LOS ANGELES — Before he was a Trojan, before he was even a coach, Donte Williams was just a defensive back starting the next stage of his life at Pasadena Community College in 2002.
Every time Williams stepped foot in the athletics facility, looking down at him and all the other athletes was the face of Jackie Robinson, who some 65 years earlier attended the then-Pasadena Junior College before going on to break down the barriers he is so famous for.
On Monday, Williams did his own trailblazing, becoming the first Black head coach in USC football history.
“It’s a humble, humble, humble thing,” Williams says, “because there’s been a lot of guys before me that probably did more than I’ve done to have the opportunity. So it’s not just about me, per se. It’s about a lot of guys that came before me, it’s a lot of guys that will come after me, so it’s about making sure I do what’s best for this team, for this university, for this community and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Williams’ opportunity came when Clay Helton was fired on Tuesday after a 1-1 start to the season. Previously the associate head coach, Williams was named the interim man in charge until the end of the season.
“You have to start with the first before you can have anything after,” says Jimmy Jones, the quarterback who was part of USC’s all-Black backfield in its legendary 1970 win over Alabama. “It’s a part of our time that we’re in right now, and we’re just going to see more and more people across the color scheme start to get hold and do well in positions that were closed for a long, long time. It’s good to see the door opened.”
Assistant coaches are no strangers to long hours, but Williams admits that his new role is a different kind of taxing. Between media obligations and managing the operations of the entire program, not to mention still holding onto some of his old responsibilities, he’s finding his time stretched thin.
Williams estimates that he’s gotten home this week around 1 o’clock in the morning and is back out the door at 5:30 a.m.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Williams says of the job. “It’s almost like I go home and just basically take a shower and close my eyes and I’m right back at work. But I embrace that.”
Some of the other coaches have stepped up to help. Safeties coach Craig Naivar has added cornerbacks to most of his individual drills since Williams can’t spend all of his time with his old position group.
Instead, he’s sitting in on an offensive line meeting to learn what he describes as a new language, or watching game film to put himself in a head coach’s shoes in terms of fourth-down and special teams decisions.
“I try to do those things as early as possible in the morning, when I’m still a little tired, or as late as possible at night,” Williams explains. “It puts me and my brain in a stressful state, and I’m able to make those decisions no different than all of a sudden you have Washington State, all the fans going crazy.”
“It’s been really healthy,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando adds. “He’s cut in a million pieces right now in terms of his job right now. We’re picking him up as much as we can and we’re keeping him updated.”
Williams lists the likes of Mike Riley, Rich Rodriguez and Chris Alt as head coaches he has worked for who influence how he is approaching this job. Several, he said, have already reached out to offer any guidance for USC’s new interim coach.
And then there are the role models for Williams to follow, as he joins a list of trailblazers in Southern California.
“I think if he’s studied the storied past of other door openers, he realizes the job in front of him,” Jones says. “If he’s true to himself and works hard and keeps his nose to the grindstone and he remains humble, then hopefully he will have the kind of success he can be proud of and USC can be proud of.”