ARLINGTON, TEXAS – Nataly Williams can’t lose on Thursday. Even her father said so. She’s both an Alabama graduate and the newest Spartan Fund employee.
Dad is Crimson Tide assistant coach Bobby Williams. And despite the unceremonious way his tenure as Michigan State’s head coach ended, his family remains true to the roots they established in East Lansing over more than a decade.
“I root for the Spartans quite a bit,” said 57-year-old Williams, who was MSU’s head coach from 2000 to 2002. “Just quietly.”
Williams openly and pensively reflected on his 13 years with the Spartans during Tuesday’s Cotton Bowl Classic media day at AT&T Stadium. Time has healed many of the wounds inflicted on his family with how it all ended. The devastating losses. The problems with players. The soundbite that proved his undoing.
The leadup to Thursday’s College Football Playoff semifinal between the Spartans and Crimson Tide has offered them another chance at remembering the good times and friends from MSU.
“How it ended, I understand the politics and stuff that goes on, and I still can’t comprehend it,” his wife, Sheila, said. “But I became really OK with it once the Dantonios got the head coaching position. They are good, good people. … Closure for me was when (Mark Dantonio) got that head coaching position.”
From good to bad
Williams is completing his eighth year as tight ends and special teams coach on Nick Saban’s Alabama staff. Williams spent 13 years at MSU under George Perles and Saban before becoming head coach when Saban left for Louisiana State at the end of the 1999 regular season.
All of Saban’s assistants remained with Williams through the bowl game, including Mark Dantonio. Williams led the Spartans to a win over Florida in the Citrus Bowl to close out that season after players petitioned then-MSU president Peter McPherson to give him the job.
“Everybody loved (Williams). They thought he was a good coach, they thought he was a good person,” said former player Lorenzo Guess, who is now MSU’s assistant strength and conditioning coach. “Everybody believed in him, so we pushed for him. And it went through and actually happened.”
The Spartans had some success under Williams, most notably the last-second win over Michigan in 2001. They went 7-5 that year and won the Silicon Valley Football Classic.
But the defining moment of his term, which led to his termination, came after the U-M game the next year. MSU suffered a 49-3 loss at Michigan. When asked if he had lost control of his team, Williams responded, “I don’t know.” Players had been suspended earlier in the season. Another was arrested that night after the loss. The fan backlash was venomous.
Two days later, on Nov. 4, 2002, then-athletic director Ron Mason fired Williams with three games left in a 4-8 season. His overall record was 16-17.
Williams gave a long pause when asked what went wrong.
“Man, it’s hard for me to look back 15 years and go and say, ‘What if?’ and all this and all that,” he said later. “I can’t function by looking backward, you know what I’m saying? Everything has been going forward.”
Moving ahead was tough on the family, too. East Lansing was the only home his daughter Nataly and son Nicholas had known. Williams spent a year with the Detroit Lions as wide receivers coach, then joined his former boss Saban on the LSU staff in 2004.
He called his life since “a pretty good adventure.” Players from every stop in his 28 years of coaching reach out to him and thank them for making them better men, Sheila said.
“As a wife, we always look at the emotional part of it – that’s my husband, that’s my kid,” she said. “But he’s a football coach. He always continued to have the standard and the integrity that he brings as a person. I think that’s what the reward is.”
Williams helped Saban capture his first national championship in 2004 as associate head coach and wide receivers coach with the Tigers. When Saban left for the Miami Dolphins, Williams followed him to the South Beach for two seasons. Three months after Saban returned to college football at Alabama, the Dolphins fired Williams.
“It was something I’d always wanted to do, and I got an opportunity to do it,” said Williams, who called working in the NFL “a really great experience.”
Saban came calling again in 2008. Alabama’s special teams needed help. He called his trusted friend. They reunited and have delivered two national titles and three Southeastern Conference championships since.
“Sometimes when you have guys that have been there for such a long time, they have a really good understanding of what you’re expectation is for what they need to do. That helps affect other people on your staff as well,” Saban said Tuesday. “And Bobby’s always done a great job in that regard.”
The Williams family also has maintained close relationships with a number of people in MSU’s football family. Dantonio was a graduate assistant at Purdue during Williams’ final season as a player in 1981. Bobby and Mark exchange text messages after big wins, and their wives do the same.
Williams’ family is tight with MSU co-offensive coordinator Jim Bollman and strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie, both of whom were on Saban’s staff. MSU quarterbacks coach Brad Salem was a graduate assistant alongside Williams from 1994 to 1996. The Williamses also remain friends with Tom and Lupe Izzo.
“Of all the places I’ve been, Michigan State is the most family-oriented,” Sheila said. “They have a different kind of spirit, a sincere spirit. All those years we’ve been gone, we still stay connected.”
There also is an actual family connection. Williams’ nephew is Spartans freshman defensive back Tyson Smith. His Alabama players were stunned at how many people knew Williams during a combined event earlier this week.
“You know, there’s a lot of guys on our team sitting around here that didn’t know I was the head coach at Michigan State,” Williams said with a laugh. “They were like, ‘Hey, coach, these folks really care about you, huh?’ I was like, well, I did spend 13 years there.”
Williams glowed when talking about how Dantonio has turned the Spartans around.
“I always knew that university had the potential to be this type of program,” Williams said. “And Mark has done a great job, so I’m very happy for him and proud, because I had an opportunity to work with him.”
Nataly began her job with the Spartan Fund in December. Sheila already had been back to Spartan Stadium last year, when Nicholas – who played football at Alabama – made his coaching debut as Jacksonville State’s wide receivers and special teams coach.
For 364 days a year, Williams wants MSU to succeed. Just not New Year’s Eve. But both he and Saban know exactly what they are up against this week to move on in the playoffs.
They want to keep looking ahead, and not toward their past.
“We respect Michigan State. They’ve done a tremendous job. They are a different team than they were five years ago when we played them,” Williams said. “They are very capable of playing for a national championship and winning a national championship. I think the four teams that are in it are all capable of (winning).”