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WILLIAMS: Doing the Job
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HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- In the land of make-believe, just outside the Paramount Studios Theater, there are no theatrics, no flourishes or showmanship, no key grips or gaffers surrounding California interim athletic director Michael Williams.
In a world where the word ‘wrestler’ conjures images of Hulk Hogan and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, back body drops, side walk slams, Mr. Nanny and The Scorpion King, Williams – a former Cal grappler, himself – is concerned with one thing: Doing the job.
In professional (i.e., match results are pre-determined, baby-faces are the good guys, heels are the bad guys, etc.) wrestling, “doing the job,” means to lie down and lose, but that’s not what “doing the job” means to Williams – a former real wrestler, more singlet than single-arm DDT.
“I’m the Athletic Director. I’m doing the job. That’s what the Chancellor asked me to do. It’s not keeping a seat warm. It’s ‘Do the job,’” says Williams, who has signed on for up to a year of being the interim athletic director, as Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and his cabinet search for a full-time replacement for Sandy Barbour.
When Dirks called Williams and asked him to take the reins from Barbour -- which he did on July 15 – Williams was “pleasantly surprised.”
“But,” he says, “when the Chancellor gives you an opportunity to serve the University that way, you don’t say, ‘No.’”
To serve his alma mater, which cut his wrestling program after the 1978-79 season, is the highest calling for Williams, who graduated in 1982 from Cal with a degree in economics.
“It is,” he says. “You don’t say, ‘No.’”
After Dirks tapped Williams, though, he did ask for 24 hours before giving his answer.
“I went home and talked to my wife about it, of course, making sure that she knew that there would be some changes in our lifestyle,” Williams says. “She was supportive, and I let the Chancellor know. But, you don’t say ‘No.’”
What did Williams say ‘Yes’ to? To put it mildly, running a multi-million dollar, Division I athletic department. That includes dealing with personnel matters, like helping the baseball program find a new hitting coach, after letting Tony Arnerich go last month.
“Specific to the coaches, Cal is still a destination,” Williams says. “So, as we have these vacancies, you look at the coaches who are interested in coming to work with our student-athletes, they’re phenomenal talents, so it’s not as though I’m looking at poor choices and making a bad decision. These are all quality, quality people.”
Williams is not a big man – he’s well short of six feet – but it’s easy to see the power in his shoulders, even under a suit and tie in the hot Southern California sun. There’s a quiet determination about the former 142-pound wrestler, who, along with teammates, overcame plenty of challenges on the mat.
“We had a wrestling room, and it was in Harmon. Our locker room was in Harmon. Those facilities were terrible in 1978, so the fact that we were still using them 20 years later is terrible, but it was a great experience,” Williams says. “I think being a student-athlete prepares you so well for challenges in life. I live in Lafayette, and it’s a community that’s kind of run by former Cal student-athletes -- our teachers, my kids’ coaches, the neighbors – so you see on a daily basis the power of the lessons you learn in time management and leadership and discipline and building teams. They’ve really benefitted my kids.”
Williams hasn’t worked an every-day, 9-5 job in years. Over the past several weeks, he’s been putting in far more hours than that, and, he says, he’s gotten to know just about half of the department’s coaches, since summer means a lot of off-campus recruiting trips.
“I wouldn’t say that there’s anything that’s been difficult,” says Williams. “I think the surprise has been how people-intensive the job is. I think, had I sat back and thought about it, intellectually, I would have realized that, with 850 student-athletes, their 30 coaches and staffs, and then all the parents that are involved, that there were going to be a number of people issues at any given time. That’s the surprise. It’s not bad. It’s OK. But, I didn’t really realize how much time I would spend, doing that.”
That requires a lot of running around, figuratively speaking. But, Williams used to run around campus every day, trying every week to make weight.
“My coach at Cal always wanted me to get to 133,” Williams smiles. “But, I naturally weighed 168. I was losing the same 10 pounds every week.”
There was a lot of running, to be sure, and, he says “not eating.”
That coach was the famed Bill Martell, who went on to coach for the United States Olympic wrestling team at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Back when Williams wrestled for Martell, he and his teammates practiced three hours a day, six days a week in a wrestling room in the basement of then-Harmon Gym. (He hasn’t been into the bowels of Haas Pavilion – the facility that evolved from Harmon Gym thanks to renovations in 1999 – to see if that old wrestling room still exists, in some way, but he plans to.)
“Running,” Williams says of his salad days, “was on our own.”
When you have cut weight every week -- pounding the pavement every day, sweating out every ounce your body can muster and pushing to get that last mile in to lose those same 10 pounds -- serving your University isn’t all that onerous, at all. Doing the job, as it were, is anything but difficult, or tiresome.
“I’m probably kidding myself, but I think the fact that it’s a new challenge has made it energizing,” he says. “I haven’t seen it as tiresome, burdensome. It’s new, it’s interesting. A lot of the issues of something as complex as Cal athletics, they happen in the business world, they happen in academics, you’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with budgets, you’re dealing with technology.”
Williams took his MBA at UCLA before embarking on a career in finance, that ended with a 16-year stint at Barclays Global Investors, where he retired in 2009 as vice chair, Capital Markets.
“A lot of the skills have been, for me, have been transferrable,” Williams says.
Also transferrable? The tenacity of a wrestler – the same drive that pushes for one more lap, on more rep and one more decisive move, even when exhausted, pouring sweat, with every muscle burning – has made doing the job perhaps not easy, but at the very least, uplifting.
The tiresome and the burdensome, the tedious and odious, all of that becomes worth it, when, at the end of a period, when your arms and legs are screaming, you can pull a switch, get on top and get the points or the pin.
“I have a brother who also wrestled,” Williams says, “and he’s a captain in the Navy now. He served overseas many, many times. He always says that, once you’ve wrestled, you can do anything. It’s kind of true: Once you’ve wrestled, you can do anything.”
Williams says he has signed on for a year of serving as the interim athletic director. There won’t be someone else in that chair even by the end of football season, in all likelihood The selection process will be long, and it will be detailed, diligence will be done and Williams will likely have at least some say. Even after only a few weeks on the job, he’s learned quite a lot about what will make a good candidate.
“I don’t think we’ve decided what the process is going to be,” Williams cautions. “I certainly will be giving the Chancellor recommendations about what I think the role will require: What are the skills that you really need, and what skills will compliment the rest of Chancellor Dirks’ administration, as he continues to bring athletics and the arts and some of the other parts of campus closer and closer to the academic units. He’ll be looking at his administration, his cabinet, as a team, so what else is he going to need to really exercise and get to his vision?”
The hand-wringing that possessed the Cal community when Dirks was appointed – with his youth spend largely abroad, away from American sports, and, more importantly, collegiate athletics – has largely subsided, in no small part due to the hiring, by Dirks and vice chancellor John Wilton, of head men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin. Williams has a unique insight into how much Dirks truly values college athletics, and wouldn’t have accepted Dirks’ invitation to take the interim job had he felt Dirks wasn’t serious about the role of the department in achieving the mission of the University. He was, after all, at the time of his appointment, the Vice Chair of the UC Berkeley Foundation, has sat on the Chancellor’s Task Force on Academics and Athletics, and sits on the Advisory Board for Cal’s Division of Equity and Inclusion.
“First of all, I think he loves sports,” Williams says. “He was a regular at Cal football games last fall. He has told me that one of his greatest memories of his time at Michigan was walking in and seeing 110,000 people and feeling the power that you get when you get that many alumni, that many friends, that many family together in one place, at one time, for four hours. I think he gets it. I know that he wants to make sure that, in that context, we do not lose sight of the ‘student’ in student-athlete. It’s Cal. We can do both. It’s not going to be a challenge.
“I can tell you, I was not part of the process in hiring the basketball coach, but in my early estimation, they did a phenomenal job in Cuonzo Martin. He is someone who has not only demonstrated success on the basketball court, with his Sweet 16 last year, but he really seems to be a leader and builder of young men, and if we step back and we think about what it is we are really in, we are really in the education business. We are really transforming an older child into a young adult, and Cuonzo seems excellent in that role. Whatever the process was, I think they found a winner.”
As for his predecessor’s last major hire, football head coach Sonny Dykes?
“First off, I like Sonny,” says Williams. “I like working with him. He’s done a phenomenal job of reaching out to me and making sure that I understand what’s going on with this program. One of the things I think we should all have noticed about Sonny is that there is no complaining, and there are no excuses. He came into a very challenging situation. I’ve seen a tremendous – I don’t want to use the word ‘upgrade’ – but I’ve seen more and more of his players and student-athletes are exactly the kind of person we are proud of at Cal. He’s done a fantastic job of turning around the academic performance of his players, and he talks very, very optimistically about the talent he has. I think he can’t wait to see them on the field. I can’t wait to see them on the field.”
Dykes, of course, went 1-11 in his first season, but raised the football team’s single-year Academic Progress Rate number from 923 (last in the Pac-12) to 969 (second). With a new athletic director set to take over at some point, Dykes could be excused any concern he could have with job security.
“My job, the way I was hired was, ‘Look, you need to fix the academics,’ which I think we’ve fixed pretty quickly,” Dykes said. “Then, you’ve got to win football games. We’ve already made tremendous strides in one, and I think that Year Two, we’ll make tremendous strides in Part Two. I don’t worry about stuff I can’t control.
“I have enough to worry about, things that I can control, where I can’t worry about stuff I can’t control,” Dykes said. “Mike will do a great job. Mike understands Cal. He gets it. He’s a former student-athlete. He’s a very smart man. He’ll make very thoughtful decisions. I have a lot of faith in John Wilton, Vice Chancellor, when they decide to hire somebody. I think they’ll hire the best athletic director in the country, I really do. I think you just move forward. It’s not an ideal situation, maybe, but it’s out of my hands. I’ve got a lot of faith in Chancellor Dirks and John Wilton and everybody associated with Cal athletics. I’m really excited about the future.”
In working closely with Dirks, and in his transition into the job, Williams has quickly learned what type of person it will take in order to lead the University of California Department of Intercollegiate Athletics into the future.
“What is clear is that the ability to fundraise is important,” Williams says. “What is also clear is that it’s the ability to start thinking about what the future looks like. College athletics is at such a crossroads, and there are a number of paths you can end up going down. I think leadership is going to have to be strategic and flexible and kind of prepared to turn on a dime pretty quickly, if things go a different direction.”
One of the criticisms of the department under former athletic director Sandy Barbour was its unwieldy bureaucracy, it’s noted inability to be nimble enough to quickly adapt to changing situations and adherence to preconceived notions, such as there not being donor support to save the various programs cut in September of 2010, but then saved nine months later thanks to grassroots fundraising efforts.
Does the athletic department have to transform, or is it already at that point?
“I think it’s already on its way there,” says Williams. “I do think, though, that, again, the concept of the chancellor and the important administrators around him, they’re going to have to be, if they’re thinking five years ahead for the rest of the campus, we’re also going to have to make sure that Athletics is helping them think about the challenges and the opportunities that are five years ahead.”
Until that individual is identified and hired, though, Williams will continue to grind away, to grapple with whatever problems arise, and simply to do the job.
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