Mike Williams is just getting off a practice field in early June, still settling in as head coach of the Van Nuys High School football team in suburban Los Angeles and preparing for his first season, but he’s high on his new team.
“It’s the best group I’ve coached overall,” Williams says. “I've been at schools where we've had talent and speed and 300-pound-plus linemen, but the kids were ... you had to chase them to get them to practice or go get them from the park. The commitment wasn't quite there. Where I'm at now, I've got a bunch of kids who show up early, and they stay late.”
It’s classic coachspeak, but if you know anything about Williams's NFL career, the image of him as a head coach at any level, saying all the right things, may elicit a double-take.
Wait—Mike Williams, former first-round pick known best for temporarily eating himself out of the league, is a head coach at any level?! Yes, the receiver whose late-career resurgence with the Seahawks could only partially salvage his reputation has become an interesting example of just how far a football life can come, 10 years after his fate was sealed as a high-profile draft bust.
Williams was a legitimate star at USC, amassing 176 catches for 2,579 yards and 30 touchdowns over two seasons, but he was ruled ineligible for his junior season after declaring for the 2004 NFL draft as a true sophomore in an attempt to follow the lead of Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett. After sitting out a year and being selected by the Lions with the 10th pick in the ’05 draft, he came into the NFL unprepared for the rigors of the pro game, and it didn't help that Detroit was in complete organizational disarray at the time.
In two years with the Lions, Williams started a grand total of six games, catching 37 passes for 479 yards and two touchdowns for three different head coaches, three different offensive coordinators and four different quarterbacks. He was traded to the Raiders on the first day of the 2007 draft, but he was cut seven games into that season after a crucial drop cost Oakland a game against the Titans. Those same Titans signed Williams a month later, but by that time he had gained too much weight to overlook, and he was released the next summer, before the 2008 season.
That was the last anyone in the NFL saw of Mike Williams for two years.
“It was a bunch of bad factors all working together,” he says. “It was a recipe for disaster. I spent a year sitting out, losing the structure of football. And I wasn't the best about being a pro. I was learning how to be a pro, but I wasn't being taught how to be a pro.”
It took Pete Carroll, his head coach at USC, to give him a shot at redemption. Carroll took the Seahawks job in 2010 and needed a veteran who understood his motivational tactics and could explain them to what was going to be a very young team. Moreover, since the Seattle team Carroll inherited was almost completely bereft of high-caliber talent, Williams might just have a shot to make it back the right way and rebuild some goodwill with the game in the process.
“I'm not trying to point the finger or place the blame, but I remember what I was like in Seattle,” he says. “I remember how important it was to help show other guys the ropes. And I just think that was the element of my experience in the beginning that I had to learn the hard way. Before, I felt that people were out to get me. So, there was backlash and resistance when that set in, and I felt like I was under fire.”
He had slimmed down to 230 pounds from as high as 286 and was ready for the challenge, but in truth, it was Carroll's pitch that sealed the deal. Carroll and Williams had a few testy back-and-forths when Williams first declared for the draft (Carroll's staff reportedly told NFL teams that Williams slacked off with the Trojans; Williams responded by claiming Carroll ran an 'undisciplined' program), but Carroll knew what Williams had put himself through in the ensuing years, and he was stinging from his own USC scandal.
Maybe they could turn things around together in a new city.
When Williams arrived in Seattle in 2010, he wasn’t assured a chance to stick around just because he had a history of working with Carroll.
“That's standard Pete—he didn't promise me anything. And I was like, do I want to go somewhere else and try something with a new group of people, or try it with someone who's familiar with me? So I hit the ground, and everything started happening."
Williams made the team and was a Week 1 starter for the first time in his NFL career. Thinner, in better shape and more focused than he'd been at any point since his USC days, he caught 65 passes for 751 yards and two touchdowns in 2010—by far his best professional season. Moreover, and more importantly to his future, he became a valued mentor to younger receivers like Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, the kind of mentor he never had as a young pro. In a game against the Rams, Baldwin was having serious trouble with the St. Louis defense, and it was Williams, not receivers coach Kippy Brown, who set him straight at halftime. After just one catch for four yards in the first half, Baldwin had four catches for 67 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
Williams helped his younger teammates even as age and injury started to catch up with him. Too soon, he was on the wrong side of the age curve, and he retired from the game after catching just 18 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown in 2011. It wasn't the career he had envisioned, but he was able to prove a few things to himself on the way out.
"For me, it was a big deal in Seattle, because I was only out to prove I was worthy to be an NFL player,” Williams says. “There were so many questions—so many what-ifs and why-nots—and when I was named a starter, that was the first step to answering those questions.”
Biggest NFL draft busts of the modern era
Biggest NFL Draft Busts of the Modern Era
“There's a million kids who want to be NFL players. That dream is not as realistic as you want to dream.”
Once he retired, Williams was able to pursue the career he always envisioned he’d end up having.
"I always wanted to be a coach,” he says. “I was going to be a high-school teacher and a football coach. USC and the NFL just kinda happened—that all became extra. There's a million kids who want to be NFL players. That dream is not as realistic as you want to dream. So, my goal was always something more attainable, and I'm living the dream now."
Williams relays his own mistakes to the players he now coaches—there's no way he could avoid the past and still be totally transparent with his team. More than an inspirational device, the stories give him a new sense of gravity that guides him every day. The Williams who busted his ass on the Seattle practice field half a decade ago to earn the trust of Carroll and the Seahawks is very much evident now as he tries to mold his own team full of hard workers. He has a new appreciation for the coaches who were the hardest on him, like Mike Martz, who was his offensive coordinator in Detroit in 2006.
"It's weird, because the coaches I hated the most in my career, I'm more like them," Williams says. "I'm more like Mike Martz than I am Pete Carroll. Not schematically, but in terms of attention to detail—if you don't do it right every time, it doesn't matter. All the stuff I used to hate about Martz, that's exactly how I am.
"And surprisingly enough, I hate throwing the ball. I will run the ball 50 times and throw it five as a coach."
Well, that last part sounds more like Carroll's ideology. Carroll offered positives references during Williams’s search for work as a coach, and though the two men haven't seen each other since Williams retired in 2011, Williams feels Carroll's influence more on a personal level: the consistent day-to-day philosophy, mixing fun and discipline for his players, protecting a brand.
"He's a really gifted player, and a really good all-around athlete,” Carroll says. “And the fact that he's such a good communicator—I think he can convey the messages that are so important, and how things work. I think he's been coached pretty well, and he's got a good background in the fundamentals. So much of this teaching is being able to communicate with these guys. Particularly with kids, and that's where he is, I think he'll do a really good job."
Williams has another USC holdover on his current staff—Norm Chow, who was his offensive coordinator in college, and in Tennessee. The Titans signed Williams on Chow's recommendation, and after Chow was fired by Hawaii in November, he was available to help his former protégé. Though he holds the offensive coordinator title, Chow is more an advisor in emeritus—the retired coach helps as much as is needed. ("He's more like a Hawaiian consultant, if you will,” Williams says.) More than a sideline role, Chow fulfills a mentor's capacity that Williams and his staff find essential.
"He's always been somebody I could depend on, whenever I had a question or I wanted to reach out about doing something different, coaching-wise," Williams said. "What does he think about running the practice like this? How does he teach his quarterbacks to not look at the ground in their drops? All these things he knows through 40 years of coaching. Even when I was playing, he was always encouraging. He always knew I was going to coach, so he would tell me, 'Hey, when you're coaching, and I'm done coaching, I'm going to help you out as much as I can.'"
Williams had Chow down as one of his references, and when Van Nuys called Chow, he said that if Williams was hired, he'd be happy to join the staff.
When he first made the transition to coaching, Williams started small. He coached a middle-school team in the Compton/Watts area in 2012 and ’13, then moved to a school in the posh L.A. suburb of Brentwood the next year. There, he said, things weren't as familiar.
"With the manicured facilities and the multi-million-dollar pool, and Kanye West showing up at the high school basketball games, I was in that environment for a little bit,” he says. “And I'm like, 'Man, I'm not needed here. There's no need here. These kids are fun and great, and it's cool to teach them football, but this is not where I feel I'm making the most impact.'"
So, in 2015, he took the head coach job at Locke High School, which opened in the aftermath of the racially charged 1965 Watts riots. It was his first opportunity to be a high school coach, and he saw the differences between coaching at this level and working with his old running mates in the NFL. Locke had to forfeit a game in October because it didn’t have enough players.
“The cups are a little more empty, so there's a lot more to teach these kids.”
In late March, he left Locke for the head job at Van Nuys, in the San Fernando Valley. Now Williams has full days regardless of the time of year. He's balancing morning classes at USC and Santa Monica City College—he estimates that he'll graduate with a degree in sociology in the spring of 2017— and then rushing off to try and improve a team that finished 2–9 last season. It's a daunting task, but after all he's been through in his own life, Williams is nothing but optimistic and grateful for the level of the game he’s found a home in.
"Right now, I'm happy with where I'm at,” he says. “The cups are a little more empty, so there's a lot more to teach these kids. The higher you go up, the more the cup fills up—college kids are thinking about getting drafted. The pro guys? They're already pro guys, and they think they know it all already. I've been a pro guy, so I understand what that's like. I'm definitely not in a hurry to do all that."
Williams has been quoted as saying that he'd love to be USC's head coach down the road, but he backs off that idea when it is brought up again.
"I love what [current USC head] coach [Clay] Helton is about. The SC job, that's the last thing I'm thinking about. I'm just focused on being the best coach I can be. The more I focus on that, the better. Because if I do get a good situation and I'm not ready for it, I won't be able to maximize the opportunity. Would I want to coach in college someday? Yes. I think that's where it stops. I think college would be the highest level I'd go. But that's all in time. If I coach high school for the next 25 years, that ain't gonna be too bad, either."
And if the NFL comes calling, Williams would not be inclined to answer. At least for now, he's far more interested in giving players formative lessons—perhaps to make up for the lessons he didn't heed in his own career.
“I've been an NFL player, and those dudes are a--holes in the meeting rooms!" he says with a boisterous laugh. “At the high-school level, they're just starting to figure things out. Not even about football, but about life. The doors are just starting to open up."
That seems to be an accurate description of Mike Williams today. With missteps and lost opportunities lining his football past, he's making the most of the path he always wanted to take.