BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Asked why he returned to coach football at his alma mater, Alabama’s Bear Bryant is famously supposed to have replied: “Mama called.”
For Doug Williams, his whirlwind return to Grambling was for similar reasons.
“I always feel responsible for Grambling because Grambling was good to me,” Williams said as he faced a barrage of interviews Tuesday at SWAC football media day. “I hope that by coming back I’m giving back.”
The Zachary native was set to take a front office job with the Washington Redskins - the franchise he led to victory in Super Bowl XXII with a virtuoso MVP performance - when former Grambling coach Rod Broadway abruptly resigned on Feb. 3 to become head coach at North Carolina A&T.
Almost immediately, Williams said, his phone started ringing. At the other end of the line were a string of other former Grambling football greats.
“When the Willie Browns of the world and Willie Davis and James Harris start calling you, wanting to know if you’d go back, you have to look at it,” Williams said. “It’s Grambling, and if not for Grambling, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Williams went back to Grambling once, in 1998, when he succeeded his former coach, Hall of Famer Eddie Robinson.
Williams stayed five seasons - leading the Tigers to consecutive Southwestern Athletic Conference titles from 2000-02.
He left them to rejoin the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - the team that picked him 17th in the first round of the 1978 NFL draft - taking a job in the club’s personnel department. By 2009, he was Tampa Bay’s director of professional scouting before he took a turn in 2010 as general manager of the Virginia Destroyers in the fledgling UFL.
With the UFL on shaky ground going into 2011, Williams was headed back to Washington when Broadway bailed out.
The chance to return to Grambling and to coach his son D.J., a freshman quarterback, was too much to pass up.
“At this stage in my life, I looked at it as a chance to go back home,” said Williams, who turns 56 next month. “My mom is 81 and she still enjoys coming to games. I get to coach my son. I had two brothers and two daughters graduate from Grambling.
“It’s a family affair. It was easy going back.”
There are question marks. They start at quarterback, where D.J. Williams and a fellow freshman named Frank Rivers are the only options (D.J. participated in spring ball while Rivers did not).
“When you ain’t got but two eggs to put in the cornbread you’ve got to put them in there,” Williams said with a hearty laugh. “That’s all I’ve got.”
Williams said his son knows better than to expect preferential treatment.
“Me and D.J. sat down and had a talk and I told him, ?There’ll be a time when I’ll be dad and there’ll be a time when I’ll be coach,’” Williams recalled. “He said, ?Dad, I understand that.’
“He knows a lot of people will put him under the microscope. He has to worry about doing what he’s capable of doing and not worry about what I did.”
Dressed all in tan, as though he were preparing for a safari rather than a football season, Williams was the picture of laid-back calm during his many interviews Tuesday, the picture of a man comfortable in his element.
Perhaps it’s partly because he has a team good enough to be picked to win the SWAC Western Division, a far cry from the first time he took over at Grambling when the Tigers were coming off back-to-back 3-8 seasons.
“I don’t care who would have come to Grambling (to coach), they would have been picked to win it,” Williams said. “It’s always good to be picked, but we also know that there’s a target on our back. There’s somebody laying in the bushes for you every week.
“It helps us to prepare if we realize that if people think highly of us we have to go out and perform highly.”
It may be an apt metaphor for the third act of the Doug Williams era at Grambling.