Mike Williams discusses task force, plans for his job

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(Editor’s note: This is the first part of an interview that will run in two parts. Part two will be published on Monday.)

Mike Williams was officially named Cal’s director of intercollegiate athletics by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in May. Before that, Williams had served as the interim athletic director since Sandy Barbour stepped down from the job in June of 2014. The Daily Californian sat down with Williams to talk about his priorities, how he plans on addressing the recommendations from the Chancellor’s Task Force on Academics and Athletics and how he hopes to mend the relationship between Cal Athletics and the campus faculty.

The Daily Californian: How does your approach to the job change now that you’re the permanent AD instead of the interim? Are you more aggressive because it’s permanently your job, or do you go at it more slowly because you know you have time?

Mike Williams: The reality is that isn’t that much different. When the chancellor asked me to do this in June 2014, he also asked me to do the job. There were no restrictions. There were no constraints. There were no limitations. He asked me to do the job that needed to be done. That said, there were two things I wasn’t entirely comfortable doing as the interim. The first was having a head of development. It wasn’t so much for me — it was more that the person who would come into the role was probably going to relocate his family. It’s an important part of his career, and that person would’ve needed to have some security. So I really wasn’t comfortable hiring that person. The second one was putting in place an organizational structure that reflected my priorities. Again, if I wasn’t going to have (the permanent AD job), the person who took that job was just going to come back in and restructure immediately.

DC: What made you want to stick with the job permanently? I know you were initially reluctant to.

MW: The chancellor did a very good job of convincing me that what we’re doing in athletics, the integration we’re doing with the campus, how we’re looking after student-athlete engagement was amongst his most important priorities. And if I wanted to serve the campus, if I wanted to be a part of him achieving his agenda, this was the place he wanted me to do it. And that said, I’ve really enjoyed it. We have tremendous coaches, a very engaged and competent staff and then, the student-athletes are extraordinary.

DC: What are your biggest priorities at this job in the short term and then in the long term?

MW: In the short term, I want to make certain that we are giving the best possible experience to our student-athletes. Now we’re not going to be perfect across all 850, but we are going to have some who do have a perfect experience. I just want that average experience to be a great one. And I want to make sure that we’re really making certain that no one falls behind. That experience is athletic. It’s giving them an opportunity to really develop and express their talents when they compete, with being with great teammates, with great coaches competing at the highest level. (That experience) is academic. When you come to Berkeley, you get a Berkeley degree. And coming to Berkeley means lots of things. It means something different to everyone. So part of what we have to do is let them decide what a Berkeley education is. Lastly, we want to make sure that when (the student-athletes) leave, they leave on equal footing with any other student who went here. In fact, they might be a little bit ahead because they’ve enhanced their teamwork skills, (and) they’ve become extremely competent in time management. They understand how to prioritize and make sure they’re knocking off the things at the top of the list.

DC: How do you go about making these happen?

MW: We’re in the process. We start with summer orientation — we talk to them about what the experience is going to be like. I was in their chair in 1978. I think I know the questions they have. I know the things they’re concerned about, and I know why they chose to come to school here, and so I can have that conversation with them, in big groups or in small groups. Our coaches do an excellent job of saying, “This is why you should come here.” But they’re out looking for a Berkeley student. So it’s not a big job, because our student-athletes are Berkeley students first. Most of them had a choice of going to another school, and they chose us, and they chose us for a reason. And so all that we have to do is make sure we’re getting at the reason why each of those student-athletes chose to come here.

DC: A big part of your job will be working with the task force’s recommendations. You were on the task force — now what have you been working on with those recommendations, so far?

MW: I think we’ve ticked off the first three on the task force. One, having me report directly to the chancellor so that there’s absolutely no miscommunication on what campus priorities are and then what’s happening in the department with our student-athletes. The second was integration of the orientation programs, with CalSO and that type of thing. Our incoming student-athletes will go to convocation at the end of the month. They did that last year so that they are hearing the same message from the chancellor and the provost that all their classmates are hearing. The third was hiring a recruiting coordinator — someone who can focus on the process of bringing a kid in. … A recruiting coordinator can help our coaches and then help those high school students understand what it would take to come to school here — what high school preparation should be like to come to school here — and help where there might be some inconsistencies in the counseling and advising at the high school level. We take a high school student from identifying them as a recruit all the way through to the day that they’re admitted.

DC: How prevalent is the task force in your head when you’re making decisions?

MW: Every day. My colleagues on the task force put thousands of hours into that job. We took it extraordinarily seriously. We understood that it was very important to the future of the campus to be at the top academically and athletically. We knew we were doing an OK job, but Berkeley’s not about OK — Berkeley’s about excellent. And so it’s absolutely at the forefront of our thinking and our decision-making.

DC: One big priority has been incorporating new admission requirements for the incoming athletes. How are those being incorporated, and can you speak to what those requirements are?

MW: The faculty did want to take a long and serious look at admissions. So they have implemented new admission requirements that phase in over the incoming ’16, ’17 and then final implementation for the incoming ’18 athletes. … Those requirements are 40 percent, 60 percent and 80 percent with 3.0 or above, plus a written letter of recommendation. We’re already at 80 to 84 percent across our student-athletes that are UC-eligible. There are some teams where that percentage is a little bit lower, but I think that — I don’t know the final numbers — but I think that virtually every team is far ahead of the pace that’s been required by admissions.

DC: They want it to be (above 80 percent for every team) right?

MW: I think that the faculty is looking at it team by team. That’s really difficult with small teams, so we’ll see what happens with the final implementation. I really like looking at it across the 850 because it’s just a broader representation. We will work with the faculty as we need to to make sure we implement it right.

DC: How has (the transition to student-athletes using L&S advisers rather than Athletic Study Center advisers) been bumpy?

MW: I can tell you from when I was here, L&S advising didn’t always understand what the schedule was like for an athlete. So they didn’t always understand that I had requirements at 6 in the morning and that I was committed at night from 3 until 7 or 8 at night at the earliest. So that meant there were classes I just couldn’t take. You know, if I had to be somewhere at 6 in the morning, maybe an 8 o’clock class didn’t always make sense. So we still kind of have that sort of bumpiness between athletic advising and L&S. Once everyone sort of understands the time commitments and constraints of an athlete, I think things will be fine.

DC: I think we’ve kind of mentioned it over the course of this interview, but in the past, there’s kind of been a contentious relationship between the faculty and Cal Athletics and the student-athletes. How do you explain why this is, and how do you go about mending it?

MW: I think for the most part, the faculty is very supportive of our athletes. Many of our faculty members were student-athletes when they were in college. I think there’s maybe a small group that has concerns about the value of college athletics in an elite academic institution like ours. We need to make sure we’re doing the job of demonstrating the value of having those student-athletes on our campus. What they learn here, they don’t learn on the broader campus. They learn teamwork here. If we’re talking about producing Berkeley graduates who are going to change the world, the world is going to be changed by teams that solve problems, teams that have new ideas (and) teams that create the solutions, and that’s what we’re giving here. Fewer than 2 percent of our student-athletes will ever earn a paycheck in their sport. That means 98 percent of them are going to be out, solving the world’s problems, and I think that’s the context that we’d like the campus to look at our student-athletes in.

Hooman Yazdanian is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian.