Carnell Williams paused when I asked him about his first message as head coach to his Auburn football team.
It was a long pause for a phone interview, but a short one when measured against history. About the time it takes for a game-winning 50-yard field goal to clear the uprights from foot to forever. Williams gathered his emotions as best he could and took a deep breath. This is what the first Black head football coach of Auburn University said to his team.
“Honestly,” he said.
And then he stopped, catching himself. He could not hide, even on the phone, how much this all means to him and through him Auburn. Carnell Williams represents the soul of not only Auburn University, but the state of Alabama and everything that is right about this thing that is college football in the Southeastern Conference.
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From Attala, Alabama, to this. So many memories. So much history. Think of all the experiences. Wins and losses. Injuries and injuries and then the injustice of the BCS. Coming back home to Auburn to finish a degree, and then coming back home to coach. From Tommy Tuberville bringing Auburn’s entire coaching staff to Williams’ childhood home on a Monday night in January 2001, to another life-changing Monday when Williams, at 40 years old, with a life shaped by Auburn University and molded in the crucible of the SEC , was made the interim head coach after the firing of Bryan Harsin.
Williams looked at his team, and he saw himself, and then he spoke a truth that came from a heart weighed down by humility.
“Honestly, it was two things,” he said. “One thing I stressed on was family. Two decades ago, that is one of the main reasons that I chose Auburn University, because of the family atmosphere.
“I grew up in a big family, and I came here and I loved everything about it, that blue-collar mentality, how not only do they love Auburn football but love Auburn and just love people. So, the people within these walls are what made Auburn great, so that’s one thing I hit on with these players.
“The second thing is just the hard work, that blue-collar mentality — that relentless effort, you know? Finishing on every play, never quitting, just outworking your opponents in each and every thing you do. Everything that our creed is exemplified by, that is honestly what I shared with those guys in that team meeting.”
This just feels right, doesn’t it?
There is something about Williams picking up Auburn off the mat, and putting Auburn on his back during these moments, that just feels like things are instantly better. Auburn could lose every game for the rest of the season, but I already know that with Williams as the coach Auburn’s spirit is not going to be defeated.
And I am not alone in this feeling.
I don’t know who’s going to be Auburn’s next permanent head football coach, but I do know that Auburn is ready to ride or die with Cadillac. After one interview with Williams, I know that Auburn football is in good hands until a decision is made about the future and a permanent coach is hired. Auburn has beaten itself up for a long time over football, but with Williams the healing has already begun and a path out of the darkness is clear.
Who used to coach Auburn football? I can’t remember. Call it COVID brain fog. Doesn’t matter now anyways. By so many degrees, Williams is the start of something new and meaningful for Auburn and for Alabama.
He’s the first Black coach of an SEC football team in the state, and at a time when there are no other Black head coaches in the entire league. That means something. If you’re an Auburn grad, if you’re a resident or a native of Alabama, then that should make you proud.
Y’all, I’m beaming.
Auburn plays at Mississippi State on Saturday night, and then is back at home at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 12 for Texas A&M. It’s under the lights, too. Kickoff at 6:30 pm What a night that will be. What an inspiring turn towards destiny with one decision. Williams was coaching running backs for the Birmingham Iron at Legion Field in 2018. The Iron’s entire league folded in the middle of its first season. Williams was out of work. Gus Malzahn’s staff brought him home.
What a trip.
I asked Williams some pointed questions in his first media session. He crushed them. His answers were perfect. Of course they were, though. Williams is an SEC lifer. He gets it. He’s ready for this. Williams knows what it means to be a coach in the SEC because Williams was raised in these ways.
First question: Do you have any interest in being the permanent coach?
“Honestly, all I’m trying to do is win a football game this week and do my best for these players and this staff and the Auburn family,” Williams said. “Honestly, I’m taking it one day at a time — literally, one minute at a time. I’m not even focused on all the what if’s. I’m honestly being where my feet are — not only myself, but also this team.”
Second question: Do you have a plan in place for recruiting?
“Yes, sir. I do,” Williams said. “I actually do. One of the things I definitely want to get out to recruits and the rest of the world: only at Auburn do dreams come true. I’m forever indebted to this institution. It changed the entire trajectory of the Williams family.
“I put my wife here; my two boys — Auburn has been so good to me. Every dream I wanted to accomplish, this place gave me the opportunity. Now for me to be in this position, I just want to get it out there: only at Auburn do dreams come true. It’s a lot of guys, from the Bo Jacksons to the Cam Newtons to the Karlos Dansbys to the Carlos Rogers — all the guys that came here and were able to accomplish their dreams and do a lot of great things.”
Williams doesn’t have to convince anyone of who he is and what he represents. All he has to do is be himself. Williams is the real thing, and his opportunity is not by luck or chance. History is here for Auburn with sudden beauty because it was united by common dreams all along.
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group, and author of “We Want Bama: A season of hope and the making of Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team'”. You can find him on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.