‘I’ve never been a yes guy’

Doug Wil­liams brings de­ter­mi­na­tion to the Red­skins front of­fice

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY LIZ CLARKE

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.


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