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On a muggy July evening, Gregg Williams works his way through a crowd huddled in a ballroom at the historic Elms Hotel in Excelsior Springs, MO. Amidst a hectic schedule that's about to lead to his third consecutive 21-hour workday, there's no sign of energy loss as he grabs handshakes and pats on the back while moving to the front of the room to welcome his guests.
A Central Missouri alumnus, Williams returns to his hometown every year to well-deserved adoration. The residents of this mostly rural community have watched him grow from a shining high school and college athlete to one of today's greatest defensive masterminds in the National Football League. Not only is he assistant head coach-defense of the Washington Redskins, but someone who gives back to his community through projects such as the annual Gregg Williams Tiger Classic.
"I can't tell you how proud I am to come back to Excelsior Springs once a year for this week's activity," Williams says during a brief break from his duties as evening emcee and host. "I'm sure there will be some other places on the road before I hang my cleats up, but I don't care where I go, I will always be a Tiger."
Williams established the Tiger Classic after forming a philanthropic foundation in December 2004. The classic offers four days of activities, ranging from a charity auction and coach/youth clinics to a golf tournament that often attracts pro athletes and other celebrities. Through such activities, the Gregg Williams Foundation provides support and funding for local school programs, helps youth and provides funds to improve the community he loves.
Although many professional athletes and coaches are involved in philanthropic projects, most of them initiate those activities in the cities where their teams are headquartered. For Williams, charity begins at home.
"I may move around from city to city, but you know what, Excelsior Springs will always be my home," he says. "There are some community members who did some very special things for me when I was growing up here. They made me feel like I was a part of their family, even when I came back and coached and taught high school. So I thought what better place to dedicate my spare time…contributing to the future and the kids here in Excelsior Springs."
Since its inception, his foundation has raised more than $200,000 to help support projects like the purchase of new exercise and weight room equipment for the high school. It also has made contributions toward a new fitness center, new scoreboards, a robotics team, latchkey program, practice field irrigation system, college scholarships and much more. Those who benefit the most are encouraged to get involved.
As Williams says, "We think it's important for kids to understand that things don't come free in this world. If you need help, we'll be here to help you and provide the labor, but come and be a contributor."
Long before Williams contributed to philanthropic causes and made his mark in the NFL, he was a record-breaking athlete at Excelsior Springs High School. He excelled in basketball, baseball and football prior to graduating in 1976. The school's 2006 Hall of Fame inductee still holds Excelsior's single season passing record in football and single game scoring record of 44 points in basketball.
"You could tell early on that he would make a great coach," says Mike Davidson. The 1972 UCM graduate and State Farm corporate executive coached and taught at Excelsior Springs when Williams was a student. "He had great instincts in every sport he played and when you add in the time he took to study the game, it all added up to a pretty tough combination for the opponents to handle."
Being in a position to help his community has required both a good education and timely opportunities.
One of the first stops in Williams' professional coaching career began at the same school where his young athletic interest blossomed. He coached and taught at Excelsior Springs from 1980-1983 after completing a bachelor's degree in education in 1979 at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State) in Kirksville.
Gregg Nesbitt, UCM Mules' co-defensive coordinator, was Williams' college roommate. Not surprised by his friend's success, he says Williams "epitomized what a 'student'/athlete should look like in a university setting. He was an extremely dedicated and talented athlete who was an even better student," Nesbitt recalls.
"Gregg has a 'gifted' memory and even as an undergraduate was extremely organized and paid great attention to detail both on the field and in the classroom," Nesbitt adds.
Williams played both football and baseball at Truman. One of his strongest college memories was his last at bat — during a game in Warrensburg, a Mules' outfielder robbed him of a game-winning grand slam.
Williams came back to Central Missouri in the mid-1980s for a master's degree in education. One of his favorite professors was longtime Mules baseball coach, the late Robert Tompkins.
"I went to summer school and took evening and weekend classes. I remember how giving and caring all the advisers and academic people were. They were very special people," he says.
Williams considered earning a Ph.D. and pursuing a career in higher education until a rare opportunity occurred.
After coaching four years at Belton High School, he was hired in 1988 as a graduate assistant at the University of Houston under Jack Pardee. When Pardee became coach of the Houston Oilers in 1990, Williams joined him as the team's first defensive quality control coordinator. The next move up the NFL ladder was as the Oilers' special teams coach. In 1993 Williams' unit had the top-rated punting game and was ranked sixth in the NFL in kickoff return defense. He spent the next three years as linebackers coach.
|"Sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time to get an opportunity to show what you know. If I didn’t belong, I wouldn’t be here. you have to understand that every day is an interview. I have to compete for my job every single day because a lot of people would like to have my job." — Gregg Williams '87|
When the Oilers moved to Nashville, Williams served for four seasons as defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, a team which went on to play in Super Bowl XXXIV. His unit in 2000 led the league in total defense and allowed the third fewest points in the NFL since the league adopted a 16-game schedule in 1978. His finely tuned defense also set franchise records for sacks and for fewest passing yards and touchdowns allowed.
Williams' coaching prowess didn't go unnoticed by other teams. He began the 2001 season as head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Although the offense often struggled, his defensive and special teams were ranked in 2003 among NFL's top-five in nine categories.
When renowned head coach Joe Gibbs joined the Washington Redskins, he called on Williams to help build his team into a defensive powerhouse. Williams accepted that challenge in 2004. The opportunity has made him the highest paid defensive coordinator in the NFL, and, what many believe, a strong candidate to succeed Gibbs. The opportunity comes with a lot of pressure — even for an overachiever like Williams.
"I know a lot of people out there must say, 'Boy, is he lucky,'" he says, as the conversation takes a more serious tone. "Sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time to get an opportunity to show what you know. If I didn't belong, I wouldn't be here. You have to understand that everyday is an interview. I have to compete for my job every single day because a lot of people would like to have my job."
Sports announcers, writers and columnists often laud Williams' ability to produce outstanding defenses using players who aren't household names to die-hard NFL fans. His philosophy is simple -- create a defensive structure that's conducive to each player's strengths.
"I don't coach 'me's'. I coach a team," he insists. "The reason I've been able to get guys to do more than they thought they could do or win with people other coaches couldn't is because I identify their strengths. Then I have to coach and teach to those strengths."
"Gregg is very bright and well organized," says Coach Gibbs. "He has a lot of experience and his staff really have full rein on the defensive side of the ball to do what they need to do. Since we've been here, the defense has really sort of led us. We really appreciate all that he has brought to the organization."
Redskins linebacker London Fletcher came to the team as a free agent this year from Buffalo. He said he loved playing for Williams as a member of the Bills, and jumped at the opportunity to join his former coach in Washington.
"I like Gregg, not only as a coach, but also as a person. His style of coaching is very direct and to the point. You have to be tough-skinned to play for him. Gregg likes to play a lot of ‘Jedi Mind Games,'" Fletcher laughs.
Williams sets high expectations for himself. He has not forgotten the strong Midwestern work ethic of his parents, who instilled in him the value of a good day's work for a good day's pay.
"I learned a long time ago that if you don't work, you don't have a chance to be successful," Williams explains. "Lazy people usually come in last. If you want to be first you have to work hard."
He expects nothing less from his players.
"There's not one guy that I have had the chance to coach who wants to be second or on the second team. If they are, they aren't on our team because I don't want them around. I want them to be the best that have ever put on a Washington Redskins' uniform."
Steve Jackson, Redskins' passing game coordinator-safeties coach, can attest to Williams' commitment to getting the best performance out of his players.
"I've known Gregg since I was 17 years old. He recruited me out of high school, I played for him, and now I coach with him… He's a good, old, stubborn, hard-nosed football coach. That's what's best about him."
The only thing Williams talks more passionately about than football and his work with his foundation is his family. He married his wife, Leigh Ann, a former Excelsior Springs High School basketball player, while attending NEMSU. The couple's daughter, Amy, and two sons, Blake and Chase, are also involved in athletics at the high school and college levels.
"My wife has made an awful lot of sacrifices to allow me to be who I am. She has sacrificed her own personal career to give me an opportunity to chase this coaching dream. She's the real CEO of this family."
As Williams is being called back to the Elms ballroom, he offers his response to a question about what he hopes people remember about him, of course, adding that he's got a lot of good coaching years to pursue and a lot more he expects to do for his community."
I would hope that people say he's a guy who truly loves the game. He's a guy who is never going to apologize that he's competitive. And, I don't want anybody around me to ever apologize, because competition is okay. It's what drives us all, and gives us a chance to be successful in whatever we do."
— Jeff Murphy '76 hs, '80, '95