Monday, January 12, 2009

A Head of “The Game”: Tom Williams’ Hiring Historic, not Surprising

Where my Dogs at? Yale Head Football Coach Tom Williams and Handsome Dan

from "RealView Sports" 1/16/09

The Ivy League has produced presidents, business barons, and world leaders of virtually every sort. So, in the year 2009, when someone makes history at an Ivy League institution, people tend to take notice.

Last week, Tom Williams made history at Yale.

Most recently serving as an assistant coach in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Williams is an experienced college assistant coach (San Jose State, Stanford, his alma mater, Hawai’i and Washington) and has an extensive background recruiting competitive student-athletes to institutions with strong academic reputations. Additionally, his successes as an assistant coach have prepared him well for the head position at Yale, one of the winningest football programs in college football (one of only two with more than 800 wins in its history). His experience and professional background make this hire remarkably uncontroversial, so calling Coach Williams’ hiring historic might seem a stretch.

Until you consider that for the first time in Yale’s history, a black man will lead their team onto the field. Historic? Perhaps. But surprising? Not at all. Consider:

1) The Ivy League is unafraid of people of color in leadership positions - Even though Williams is one of only a handful of black coaches in college football (one of only three in the Football Championship Subdivision outside of the historically black colleges, the others being Norries Wilson at Ivy League competitor Columbia and Richmond’s Mike London, who just won an FCS National Championship) his hiring should come as no surprise. First of all, the Ivy League is arguably the most progressive conference in the country when it comes to hiring qualified candidates of color, with a total of 7 of its 16 head football and basketball coaches of African-American descent.

2) The Ivy League isn’t the SEC, and that’s probably a good thing – The Ivy League champ is not likely going to match up well with any BCS conference competitors. And even if they could, we’d never know – Ivy League schools do not participate in post-season play (their student-athletes are attending to more important matters, like studying for finals). And as far as the matchups on the field? The players aren’t as hard hitting, physical, or speedy as their counterparts in the SEC (note that only 12 Ivy Leaguers are currently on NFL rosters, and it’s an 8 team league. The SEC by comparison had 263 at the beginning of the 2007 season). But the SEC has earned the reputation of being particularly disinterested in giving qualified coaches of color a shot at HFBC positions. This off-season cemented that reputation, with two controversial hirings in the conference – Lane Kiffin at Tennessee, who has fewer than 10 years experience coaching at the college level and coming off of a woeful performance as head coach of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders for one season, and Gene Chizik at Auburn, hired after going 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State. Both were hired over Turner Gill, who brought Buffalo to their first bowl game in the school’s history and is more experienced and accomplished as an assistant coach than both Chizik and Kiffin. (btw, the story of the 1958 Buffalo team refusing to play in a post-season bowl game because their two black players wouldn’t be allowed to pay is an incredible narrative. See The Buffalo News’ “UB football's black and white decision 50 years ago” from 2 January 2009).

3) Yale doesn’t care about Black and White as much as it cares about Crimson and White – Any true fan of college football knows that the annual matchup known as “The Game” isn’t Michigan v. Ohio State, Auburn v. Alabama, or Georgia v. Florida. Its Harvard v. Yale. Since 1875, these two foes have finished each season playing each other 125 times. And it’s bigger than the 60 minute match on the field. It’s for serious bragging rights. The 1968 game was the topic of what became a sleeper hit in 2008, the documentary “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29,” and Harvard alums who would be quick to point out that seven of their alumni have been U.S. Presidents (Obama is one of them) to Yale’s five, aren’t as quick to note that Yale holds a 65-52 advantage over them in “The Game.” But that gap is quickly closing, and though outgoing head coach Jack Siedlecki won nearly 60% of his games as head coach and earned an Ivy League Championship in 2006, he lost 7 out of his 8 matchups with Harvard.

Tom Williams was hired at Yale because he’s a good football coach. He was hired at Yale because he’s a good recruiter and because his experience as a student-athlete and coach at elite institutions suits him well to do the job at Yale. And among the first words out of his mouth at the introductory press conference?

“We are going to beat Harvard.”

So while it might be characterized by many as a pleasant surprise that Williams was hired at Yale, to many in the know, it comes as no surprise at all. At the end of the day, and institution wanted a well-qualified coach to run its football program, and Williams fit the bill. From that perspective, this should come as no surprise at all.

The only surprise will be if Harvard doesn’t have a heckuva fight on their hands next fall, courtesy of “Handsome Dan” and Head Coach Tom Williams.

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