry of controversy regarding his status as a candidate for the Rhodes scholarship 20 years ago.
While no front-runner has surfaced for the position, one alumnus familiar with the search said the University is expected to announce Williams’ successor by Wednesday. The coaching turnover, which comes at a crucial point in the college football recruiting season, may have ramifications for prospective players in the Class of 2016.
Out of a field of better-known candidates with more experience in the Ivy League, Williams was selected as Yale’s first African-American head football coach in January 2009 to replace Jack Siedlecki. Students supported the unanticipated selection of the former Stanford linebacker, who had previously served as an assistant coach at the University of Hawaii, the University of Washington, Stanford and San Jose State.
Leaving his position in the National Football League as a defensive assistant for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Williams said at his first press conference as head coach he would lead the Bulldogs to victory against Harvard and an Ivy League championship.
Williams will leave Yale without having accomplished either goal following revelations that he may have been dishonest to Yale about his Rhodes Scholarship candidacy as a Stanford student.
The confusion surrounding Williams’ Rhodes candidacy began following news in October that quarterback Patrick Witt ’12 had been named a finalist for the scholarship. With his Rhodes interview scheduled the same day as the Yale-Harvard game, Witt looked to his coach for advice — Williams had reportedly forgone his chance at the scholarship as a Stanford student in 1992 to pursue a career in the NFL. Witt ultimately withdrew his scholarship application.
Leading up to the Yale-Harvard game, a number of media outlets reported that Williams had been a Rhodes candidate, and his resume and official biography on the Yale Athletics website supported that claim. But on Nov. 16,, three days before The Game, the New York Times reported the Rhodes Scholarship Trust had no record of Williams’ applying for the scholarship while at Stanford. The University began an official review of his alleged candidacy the next day.
In a Dec. 21 press release, questions surrounding Williams’ future at Yale were officially answered. Williams confirmed he was never a Rhodes candidate and stated that he was encouraged to apply for the scholarship by his coach, faculty members and the fellowship office at Stanford but never did.
“The timing of this inquiry has been difficult for everyone,” Williams said in the press release. “At this point I believe it is in the best interest of my student-athletes and Yale University that I step down.”
Williams also made clear that his NFL involvement went no further than a three-day tryout camp for the San Francisco 49ers his senior spring, also contrary to some previous statements of his that he had been signed to the team as a free agent.
University President Richard Levin said the review of Williams’ claim was completed in early-to-mid December. Levin also said he worked with Director of Athletics Tom Beckett through the resignation process but that ultimately Williams’ decision to step down was a “personnel matter.”
Among the players he coached while at Yale, Williams stands out as having helped reinvigorate the Bulldog football program during his three years at the helm of the team. Center John Oppenheimer ’14 said Williams will be remembered for setting the team on a path of improvement with his enthusiasm and the care he showed his players.
Oppenheimer was the only player of nine who were contacted to comment. Captain Will McHale ’13, who is on the search committee, declined to comment.
Williams’ resignation became effective Dec. 31, leaving the team without a head coach during a crucial period of recruiting for next season.
According to NCAA regulations, college coaches may contact high school players from Nov. 28 until Jan. 29. Recruits may first sign a National Letter of Intent for their school of choice beginning on Feb. 2. Without a head coach in place, Yale runs the risk of losing valuable players to competing programs in the Ivy League, as recruits are reluctant to commit to programs without a head coach.
While the effects how Williams’ resignation will affect recruitment is unclear, at least one player has already spurned Yale due to the coaching turnover. The Meriden Record-Journal reported that linebacker Sebastian Little of Cheshire High School, who had initially chosen to attend Yale next year, instead committed to Harvard due to Williams’ resignation.
Beckett said that since Yale will host visiting recruits on Jan. 13 and 20, he would like to have someone in place by that time. However, both Beckett and Levin said they are more concerned with finding the best coaching candidate possible.
“We’d like to conclude [the search process] as soon as possible, and that would help with recruiting next year’s team, next year’s students for admission,” Levin said. “But it’s much more important to get the right coach for the long run, even if it takes a little longer, rather than worrying about losing one or two recruits in a year.”
Both a direct internal search committee and an advisory committee of alumni are helping Beckett — who has final say over the hiring decision — to identify and interview candidates.
Over the last few weeks, Georgetown head coach Kevin Kelly, UConn defensive coordinator Don Brown, Lehigh offensive coordinator Dave Cecchini and former Yale assistant coach Tony Reno have all been mentioned as possible candidates for the job.
“We are looking for an extraordinary leader with great communication skills who is an excellent teacher, who understands the Yale community, understands the academic rigor of Yale and the passion of student athletes,” Beckett said.
Williams compiled a 16–14 career record at Yale, with his best season coming in 2010, when the Bulldogs finished 7–3 and tied for second place in the Ivy League. However, Williams might be better remembered for a botched trick play during 2009’s Harvard-Yale game. With less than three minutes to go in the fourth quarter and holding onto a three-point lead, Williams’ call for a fake punt from Yale’s 25-yard line was stopped by Harvard, leading to a comeback victory for the Cantabs.
The Bulldogs, who have not won an Ivy League title since 2006, will return nine starters on offense and three on defense next season.
“The team is excited to get back at it in the weight room and is highly anticipating spring practice,” Oppenheimer said. “We have the players in place to be very successful in the 2012 season.”
The next Yale head coach will be the 34th in the history of the program, which has had just three head coaches since 1965.