Most football coaches are brimming with optimism this time of year, but few with as much Tom Williams, the first black head football coach at Yale University. It has little to do with his expectations about the annual grudge match with Harvard later this year. Williams has broken through one of the most insidious glass ceilings in sports. He’s a black man coaching at a well-known school.
There are only four black coaches at the 119 schools that comprise Division 1A, the highest level of competition in the NCAA. The Ivy League is in Division 1-AA, where Williams joins Columbia University’s Norries Wilson, the first black coach in the Ivy League.
The extreme lack of diversity became a major issue shortly before Williams’ hiring in January. Turner Gill, a former standout quarterback on a powerhouse University of Nebraska team in the ‘80s and veteran coach, helped turn around a moribund program at the University of Buffalo. But he was passed over for the head coaching job at Auburn University in favor of Gene Chizik, who coached an Iowa State University team in complete disarray. Chizik’s ISU team went 5-19 during his two seasons there, not exactly the sort of track record that qualifies you for a promotion. NBA Hall of Fame player Charles Barkley, an Auburn alumnus, called his alma mater racist for the decision. Meanwhile James Franklin, a top assistant coach at the University of Maryland was passed over for many openings before opting to take a coach-in-waiting position there. He will succeed current coach Ralph Freidgen whose contract runs until 2012.
The Ivy League has succeeded in diversity in ways that other conferences should envy. In addition to their high marks in football, half of the conference’s basketball coaches are African-American, which compares favorably to the 30 percent average in the NCAA.
“There’s not a win at all costs mentality here,” said Williams of the Ivy’s success. The conference bans athletic scholarships, which means that even a well-run program won’t challenge the success of schools such as Duke and Stanford that combine powerhouse athletics and academics.
A four-year starter, Williams, now 38, played linebacker and was captain of the Stanford football team that went 10-3 and won a share of the Pac-10 title in 1992. After a year on the practice squad of the San Francisco 49ers, he returned to Stanford where he earned his master’s degree in university administration and served as a graduate assistant under legendary head coach Bill Walsh.
He went on to work with Dennis Green, who stressed toughness. Williams worked as an assistant coach at the University of Hawaii, San Jose State University and the University of Washington before spending time in the NFL, where he spent two years as an assistant coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Williams is philosophical about the slow pace of diversity in college football. “It’s an old-boy network,” he said. “The people making the hiring decisions for the most part like to work with people who resemble them demographically. Until those demographics change, we won’t see a rapid change in the hiring practices.”
In the NFL, there are six African-Americans among the 32 head coaches, and the league has adopted what’s called the Rooney Rule, which mandates that teams interview African-American candidates before filling coaching vacancies. Williams doesn’t think that such a rule would have much of an impact on the college game.
“In the NFL there are only a few people in the decision-making process; in college it’s a much larger pool of people in the process,” he said.
As the season approaches, Williams doesn’t expect a difficult transition from football in the AFC South to the Ivy League. “Football is football; people are people,” he said. “It will still take toughness, resilience and excitement to win.”
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.