BERKELEY -- When California chancellor Nicholas Dirks initially appointed Mike Williams as the interim Athletic Director, he “had no expectations” that the former Cal wrestler would wind up as the man who wound up with the job.
As expected as far back as a month ago, Williams was in fact the man for the job, in large part due to the fact that the past 10 months of his tenure have been the least eventful 10 months that the University of California, Berkeley, Department of Intercollegiate Athletics has faced in years.
“I didn’t seek this out. He came to me, and at the time, I didn’t really intend to really pursue sports administration as the next step in my career,” said Williams. “There were another whole set of opportunities and challenges ahead of me, and again, I’m still vice chair of the UC Berkeley Foundation, so that was what I was looking ahead to.”
Only two months into the job, Williams began to get the itch, and the feeling that the job may wind up becoming home for him. He didn’t need the money, after a successful career in finance, and in fact was already donating his salary back to campus. What he enjoyed more than anything were the people.
“What changed was the people,” Williams said. “I learned very quickly that this is a people business. It’s about our staff, it’s about our coaches, it’s about the student-athletes that those coaches bring in and coach up and graduate as full, participating adults. Frankly, all those other opportunities that faced me didn’t have the same emotional award.”
That, and he started getting a lot of Bear hugs, and what wrestler doesn’t like a good bear hug?
“I can’t remember which game it was, but it was one of the games in the middle of our football season, we had a defensive lineman named Austin Clark,” Williams began. “Austin is too short, he’s too slow, he had to overcome significant medical issues to get back on the field, and after every game, Austin would come give me the biggest, sweatiest, bloodiest, nastiest hug, and you just don’t get that anywhere else. That type of experience really made me realize that it’s kind of the only place you’ll get something like that.”
Clark – now a recruiting assistant for the football program – was just one of the reasons why Williams realized he wanted to keep serving his alma mater.
“When people follow an athletic program for a long time,” said head football coach Sonny Dykes, “and they have a different role, like Mike did, all of the sudden, you’re immersed in the program. He had a chance to see it from a coach’s and a student-athlete’s perspective, instead of from a fan’s perspective. It’s a whole different view on the program, and I think people are surprised how committed everybody is, and how much work is involved, that goes into having a successful program, and how excited everybody is when you have success.”
Another reason Williams took the job was standing in the back of the room – National Swimmer of the Year Missy Franklin.
“I was in North Carolina with our women’s swim team, and after almost drowning in the pool after winning the national championship, I was on the pool deck, and Missy Franklin had just finished an interview, and she looked over and saw me, and Jenny Simon-O’Neill, our SWA [senior women’s administrator], and she looked at us and said, ‘I haven’t hugged you yet!’” Williams said. “Again, getting the sweaty bearhug from the greatest female athlete in the world, you just can’t get that everywhere. I got a little bit greedy for those experiences.”
Williams set forth his immediate priorities, which included capital projects, student-athlete integration into the larger campus (by way of non-segregated housing, inclusion in summer orientation and other programs) and cost of attendance for student-athletes, an issue that’s been at the forefront of NCAA reform.
“We haven’t announced any cost-of-attendance figures yet; we do intend to implement cost of attendance, and will continue working with our financial model and make some recommendations to the chancellor, there,” Williams said. “My immediate priorities are to fill a couple of key spots that I know we haven’t been able to fill with the interim title.”
Williams said that there are “a couple” associate athletic director positions he’s hoping to fill, now that he’s officially the head of the department.
“It will be much easier,” he said. “You can give someone assurances that the direction that the program is in, will stay that way, but people are not going to change their lives for assurances.”
As Dirks worked through the process, he realized that, if Williams wanted the job on a more permanent basis, he was the man Dirks wanted for the job.
“It’s enormously complicated to deal with both the kinds of financial issues that we’re dealing with, the surrounding legal environment that college athletics is increasingly a part of, and needed to deal with some of the things that we’ve been challenged with – the further integration and connectivity between our athletic department and the rest of the University,” said Dirks.
Of course, Williams had a lengthy – and lucrative -- career in finance, which informs the way he goes about the business of collegiate athletics.
“We want to continue to develop our culture of philanthropy. We want to engage our donors and our faculty, and make sure they understand our priorities, and the collaborative effort that is going to be necessary to make this all work,” said Williams. “We will continue to look at new ways to generate revenue from new or existing facilities and programs, and make sure that we are looking at that side of the business of Cal Athletics.”
Some of those new ways include leveraging field and facility naming rights, which is already being investigated for baseball. Additionally, Williams has a stated goal of getting as many scholarships endowed as possible. Currently, Cal has 150 scholarships fully or partially endowed, and a total of 279 full scholarships for the 2014-15 academic year.
“We have established very clear fundraising priorities for Cal Athletics. We want to continue focusing on student-athlete scholarships. That allows us to provide the educational opportunity for so many of our student-athletes,” Williams said during his introductory remarks. Following the presser, he expanded on those comments, in light of what happened in September of 2010, when the previous athletic administration attempted to cut five varsity sports due to financial concerns.
“We’re not looking to change the scope of our athletic program, right now,” said Williams. “But, what we are looking to do is make sure we get significant donor engagement with our programs, starting with scholarships for the student-athletes. That’s always going to be the most important.”
Williams’s finance background makes him now one of seven Pac-12 athletic directors with what were termed “non-traditional backgrounds,” which is to say, not coming from athletic administration in their previous jobs.
“I don’t have any thoughts [on why there are so many], but I can tell you that I just came back from Phoenix, and the Pac-12 Meetings, and the conversations are pretty robust around all kinds of issues associated with the business of college sports, and the business of college as an institution,” Williams said. “I think having this mix of attorneys, people with financial backgrounds, people with professional sports backgrounds, has allowed the Pac-12 to be an innovator in college sports. I don’t know why, but I can tell you that it leads to a very rich discussion and some very deep thinking about where we’re at.”
Also at those Pac-12 meetings was Bears head basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, who was in the front row for Williams’s official appointment, along with women’s head basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb and Dykes.
“Mike had a really good time traveling with our football team this fall, with his family,” Dykes said. “It was great to get to know him and [his wife] Jeanne and the kids and everybody. They’re good people. They’re people who love this University and care about it, and they care about our student-athletes. I think that’s important. We had a good time.”
Williams was a fixture at football practice all of last season, as was his son, Stephen. He thanked Dykes for allowing his son to be a part of the experience, and laughingly put a bit of pressure on the third-year head coach.
“I can’t talk about them,” Williams smiled when asked about his relationships with Martin and Dykes. “They’re sitting right there.”
Taking on a more serious tone, Williams said, “I’m obviously very excited about both of those programs, and about the future of those two programs, both in the new year, and in the long term. The welcome that coach Dykes gave me when I first took this seat last June was extraordinary. He invited me to be a full part in the program from Day One. He and I had quite a ride together last year, when we sat down in December and talked about the year that we had just completed.
“One of the things I said to Sonny was, I look forward to seeing where this ride’s going to take us. I love his players. His style is obviously very entertaining. He has told me, from Day One, that the third year is the great year on the Sonny Dykes system, so I’m looking forward to the third year.”
“He wants to see things done the right way,” said Dykes, who’s first recruiting class back in 2013 saw 77% of incoming athletes meet the raised admissions standards for student-athletes, with a stated goal of 80% being established after the class was signed.
“That’s what attracted me to Cal, initially, was that it’s a university that wants to be great at everything,” Dykes said. “The student-athlete experience, academics and success on the field are all really important to him. It’s certainly not that way at every university across the country. That’s what attracted me to Cal, and that’s Mike’s vision, as well. We’re certainly on the same wavelength.
“We communicate a lot, because that’s incredibly important,” Dykes continued. “We’ve got to be on the same page. He has a unique understanding of this University, having served in a lot of different capacities, and a lot of different roles. There’s a learning curve everywhere, but it’s probably a little larger learning curve here.”
Turning to the basketball court, Williams referenced the signings of top-five prospects Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, as well as the hiring of Wyking Jones and the return of Tyrone Wallace for his senior year.
“Cuonzo has brought something to Cal that we have not had in years and years and years – he’s made men’s basketball relevant in the months of April and May,” Williams said. “Cuonzo, to me, is not just a great coach – he came off a Sweet 16 appearance – and he’s not just a great recruiter; he’s a great leader and developer of men. He’s made some very significant contributions to the campus, in how we think about growing a student-athlete. His talk about family, his talk about respect, resonates all across this campus. I’m really proud to be a part of Cal men’s basketball right now.”
Martin, for his part, spoke with a select cadre of media in his office following the press conference.
“I’m happy for Mike,” Martin said. “It’s a great opportunity. He’s a wonderful man and has done a great job in the business world. I’m happy for him, I’m happy for the University, I’m happy for the Athletic Department. He understands the blueprint of California, going to school here, being around for years.”
The $10 million renovation to Haas Pavilion – which, by the end of the summer, will have state-of-the-art acoustics and a center-hung scoreboard (the first supporting beam of which was raised into position on Friday) – was a centerpiece of Williams’s remarks. He anticipates that the project will be finished by the time Rich Feller’s women’s volleyball team starts practice in August.
The renovations to Haas, as well as the completion of the Lower Sproul redevelopment, Williams said, should help to integrate the arena into campus life, and therefore, the student-athletes and the programs headquartered on the western edge of campus. For Martin and his group of stars, that could mean higher attendance at games, as the Bears look to return to the postseason.
“We have a great relationship,” Martin said. “I’m doing my job, he’s doing his job, so it’s not like we sit down and talk every day, because he’s running every sport. He’s the CEO of every individual sport. He has to do his job and make sure that every program is successful. He stops by practice, goes to games, brings his family around, so he’s always a part of our program. But, like every athletic director, he has to run a corporation so to speak, and that’s what he’s doing.”