Willie Williams, meet the microscope

Originally Published: July 28, 2004
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

On Tuesday, we learned what most had expected for some six months now: That Willie Williams -- the nation's top linebacking recruit and the poster child for what many view as all the ills of the college recruiting system -- was indeed going to be a Miami Hurricane.

Before the school made the announcement that it was admitting the 19-year-old with the 4.4 speed, 1,100 SAT score and a well-publicized arrest record, UM president Donna Shalala sent out a schoolwide e-mail to the families of Miami alums explaining the university's position and why it was partnering up with the controversial young man.

"This young man is not perfect and has made some bad decisions -- in friends, in behavior, etc.," Shalala wrote. "However, he is young, and his file reveals academic talent as well as the better-known athletic ability.

"Mr. Williams is also one of us -- a son of Miami. We have a special obligation, relationship, and commitment to the young people of our South Florida community. We want them to continue to think of us as a place of academic excellence and opportunity."

Of course, the presence of Willie Williams, in most people's eyes, will instead lead them to continue to think of Miami as that rogue school that ambushed the rest of the college football world almost two decades ago. That black-hat reputation shaped as much by on-field theatrics as it was by some off-field indiscretions had actually been scrubbed out of the UM program in the mid-'90s by Butch Davis and his coaching staff, who vowed to win "the right way."

And, in truth, they did.

Since 2000, Miami has had fewer arrests than the Naval Academy and a third of the arrests that Penn State has had. But the perception lingered. Many columnist types still cling to the image of Miami running it up on poor Notre Dame by 50 in Gerry Faust's last game or of the 'Canes ringing up 46 points (and 202 penalty yards) on Texas in the Cotton Bowl. To them, Miami was responsible for the thugging of college football, bringing the street to the game.

Perhaps it was a cultural thing. Most people would rather cover their eyes than ask questions. So when Miami returned to its perch after a bout with probation, some figured the 'Canes must be up to something again. Even around South Florida, UM is like Germany. At times, it is both proud and terrified of its own past.

And then along comes Willie Williams.

Funny thing is, when basketball star Caron Butler went to UConn, bringing an even longer rap sheet, nobody said a word. Heck, when he emerged as a first-rounder, his story was celebrated, and rightly so as an inspirational tale of a kid overcoming a broken past. But Williams was coming in on a different level and coming to a place with a different history, and that is sad and hypocritical.

Privately, UM coaches have seethed at the finger-pointing. That they were doing something no other program would stoop to. Laughable, they'll say -- everyone wanted Williams. "And if we didn't take him, I guarantee you, 100 other schools would," says one assistant. "They'd take him in a heartbeat. But we're not supposed to take him because we're Miami? Puh-leeze."

When Butch Davis first took over the rebuilding job at UM, he said the program couldn't afford to bring in any risks. But after four or five years, that changed. "That meant we might be able to take one or two kids that might be a little rough around the edges because we knew the other 80 kids in the locker room were going to try and keep them in line," says Pete Garcia, Davis' old recruiting coordinator. "We had some great kids, and they policed their own locker room."

That's what the UM administration is banking on here now, along with the referrals they've gotten from Joe Zaccheo and Walt Frazier, two of Williams' former coaches.

"The Willie I know -- there are a number of athletes that would love to play football at Miami that we don't recommend to be admitted because we don't feel they have the character and are the type of people we want in our program," coach Larry Coker said. "I never felt that way about Willie. I did a lot of research of people that know him -- teammates, secretaries, counselors, coaches. It was very, very positive. As you get to know a person -- he'll be a tremendous contributor at the university, a tremendous contributor in our football program. I feel like we have a good support group and we just want him to be a part of that family and continue that support."

Two years ago, Miami had signed another blue-chip linebacker in their own backyard, a 215-pound heat-seeking missile named Nate Harris. Williams actually followed Harris at Bay Point, an alternative school in Dade County for troubled teens. Harris appeared to have straightened out his life though, and shined his senior year at Edison High School. But three months before he was scheduled to report to UM, he was arrested and charged with armed robbery. He was sentenced to six months at a prison boot camp, but when he got out, UM let him know they didn't have a spot for him anymore.

Maybe they weren't as sold on Harris' character as they are Williams'. Or maybe they just weren't ready to weather a PR spitstorm back then.

UM realizes it is going to take a pounding now. That shouldn't matter. They have earned the right to make their own calls. Since the American Football Coaches Association began its national survey of graduation rates for football, UM has graduated 72.4 percent of its players -- well above the national average. But from this point forward, they are forever hitched to Willie Williams, for better or worse. On Tuesday, Coker acknowledged that his reputation and his legacy was "on the line." UM AD Paul Dee, the same man who was the school's lawyer in the chaotic days of the renegade 'Canes, was adamant that this announcement is not a "return to the days of misunderstandings."

"We've come an awfully long way in doing things. I don't think this in any way affects any of that. People can have a different opinion, but substantively, I believe that isn't the case. I think as we go forward, hopefully we'll be able to sustain that."

Sources say UM will assign Williams a mentor, and keep him out of games for the first month of the season as the school monitors his schoolwork and his attitude. But it's no secret Miami, having lost five linebackers, is thin at Williams' spot. "There's definitely the possibility he will play this year," says Coker. "We'll see how things progress as the season progresses."

Everyone, of course, will be watching.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment comes out in the fall of 2004. He can be reached at bruce.feldman@espn3.com.

ALSO SEE