Sunday, August 20, 2006

Grambling greats: Doug Williams

Williams makes easy work in following legend
August 28, 2002

By Nick Deriso
"The whole objective," Grambling coach Doug Williams said before his second year, "is to get the kids to believe."

And the fans. And the media.

And the rest of the SWAC.

Williams was coming off an inaugural 5-6 season - accomplished amidst the long shadow of just-retired Eddie Robinson, the winningest football coach in college history.
History tells us that following college legends is risky business, unsuccessful and mighty stressful.

Fact: Fellow legend Bear Bryant - perhaps Robinson's only true peer - left in 1982, after leading Alabama to six national championships between 1961 and 1979. The Tide didn't roll to another one until the 1990s.

It helped that Williams was family, a former star Grambling quarterback and Robinson favorite.

It didn't hurt that his resume boasted a Super Bowl win and MVP trophy, either. But a tie for the fourth place in the SWAC didn't look all that much different from the end of Robinson's never-to-be-equaled 54-year coaching career. At times, the team had struggled painfully in Coach Rob's final seasons.

Williams had a plan, though - one where he grew players in his system. It paid off handsomely. (In more ways than one: As they learned the plays, they hit the books. Grambling had the highest graduation rate for student-athletes among Louisiana Division I schools in 2000, according to the NCAA.)

By his third year, Williams had won the SWAC - the team's first outright championship since 1989. By his fourth year, he'd taken the SWAC again - and went one better by adding a Bayou Classic win.

The Tigers were named NCAA Division I National Black College Champions twice. Numerous Coach of the Year awards were handed over to Williams.
If only it was always that easy.

Fact: John Wooden led UCLA to 10 national basketball championships through his retirement in 1975. The Bruins didn't win one again until the 1990s.

Robinson retired after the 1997 season, having churned out hundreds of professional football prospects. One of his best players - certainly his best quarterback - was Williams.

A fourth-place finisher in the 1977 Heisman Trophy voting, Williams led the Washington Redskins to a victory over John Elway's Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl a decade later.

None of that necessarily translates into being a good head coach, though.

It did with Doug.

"He was probably one of the most talented people I've ever seen," said Joe Gibbs, who coached Williams in that Washington win - and, earlier, as an assistant at Tampa Bay. "Even when he was young, he was a natural leader."

Folks in D.C. might not know that his career record as a Grambling player was an astounding 40-6. Folks here do. Williams seems just as proud of both.

"To use some words from the legendary Coach Rob, it's good to be a part of it," Williams said, upon his induction as the fourth Grambling player in the College Hall of Fame.

"Coach Rob always said he was the luckiest man in the world," Williams said. "I feel that way."

Luck doesn't account for the way Williams shot out of the gate as a coach, though.

Fact: Knute Rockne led the Notre Dame football team to undefeated seasons in 1919 and '20, then national championships in 1924, '29 and '30 before his death in 1931. They didn't win one again until 1943.

"I think as a coach, you always want to sneak up on people," Williams said after claiming his first coaching championship, "and that's not going to happen anymore. There are big expectations."

He fulfilled them - going on to post back-to-back SWACs.

"I think winning the title again, especially two straight, speaks for itself," Williams said. "It's a testament to the hard work and dedication of the players and coaches. It speaks volumes about this program and university."
And its coach.

Fact: Dean Smith was the head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina from 1961 to 1997, winning national championships in the 1980s and early 1990s. The men haven't won another since he left. In fact, their streak of 27 straight NCAA tournament appearances ended last March.

"You've got to be proud of where the program is," Williams admits. "It's up to us to uphold the challenge."

The next one is McNeese State, as another climb up the season's ladder - Williams' third at GSU - begins on Saturday. "They're a good team," Williams said. "They were in the national championship game (under current Louisiana-Monroe coach Bobby Keasler) a few years ago - and it seems like they are always in the playoffs."

Meanwhile, it seems that Grambling is poised to reclaim its position as a perennial powerhouse - whatever the outcome of this rebuilding season.

"We've got our work cut out for us," he said.

You get the feeling Williams is ready.

g g g

November 28, 2002

Grambling State coach Doug Williams is on familiar ground, preparing his Tiger football team for the 29th Bayou Classic. He played in the first Bayou Classic in 1974, defeating Southern 21-0. After that stellar career with Grambling from '74-77, the young quarterback was a No. 1 draft choice of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in '78. Later in his career he played for the Washington Redskins and led them to the 1987 Super Bowl title, being named Most Valuable Player of the game. As a player and coach at Grambling, Williams has amassed an 82-20 record. In five seasons as the Grambling coach he is 42-14 and has guided the Tigers to two consecutive SWAC championships. Grambling will play for its third straight title on Dec. 14 in Birmingham, Ala., against Alabama A&M. Earlier this week, Williams sat down with The News-Star. Here is what he had to say:

The News-Star: Who's the best quarterback on the Washington Redskins, Danny Wuerffel or you?
Doug Williams: Me. (laughter)
TNS: I'm talking about right now.
DW: Me. (uproarious laughter)

TNS: What do you think about the NFL's ability right now to accept and promote African-American quarterbacks?
DW: I don't think it's as big of a deal now as it was in the past because as ownership and leadership and coaches have changed to a younger atmosphere, I think it's more acceptable. You don't have as much of the good ole boy mentality as we had in the past - and that's made a difference.

TNS: What's harder to count, votes in Florida or people at a Grambling home game?
DW: Both of them are tough. I would say both of them are about the same. (laughter)

TNS: Which would you rather win, SWAC championships or the Bayou Classic?
DW: SWAC championships. You get hardware for championships. You get rings for a championship and a pat on the back for the Bayou Classic. At the end of the day, people remember championships - not the Bayou Classic. T

NS: Do you have a favorite Bayou Classic moment?
DW: Last year, I think, when Randy Hymes came off the field and I hugged Randy Hymes. That's probably my favorite moment, and we got a win out of it. That's as a coach. As a player, I would say my freshman year in Tulane Stadium, beating Southern.

TNS: What's the main difference now in the Bayou Classic, football aside, from then and now?
DW: It's more political now than it was then. It was football then and you could enjoy it. Now, it's a weekend of perks. A good example: This is the Bayou Classic; we play in a bunch of classics. But this is the only classic we've got a committee. We don't have a Silver Dollar or Red River committee. The Bayou Classic, everybody's got perks. It's gotten a lot more political.

TNS: What do you do when you get married in Vegas for a honeymoon?
DW: Oh, man, stay away from the slot machines.
TNS: I guess you've already taken enough chances?
DW: I was trying to find out about (the often-married) Elizabeth Taylor, but she's still got me by a bunch.

TNS: What does Doug do for fun?
DW: That's a good one because, if it's not the offseason and a chance to play golf then I spend time with the little ones. There's not a lot of fun you can do. I'm not one to hang out. I guess golf is the closest thing.

TNS: Any idea how long you're going to stay at Grambling? Do you have aspirations to move on?
DW: I can't say how long I'll be at Grambling. I'm here now. I don't know. I'm one to let the chips fall where they may. I can sit here and say there might not be an opportunity, but I don't know whether I would be telling the truth. I've gotten some calls.
TNS: It seems like when you've had a season like this one, the calls would be coming - even moreso than in the past. If you won another championship, this might be the time.
DW: I can say the conversations I have had have been a lot more serious than it's been to this point. But I respect the people and Grambling - and they respect me from a standpoint of let's get out of this Bayou Classic. I don't want to get caught up talking about stuff or worried about what might happen. The most important thing is doing the job that I have, because the people that are talking don't have anybody. Grambling has somebody. So I want to do my job.

TNS: Who do you enjoy watching play quarterback right now?
DW: Michael Vick from a standpoint of athletic ability. He would have to be one guy right now I would watch. The other guy is (Aaron) Brooks in New Orleans. Brooks is one of the most unorthodox passers. He never sets his feet. (Current Grambling quarterback) Bruce Eugene's got a lot of Brooks' characteristics. He doesn't have his size, but throws a lot backing up. Just about every pass Brooks throws he's backing up. I like that because he can get it there. He's accurate. He makes plays, has escapability and has leadership. Those two guys make sitting down watching football a little more enjoyable.
TNS: What about Donovan McNabb?
DW: Donovan McNabb looks ugly because he looks like a big fullback, but he has an uncanny ability to avoid the rush and he can throw the football. That's what I like about Michael Vick. When he first came out they said, 'He can't throw the football.' But Michael Vick may have one of the purest passing arms in football. He's got the best whip lefthanded throwing the football I've ever seen.

TNS: If there was a race between Bruce Eugene and (Grambling center) Lance Wright, who would win?
DW: That would be a tight race. (laughter) You know, before the season started I would have given it to Bruce because he was about 235. Now's he's around Lance's size so that's going to be a tight race.

g g g

Williams' Super performance redeemed black QBs
January 26, 2003

This would be one of Eddie Robinson's final in-depth interviews with any media outlet.

By Nick Deriso
"The significance," said Grambling product Doug Williams, "stands out more than it did 15 years ago."

Less than six minutes of game clock had elapsed under the San Diego skies. Washington, once down by 10 to Denver in the 1988 Super Bowl, had run just 18 second-quarter plays - but scored 35 unanswered points.

Game over. The Redskins, powered by that offensive outburst from an African-American quarterback, would go on to win, 42-10. Williams was named the game's Most Valuable Player.

Remembered today as a moment of redemption for black signal callers, Williams' California dream was made possible with a down payment by local hero James "Shack" Harris - one of the first African American to start at quarterback in the NFL.

But Williams, in one of the countless interviews he gave as the anniversary loomed this week, said you couldn't call that day a dream. It's not that simple.

With dreams, he said, you'd have to at least visualize that such an eye-popping opportunity could happen for an African-American.

The legendary figure who coached both Harris and Williams at Grambling State University has a different idea about the historical significance of it all.

"The thing we are most proud of is that they graduated from college," says Eddie Robinson, who was succeeded as Grambling coach by Williams.

They took that piece of paper into a league locked up tight with misconceptions about an African-American's ability to master the complex strategies of an NFL offense.

Harris cracked the door with his Pro Bowl MVP performance in 1975. Williams knocked the thing off its hinges that day in 1988.

The record books relate Williams' four touchdown passes - in one quarter of play. He also set a new mark for passing yards in the Super Bowl. It was, then, Williams' personal redemption too - after years of struggles in his first job at Tampa Bay, then a stint in the now-defunct USFL, and finally getting back to the NFL only as a backup the now-forgotten Jay Schroeder at Washington.

Robinson, who was in San Diego that day, went down on the field to remind Williams of the support he always had back home.

"I talked to him a long time after the game," says Robinson. "I told him how proud the people were - in our community and our churches."

The Super Bowl returns to the site of Williams' greatest glory on Sunday. Moreover, we find Tampa - the expansion team that drafted Williams, after opening with a 2-26 record - finally playing in its first championship game.

(Williams picks his old team to win, saying they have "more heart. It's about the way they play and how they play the game.")

But the Buccaneers' success is the least of what has changed in this league since Williams was forced into retirement by a bad back.

This year's playoffs included not one black quarterback struggling against years of wrong-headed assumptions, but three (Michael Vick, Donavon McNabb and Steve McNair) who are routinely accepted as league superstars. African Americans are regularly seen under center - including the Saints' Aaron Brooks.

Then there's Harris, who was named vice president of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday. Williams praised the Monroe native this week, saying: "I would line up Shack's football mind with that of anybody in the league."

Harris had been pro personnel director for Baltimore since 1997, a stint that included the Ravens' 2000 championship season.

"It makes you feel really fine that they can go out and do those kind of things," says Robinson - who retired as the first football coach to notch more than 400 victories. "It just makes you know what our school can do - and what our students can do."

Tellingly, Williams says his sense of the importance of that Super Bowl win continues to grow. He says strangers still stop to talk about what it meant to blacks. Seeing it through his children's eyes also gives Williams a clearer perspective than even the passage of time did.

Meaningful history will do that.

"I can enjoy the fact that my kids can watch what happened and say: 'My daddy accomplished this and that,' " Williams says. "I wasn't to the point that I could realize 15 years ago what a great, great feat it was."

Turns out, the revolution in football was, in fact, televised. And on Super Bowl Sunday, no less.

g g g
Black quarterbacks turn the page
New ESPN book chronicles struggles that led to future success
February 5, 2007

By Nick Deriso
The timing couldn't have been better.

ESPN Books issues “Third and a Mile,” focusing on black NFL quarterbacks like Grambling products James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams.

And it happens just as two African-Americans advance to the Super Bowl as head coaches for the first time ever.

That’s given these two local heroes a chance to reflect, even as they continue to marvel at how far they’ve come.

Williams and Harris shared storylines (from Grambling to pro starter to NFL front office) and a college mentor in Eddie Robinson. It’s kindled a shared admiration.

“I’ve got so much respect for ‘Shack’ as a person, because I know what he had to go through,” Williams said. “‘Shack’ never talked about those things, though. The only thing he ever did with me was say: ‘If you can throw at Grambling, you can throw in the league.’”

“Third and a Mile,” an oral history collected by New York Times writer William C. Rhoden, has Harris and Williams — the first black passer to start an NFL game and the first to win a Super Bowl — as an understandable focus.

They form the center of book that expands to feature fellow pioneers like Marlin Briscoe (first to throw a pass in the modern era) and Warren Moon (first to earn induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame) as well as current players like Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper.

Before those later successes, however, there were mighty struggles.

At first, Harris, a Monroe native, didn’t even let himself dream about starting.

“I thought I was capable, but I didn’t think the opportunity would ever be there,” he said. “Nobody was playing then. It was unrealistic to think about it.”

The world was turning, but slowly.

Harris, fresh off his selection in the 1968 NFL Draft, arrived to find this headline in The Buffalo Evening News: “A 6-4 Negro QB, Harris, Drafted 8th by the Bills.”

Black quarterbacks were still a novelty for a league that had seen just two attempt a pass between 1953 and 1968. Even then, Briscoe did so only because of injuries to the two quarterbacks ahead of him.

He set several rookie records as a passer in Denver — then found himself released at season’s end, anyway. Briscoe would play nine NFL seasons and eventually win two Super Bowls with Miami, but as a receiver.

That didn’t exactly bode well for Harris, despite the fact that he had led five championship teams in northeastern Louisiana — one at Carroll High and four at Grambling.

“The interviews that he had, they didn’t want him as a quarterback,” said former Carroll coach Dorth Blade. “He had the kind of talent that he could have played defensive back; he had the skills to play any position. (In fact, in the closing moments of Carroll’s 1962 state championship, Harris was actually spelling at safety.) But he wanted to play quarterback.”

Harris was never given a fair shake. He bounced from Buffalo to Los Angeles — where, during a rare period where he saw consistent starting time, the Rams won divisional titles and advanced to the NFC championship game in 1974 and ’75.

Despite becoming the first black passer to lead a team into the playoffs, Harris was shipped off to San Diego.“I never really got a chance to play up to my capabilities,” said Harris. “I was always trying to play perfectly, because if you made a mistake — you were out.”

Still, the yeoman’s work done by Briscoe and Harris opened the passway for Williams, who would become the most valuable player of the 1988 Super Bowl for the Washington Redskins.
The now ailing Robinson would often recall telling Williams that the significance of that moment would only deepen with time.

“Coach was right, as usual,” Williams told reporters this week. “In a way, seeing (Chicago Bears coach) Lovie Smith and (Indianapolis Colts coach) Tony Dungy coach in this Super Bowl will have more impact on me than my playing in the game did. I’ve lived a little history now, and I know exactly where we started with black coaches.”

Harris looks back with more than a little regret on his pro playing days. Still, his steady resilience made it easier for those who came later.

Moon was so determined to follow Harris into quarterbacking that he decided not to run at full speed when he was clocked in the 40-yard dash as a college athlete at Washington — all to avoid being moved to wideout or cornerback.

He and Randall Cunningham would bridge the gap between the widely accepted black superstar passers of today and Grambling’s groundbreakers of the ’70s.

“The only thing I knew,” Harris said, “is I wasn’t switching positions. I was going home before I was going to do that.”

Harris’ more remarkable contribution was to follow that 12-year career on the field with nearly two decades as a pioneer in pro personnel. He’s helped build rosters for the Jets, the Ravens (including the 2000 Super Bowl champions) and the Jaguars, where he was worked since 2003.

Robinson often made special note of the fact that Harris “broke restraints on the field as a player, and then in proving blacks could be leaders in the team’s front office.”

Williams, who later succeeded Robinson as Grambling’s coach, is also a personnel executive — working for Tampa Bay, the NFL club that selected him 17th overall in the 1978 draft.

Though they once endured a withering spotlight focused on their skin color, Harris and Williams have been witness to an amazing transformation: In some ways, the game itself has become bigger than race.

McNair and McNabb have led teams into the Super Bowl over the last decade — and with far less scrutiny.

“The thing about a Super Bowl is, they may call you a black quarterback,” Williams said, “but the truth is that they can’t color that experience.”

g g g
A separate history: Harris, Williams return with new book on black QBs
Grambling products featured in 'Third and a Mile,' a stirring new oral history
March 10, 2007

By Nick Deriso
William C. Rhoden wanted you to walk a while in their shoes.

So the New York Times writer took a gutsy approach in the new book “Third and a Mile,” which explores what he calls “the trials and triumphs” of the black pro quarterback.

He presents an oral history, rather than weaving in the expected prose. These raw and riveting accounts give the book its power, and its poignancy.

About 80 different voices are heard, loud and clear -- including two Grambling products, James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams. Their words become an ever-more resounding rebuke, even if the book’s stark style means Rhoden disappears a bit in the telling.

“We left it up to him,” Harris said, “and that was the way he thought it was best to present it -- since there were so many different angles and personalities to the story. We like it because it’s easy to read.”

Harris, a Monroe native, and Williams will sign copies of “Third and a Mile” today at Windows, a Bookshop, on Park Avenue across from Forsythe Park in Monroe. The free event lasts from noon to 2 p.m. Call 361-9004.

“Third and a Mile” also includes accounts from Warren Moon, Vince Evans and Marlin Briscoe, among others. Each played his own role in the struggle of black passers to earn equal opportunity in the National Football League.

Their thoughts are laid bare, without interruption or tacked-on transitions. Eventually, the quarterbacks are joined by others, black and white, to provide insight and context.

“The writer did a good job, because he didn’t deviate from what we said,” Williams said. “It’s not just told from the individual quarterback’s point of view, but also from other people’s. You get it from a different view, and see what everybody else thought about what was going on.”

For Harris and Williams, these were not new thoughts. It was new, though, to voice a few of them.

“Some of the things you go through, you have not shared with anybody else or hadn’t wanted to talk about,” Harris said. “Some of those things were said for the first time, once we sat down and started thinking about it. But those are things you never forget.”

Harris -- who once won 39 consecutive games as a prep quarterback at Monroe’s Carroll High -- would become the first black in league history to open a regular season as a starting quarterback, and the first to lead an NFL team to the playoffs.

Williams was the first to be selected in the first round of the draft, the first to lead a team to the Super Bowl, the first to win it, and the first to be named most valuable player.

Leading the way meant absorbing withering criticism -- in print and in person -- from those who questioned whether a black quarterback could lead a football team.

“There are things that have been on your mind for a long time, and maybe you only shared them with a few people,” Williams said. “Now, you can share it with whoever wants to read it -- and they are things that people probably didn’t even think about. All you know was what you saw on TV on Sundays. You may not know the roads that were traveled to get there.”

Rhoden’s intriguing examination is an important reminder for those who once thought too little of the struggle to even football’s playing field for blacks. But as players like Steve McNair and Donovan McNabb have helped us move beyond the question, it’s no less meaningful for a new generation who might not be as mindful of what came before.

No comments: