Sporting Life

The Tom Williams Show debuts

Alex Goldberger '08, an Olympics research assistant at NBC, is the sideline reporter for Yale football on radio station WELI.

Associated Press

Associated Press

New football coach Tom Williams networks with a key ally. View full image

In January, a young, charismatic African American took over an office once thought off-limits to him. Amid great crowds and cheering, hope was in the air. The turbulence of the last eight years seemed to fade.

But the scene was not Washington, DC. Instead, it was New Haven on January 7, when Tom Williams, a 1993 Stanford graduate who spent the last two years as an assistant coach for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, was introduced as the new head coach of Yale football. Williams, the first African American to lead the program in its 137-year history, replaces Jack Siedlecki, who retired last November after a 12-year tenure that included two league titles and a 70-49 record, but also seven losses to Harvard in the past eight seasons.

A Fort Worth native, Williams, 39, enjoyed a charmed student-athlete career at Stanford. He excelled at linebacker, and he played with Cory Booker '97JD (currently the mayor of Newark, New Jersey), who convinced him to apply for a Rhodes scholarship. (Williams was a finalist.) After graduation, Williams made coaching stops at Stanford, Hawaii, Washington, and San Jose State. So when Williams arrived at the January 7 press conference, he was already fluent in college football, as well as in the language of Yale athletics: he called himself a teacher, and he told the media, "We're going to beat Harvard."

"I've always said that my classroom just happens to be out on the grass," Williams told me later. "One of the things you have to do as a teacher is figure out how different guys learn and appeal to that." That approach doesn't mean cutting student-athletes much slack, however. "When a guy comes into my office and says, 'Well, coach, I didn't have enough time to get it done,' he knows that I can look at him and say, 'You know what, I did the same thing, and that's a bunch of crap.'"

Williams spent his first weeks shoring up Yale's recruiting class, compiling a new coaching staff, and rebuilding the team. Yale's scoring defense, top-ranked in its division, is losing seven starters, and the run-heavy offense may face an identity crisis, with Mike McLeod '09 and the four men who blocked for him all graduating.

During Williams's interview with the players' committee, he hinted at a more inventive spread offense, mentioning the Boise State model - a kind of basketball on grass, with quarterbacks who run, running backs who catch, and receivers zigzagging in all directions. Such an overhaul may suit the incoming offense, whose best players are Brook Hart '11, a quarterback, and John Sheffield '10, a wide receiver trapped in a fullback's body.

Linebacker Paul Rice '10, the new team captain, says the players are excited about competing for starting positions. "It's like being a freshman again," says Rice. "This guy's watched tape but he hasn't seen you actually play. So you have to re-prove yourself. It's energizing."

The Yale Bowl will be a proving ground for Williams, too; this is his first head-coaching job. Not that he's short on confidence. "I think I'm as prepared as anyone could ever be," Williams said. "Urban Meyer didn't have any head-coaching experience either when he was first given the head job at Bowling Green. Pete Carroll had to start somewhere. Look at President Obama. You have to get experience sometime."

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