‘I’ve never been a yes guy’
Doug Williams brings determination to the Redskins front office
With one misstep as he dropped back to pass, quarterback Doug Williams crumpled to the ground late in the first quarter of Super Bowl XXII, his left knee wrenched and his scoreless Washington Redskins trailing the Denver Broncos by 10 points. “Don’t touch me!” Williams yelled in searing pain as trainers rushed out to help. “If the good Lord lets me get up, I’m going to finish this game.” Williams did so in historic fashion. Sidelined for just two offensive snaps, he returned on a hyperextended knee to throw an 80yard touchdown pass on his first play, spurring a 35point secondquarter eruption that sealed the Redskins’ 4210 upset, earned him MVP honors and cemented his legacy as the first African American quarterback to lead a team to the Super Bowl championship. But what Williams remembers most about that day 29 years ago, as Coach Joe Gibbs exulted and teammates thrust fists in the sky, was being met in the tunnel by his college coach. “Hell, Cat! It ain’t about the four TDs!” said Grambling State’s legendary coach, Eddie Robinson, who had always called his bigarmed quarterback Cat. “It’s about the fact that you got up!”
Williams’s life — well before that moment and ever since — has been a master class in getting up and getting back to work.
Last month, at age 61 — after nearly three decades coaching high school and college football and climbing the ranks of NFL front offices in Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Washington — Williams was named the Redskins’ senior vice president of player personnel. The job puts him on a hierarchical par with Coach Jay Gruden, reporting only to Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and team President Bruce Allen.
“Jay is entrusted with the football team, and I’m entrusted to make sure we get Jay what he needs,” Williams recently explained. “And we’ve got to get results.”
But as Williams embarks on the job, the question is: Will his bosses give him rein to do it?
There is reason to be skeptical given Snyder’s record of meddling and the abrupt way he and Allen fired their hand-picked general manager, Scot McCloughan, in March, two years into a four-year contract.
It’s easy to view Williams’s promotion as mere window dressing designed to placate alienated fans, many of whom responded to McCloughan’s ouster with a #FireBruce social media campaign. It’s also easy to view it as largely symbolic — designed to make the Redskins’ front office look more like a high-functioning organization and less like a two-man fiefdom — while conveying little autonomy.
Williams sees no gain in rebutting either assumption in detail, noting that few NFL analysts understand the power structure of NFL front offices, which varies from team to team. He prefers to steer clear of politics, he explains, and work behind the scenes and by consensus.
Williams crafted his own job description, including his title, spelling out responsibilities that give him control of the Redskins’ personnel department while leaving contracts and salary-cap management to longtime specialist Eric Schaffer, who got a bump in title, too.
“I’ve never been a yes guy,” Williams said. “Now, can I be someone who can talk things over and work it out? Yes. I know Jay well and Bruce well. And I know there are going to be times when we may not agree. That’s a good thing; that’s what scouting is all about.”
He is eager to get started, accustomed to the hard work of proving skeptics wrong, which started decades ago with the pernicious myth that black athletes couldn’t handle the complex demands of quarterback.
Challenges because of race
Still an imposing figure, Williams is a gifted storyteller with keen recall of his childhood, his life’s many blessings and every coach, relative, teammate and friend who played a role in his achievements. As for the injustices along the way, and there were many, they have left no outward trace of bitterness. In Williams’s recollection, they are simply facts of the period in which he was reared, before integration reached Louisiana’s East Baton Rouge parish and before NFL coaches and scouts saw the ability of a college quarterback before they saw the color of his skin.
Williams’s story begins on a gravel road just outside Zachary, La., where he was born in 1955. It was a small, close-knit community, with elders such as Mr. Will, Miss Mary and Miss Rebecca minding the Williams children when their parents went to work each morning. Cross burnings were weekly events on nearby Plank Road, and hooded Klansmen didn’t just lurk in the woods but handed out pamphlets at intersections in broad daylight.
“We understood the possibility that something bad could happen if you were out walking the streets when dusk came,” Williams recalled in a recent interview. “You understood segregation; you understood civil rights. That’s the way it was.”
A three-sport standout athlete at segregated Chaneyville High, where he played basketball, third base, pitcher, safety and quarterback — Williams wanted to become a coach like his eldest brother, Robert. When it was time for college, his mother made the decision for him after Robinson phoned the house one evening to offer her son a scholarship.
“I just talked to Coach Robinson,” she informed him, “and you’re going to Grambling. He said that you were going to class, you were going to graduate, and you were going to go to church!”
Looking back, Williams said, “That’s the best choice my mom ever made — besides bringing me into the world!”
Williams led Grambling to a 36-7 record and three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles in four years as a starter. His senior season, he led the NCAA in touchdown passes (38) and passing yards (3,286). By then, he had earned his degree in education and was doing student-teaching toward his master’s as he awaited the 1978 NFL draft.
Only one NFL team sent a coach to evaluate him: Tampa Bay, a floundering second-year expansion franchise that held the No. 1 overall pick after a two-win season. Its running backs coach, Gibbs, had studied Williams’s game film, but Buccaneers Coach John McKay wanted to know more. So Gibbs showed up unannounced at the Monroe, La., high school where Williams was teaching and took a seat at the back of the classroom.
“He came there just to watch me interact with the students,” Williams recalled, shaking his head at the memory. “He sat through six classes!”
Based largely on Gibbs’s scouting report, Tampa Bay drafted Grambling State’s star, who had finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting, in the first round — but traded back from first to 17th to do so, confident that other NFL teams would pass him over.
Williams sought out former Grambling State quarterback James Harris, who had been drafted by Buffalo eight years earlier, for advice. Harris, the first African American to start an NFL season at the position, was careful not to discuss the challenges he had faced in the league because of his race.
Harris didn’t want the rookie to feel the pressure to be perfect that he had felt as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback — so intense that it made him reluctant to throw for fear of an interception. “It affected your play,” Harris recalled in a telephone interview. “You couldn’t make a mistake because you realized you may get only one opportunity . . . . He needed to come into the league with confidence.”
So Harris counseled him instead on preparation, the process and the game.
Tampa Bay made the NFL playoffs three times in Williams’s first four seasons and reached the 1979 NFC championship game. But as his five-year rookie contract was about to expire, he learned that he wasn’t simply the NFL’s lowestpaid starter but that his $120,000 annual salary ranked 54th among quarterbacks.
“My backup on my team made more money than me!” Williams said.
For his next contract, Williams’s agent sought a multiyear deal worth $600,000 per year. The Buccaneers countered with a one-year, $375,000 offer, explaining that season-ticket sales were down and that he could earn more if he met additional performance targets. In the midst of the negotiations, Williams’s wife, Janice, died of a brain aneurysm at age 26. Their daughter, Ashley, was five months old.
Overnight, football no longer mattered. Contract guarantees, fame — none of it mattered.
A brutal cut
Williams walked away from the NFL and returned to Louisiana, where his mother, who had reared eight children of her own, and his sisters helped him raise Ashley while he took a job teaching and coaching at Northwest Middle School.
“I had my degree, and I always wanted to be a coach like my oldest brother,” Williams said. “I had a baby girl whose mom had passed away, so it didn’t matter whether I played football or not. It didn’t matter who you were. It didn’t matter how much money you made when you couldn’t help somebody you would have loved to have helped. Things like that don’t discriminate. It puts life in perspective.”
Williams taught eighth-grade girls’ gym classes and introduced football to boys who had never played.
“He taught the kids the basic fundamentals,” said Robert Williams, his eldest brother and then principal of the middle school. “He never rode them. He was always positive; never derogatory. He demonstrated how to do it, and the kids respected him.”
The Oklahoma Outlaws of the upstart USFL lured Williams back to the game in 1984. When the league folded two years later, Williams’s phone rang. “Doug-lassss!” It was Gibbs, the only person other than his mother and brother Robert who called him by his formal name. Gibbs wanted to know whether Williams would consider a job as the Redskins’ backup quarterback.
“Coach, I can be any ‘-up’ you want me to!” Williams cracked. “I don’t have a job!”
A year later, when Williams was 32, he led the Redskins to their second Super Bowl title under Gibbs. That spring he underwent knee surgery, and he lost his starting job to Mark Rypien after 11 games during the 1988 season. After offseason back surgery, he started only four games in 1989. Then came another call from Gibbs, who wanted to see him in his office.
Williams only could stare, finding no words, when the coach told him he was cutting him with one year remaining on his contract. He planned to start Rypien.
“I don’t want to have you on the sideline, as much as people love you around here,” Gibbs explained, as Williams recounted the conversation. “The last thing I need is for Ryp to have a bad day and the fans start saying, ‘We want Doug!’ ”
As Williams rose to leave, Gibbs asked whether they were still friends.
“Not right now, Coach.”
Succeeding his mentor
Williams went back to Zachary and took a job as football coach at his former high school. It wasn’t called Chaneyville anymore. After integration, it was renamed Northeast, expunging the most direct link to its history as an allblack high school. But the football stadium was called Doug Williams Field. And Williams, its Super Bowl MVP alumnus, proceeded to lead Northeast to its first undefeated regular season and the state semifinals, finishing with a 13-1 mark. It included a quarterfinal victory over Isidore Newman, the elite private school in New Orleans whose quarterback was Archie Manning’s boy, Peyton.
“That time at Northeast brought a lot of people together in our area — people that didn’t even like each other!” Williams said. “But on Friday night, you’d look up in the stands, and they were hugging each other.”
After spending 1994 tutoring running backs at Navy and the next two years as an NFL scout for Jacksonville, Williams got his first college coaching job at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Robinson’s retirement after 55 years at Grambling State brought Williams back to Louisiana to take a job that friends and relatives advised against — succeeding Robinson, the mentor he regarded as “the cornerstone of a building.”
In taking over for Robinson in 1998, Williams said from the outset that no man could fill the shoes of a coach who won 408 games. But after back-to-back 3-8 seasons, he felt he could help. And he started with the values Robinson had drilled into generations of players.
“Coach Rob was about being a good citizen,” Williams said. “He was about being a good man, being able to provide for your family and being good Americans.”
Equally powerful was what Coach Rob didn’t say.
“Me being here today,” Williams said during a recent interview at Redskins Park, “Coach Rob has a lot to do with it. Just imagine — a little old black school in Louisiana, an all-black team, and Coach Rob never, ever uttered one word about what you can’t do because you’re black.”
Williams led Grambling to three Southwestern Athletic Conference titles from 2000 to 2002 before returning to Tampa Bay as a personnel executive. He returned as Grambling’s coach in 2011, but after the team won that season’s SWAC title, a 1-12 stretch followed, and Williams was fired.
Williams’s estrangement with Gibbs lasted just two years. It was buried the moment they were reunited during the 1991 Senior Bowl in Alabama.
Today, there is no one Williams admires more than Gibbs and Coach Rob.
“I hold them close to my heart,” he said, patting his heart twice. “Right here.”
Gibbs, reached at his NASCAR team headquarters in Huntersville, N.C., hardly knew where to begin on the topic of Williams. “Really, somebody could do a movie on his life!” Gibbs said.
That day nearly 40 years ago, watching from the back of a classroom as a young student-teacher patiently instructed his pupils, is as vivid as yesterday. So, too, is the excitement he felt in rushing back to Tampa to write his report for Coach McKay.
Gibbs remembers every detail of Williams’s first-quarter injury in Super Bowl XXII, his return for what he calls the “magical” second quarter and the command he had over his teammates, especially running back Timmy Smith.
“I could not get through to Timmy Smith, but boy, that Doug Williams could!” Gibbs said. “He told [Smith], ‘We’re not messing this up! This is our chance!’ And that Timmy played his guts out.” Smith rushed for 204 yards and two touchdowns. “I think a lot of it was because of Doug,” Gibbs said.
Positioned to have an impact
So it was a powerful sort of homecoming last month when Williams was named to the highest-ranking job attained by an African American in the history of the Redskins, the last NFL team to integrate.
Jeff Bostic, the Hogs’ former center, was among hundreds of friends, teammates and admirers who sent congratulatory messages. A longtime believer that the Redskins need more football experience in the front office, Bostic loves the move.
“Obviously, Doug knows football,” Bostic said. “He’s now in a position where he can make a huge impact on this football team.”
If so, Williams will be the first given latitude to do so under Snyder and Allen, who have a history of overruling, undermining and undercutting their own coaches and personnel executives.
Washington-based lawyer Cyrus Mehri, legal counsel of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a watchdog group that works with the NFL on minority hiring, pushed back on speculation that Williams was promoted for largely symbolic reasons. Mehri pointed to the fact that the Redskins adopted Williams’s plan for restructuring the team’s front office and characterized him as “one of the most observant, insightful people you’ll ever be around.”
“Anyone with one iota of thought that this is window dressing needs to put that out of their mind because that would be, number one, inaccurate, and two, unfair to Doug Williams,” said Mehri, who has challenged the Redskins on their team name and in January questioned their process for filling their offensive and defensive coordinator vacancies.
Williams has experience dealing with domineering NFL owners.
He understands that no football player arrives ready-made — whether an eighth-grader who has never been in a stance or a first-round NFL draft pick. Teams need to invest in players’ development, the way Gibbs did in his.
Williams also understands that to build a Super Bowl contender, NFL teams must cut players without regard to sentiment. And ultimately, Williams knows that teamwork is more important to success than any one star.
It is insight that has served Williams well through a lifetime in football. But it remains to be seen whether the voice that commanded the Redskins huddle three decades ago can command a culture change in the Redskins’ front office today.
TOP: Doug Williams made history Jan. 31, 1988, as the first African American starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl. ABOVE LEFT: As a personnel executive with Tampa Bay in 2007, Williams encouraged Jason Campbell after the Buccaneers defeated the Redskins. ABOVE RIGHT: Williams yelled from the sideline Sept. 8, 2012, during his second stint as Grambling State’s coach.