Mike Williams tackles athletics, Sonny Dykes’ job security

"Mike Williams, Cal Athletic Director"
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(Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part interview. Part one was published Thursday.)

Mike Williams was chosen as the school’s director of intercollegiate athletics in May, before which he spent nearly a year in the position on an interim basis. He sat down with The Daily Californian and discussed the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics, his views on the strength of some of Cal’s top athletics programs and the challenges he foresees seeing during his tenure as athletic director.

The Daily Californian: You don’t come from an athletics background (in terms of management). How do you ensure that you keep athletic performance a priority?

Mike Williams: I think that the skills you acquire in school and in your career, many of those skills are transferable. Communication skills are transferable. Understanding and measuring performance is transferable. Setting goals and measuring is transferable. Leadership is transferable. Team building is transferable. So I think that many people from many backgrounds can come into different job categories and bring those skills with them. I’m very focused on our athletes winning individual championships, and our teams winning conference and national championships. … I’m very excited about what’s happening in football and the two basketball programs. We are, as an institution, in every conversation about football and men’s basketball that’s being had in the country. That’s an extraordinary place for Cal to be, and I’m proud of that, and I’m happy it’s happening on my watch.

DC: Right now, there’s a lot changing in the landscape of college athletics in general. There’s been a lot of talk about increasing athletes’ compensation so that they can be paid beyond tuition or, at least, the cost of attendance in addition to their compensation. How do you feel about all of that, and how do you approach this issue?

MW: I’m very supportive of cost of attendance (being paid for). Part of how I got to this chair was hearing stories on the task force about the financial struggles of student-athletes. You know, what happens when your monthly stipend runs out? What happens in the summer months when you may not have that stipend? What it means to try to get home when something happens back at home. I’m very supportive of making sure that, financially, being a student-athlete isn’t a penalty. I’m not quite sure about some of the other financial metrics. The value of a Cal degree is pretty high out in the working world. … In my opinion, it’s probably worth far in excess of any of the financial conversations that have been had in courts.

DC: The issue of concussions is big in athletics in general right now. How do you go about making sure that you’re strict enough in your regulations about that and making sure that you’re keeping everyone safe?

MW: We can’t prevent concussions. We can do things to limit them, and we can make sure that we have very strict protocols if an athlete looks like they have a concussion or does have a concussion. I can tell you that our protocols in football have been adopted by the Pac-12. We have taken that very seriously all along. Our medical staff is kind of at the leading edge on concussion research. Concussions aren’t just a football issue — they happen in soccer, they happen in rugby, and they happen in many other sports. So we want to make sure that we’re at the leading edge with research in head trauma and that our protocols really protect the athlete once a concussion has occurred.

DC: People have talked about the Power Five conferences splitting away from the NCAA. How do you feel about that? Do you feel like that’s viable or necessary?

MW: Not every student-athlete needs to compete in a Power Five conference. My wife competed at Fresno State — it’s not in a Power Five conference. My brother competed at Navy — it’s not in a Power Five conference. They had an opportunity to have a very enriched college athletics experience. One of the very first things I took responsibility for was football scheduling, and we have made sure that as we go through the next five or six years, we’re playing local teams that are now in Power Five conferences. And we think that local kids should have the opportunity to play Division I football and that they should have the opportunity to play at Memorial Stadium.

DC: What are your thoughts on how the football team is doing right now?

MW: I’m pretty excited with what (head coach) Sonny Dykes has going on. He has an experienced team. He has real talent. For the first time in a number of years, he has depth at every position. But mostly what he has is a team made up of Cal students. They are smart kids, they’re engaged. They’re really interested in being a part of the campus life here. They’re very committed to each other as a team. They are confident, they are energetic, they are proud to be here. … It’s a great vibe, it’s a great environment. I’m looking forward to the season.

DC: You’re pretty confident then about everything with Dykes’ job security?

MW: Sonny’s doing a great job, and we’ll see how this season plays out. He’s been an extraordinary partner to me. Your question about not having the experience in athletics management, that’s something that can be really challenging for a football coach. I spent hundreds of hours with Sonny, and he never once made that an issue in our relationship. He has been nothing but a phenomenal partner to me.

DC: For men’s basketball, everything is looking pretty optimistic right now. What are your thoughts on that program?

MW: All those things speak for themselves, but what I do want to emphasize is how pleased I am to have (head coach) Cuonzo (Martin) here and how happy I am to be two doors down from him. This is a person who will tell everybody — from a 16-year-old recruit all the way to our most influential alums — that his job isn’t to coach basketball. His job is to take a 17-year-old and produce a 21- or 22-year-old man prepared to impact the community. And he does that every day. It’s extraordinary to be around it. I’m around him every day, and I’ve never once seen or heard him not be positive. Every single message is a positive message. Every single message is geared around making that young adult a better young adult today. And I think he’s an extraordinary asset for this campus. Results on the campus will be what they are, but I’m just happy he’s here.

DC: Martin just brought in two big-time recruits in Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. How do you balance that desire for the top talents with the reality that they’re probably going to leave school early to test the professional waters?

MW: I have not heard any of our basketball players say that they weren’t going to graduate from Cal. My expectation is that they’re going to come here, they’re going to have a college experience, and at some point, they’re going to want to test their value in the professional world. But I’ve never heard them say they weren’t going to be a Cal graduate. … I’m not concerned about that. We wouldn’t be concerned with a kid who was building an app over in the engineering department leaving after he learned what he needed to learn.

DC: Cal has only two or three minority head coaches. Is that an issue you’re looking into at all, or is that anything you look to fix?

MW: I’m really committed to finding the best coach for the job. I’ve hired two coaches, and in both cases, I think, I found the absolute best candidate available. I think that’s what our student-athletes and that’s what the Berkeley community deserves. My goal is to make sure that when we have a search, it’s as broad and as deep as possible so that when the person rises to the top, we’re pretty confident that we’ve captured all the available talent.

DC: With your financial background, one of your specialties will probably be trying to keep people interested in funding Cal Athletics. How do you keep the donors interested?

MW: I think we need to make sure we’re doing three things. We need to really connect with donors in a way that’s meaningful and emotional. Too often, supporting our student-athletes has been tied to wins and losses. And we, I think, as an athletic department haven’t done a good enough job of making clear all that we’re doing here. It’s not just about wins and losses. We don’t want a donor to be disappointed just because we maybe didn’t perform in football the way they wanted. We want to make sure that we’re engaging donors with the things we’re doing with facilities to make the student-athlete competition experience better and the things we’re doing around student-athlete engagement — personal development, professional development, focus on injuries and rehabilitation. And then third, making sure our donors and all of our supporters realize that one of the things that is happening here is students are getting an opportunity to get an education.

DC: What’s been most difficult about your job, and what’s been the easiest so far?

MW: The easiest is we just have extraordinary student-athletes. They’re fun to be around. When you get to be older, you’re prone to having cynicism slip into your life. … The student-athletes are so much farther along in their development than I was at 18 or 19. It just gives me so much hope for the future, and you just don’t get that in many jobs. We’re here — no exaggeration — 14, 15 hours a day, seven days a week. The only way that you can do that is to get that kind of energy. Our coaches are great teachers — so passionate, and they care so much. The tough side is that things are changing not just in college athletics but in higher education, and we want to be a part of directing that change. We want to be a part of making sure that change produces the 21st century Berkeley that we want. And we want to make sure that change impacts our student-athletes in a way that’s positive. There are going to be some real bumps along the road here, and that’s going to be a challenge for everyone.

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