Cadillac Williams had to pause time again as he fought through the emotions, sorting through the weight of his new title.
The Auburn legend on Monday became Auburn interim head coach, tasked with guiding his alma mater through the final month of the season following the firing of Bryan Harsin less than two years into his tenure. It has been a whirlwind and “bittersweet” 48 hours for Williams, who finds himself in a position he never could have fathomed being in when he first stepped foot on the Plains more than two decades ago.
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“Personally,” Williams said Wednesday, pausing to articulate the meaning of it all, “it’s been very emotional, at times. I mean, this place is dear to my heart, has done so much for my family and I, has changed my life in so many ways. So, for me to have an opportunity to give back to Auburn in this position as the leader, you know at times it’s heavy, but Lord knows I’m excited, I’m grateful, I’m honored, and I am ready to serve and give all I can to these players, this coaching staff and the Auburn family.”
As the longest-tenured assistant on Auburn’s staff, Williams’ promotion to interim coach made sense in many aspects. He was the lone holdover from the Gus Malzahn era, hired to return to his alma mater in 2019 as running backs coach and retained by Harsin as he put together his inaugural staff after the 2020 season.
Williams is in his fourth year coaching at Auburn, and while he is still in the early stages of his coaching career (he started coaching in 2016 as a graduate assistant at West Georgia), his is a name that carries gravitas around these parts. After all, he’s a program legend — a former All-American who was part of Auburn’s undefeated team in 2004, and who ranks No. 2 in team history in both career rushing yards (3,831) and all-purpose yards (5,084).
“I’m honored for this opportunity as someone who bleeds orange and blue,” Williams said. “This school has given me everything. I just truly, truly feel like, man, that the good Lord works in mysterious ways. I’m in this seat for a reason.”
That reason is to help steady the ship and try to salvage what has been a frustrating season of fading hope for Auburn. The Tigers are 3-5 overall, just 1-4 in SEC play and are mired in a four-game losing streak heading into Saturday’s game at Mississippi State.
News of Harsin’s firing came down late Monday morning, less than 48 hours after Auburn’s double-digit home loss to Arkansas that dropped the team to two games below .500 for the first time since 2012. It was also the fourth time this season the Tigers surrendered at least 40 points in a game, which set a program record, and marked the first time since 2012 that Auburn lost two home games by double-digits in a single season.
While the official announcement from university president Dr. Chris Roberts was made public at 11:51 a.m. Monday, Williams said he and the rest of the coaching staff found out about 20 minutes earlier.
“Form there, everything kind of hit the fan,” Williams said.
Shortly after that announcement, then-interim athletics director Rich McGlynn—in one of his final acts before the program made official the hiring of John Cohen as athletics director later in the day—called Williams to his office. During that meeting, McGlynn informed Williams he would be taking over as interim head coach.
Williams was at a loss for words. Wow was all he could think, even two days later as he recalled the exchange.
“Emotions were everywhere because, again, Coach Harsin gave me the opportunity to stay on staff, to be part of this thing,” Williams said. “It was a tough day for me, but… I’m honored to have this opportunity.”
Williams addressed players during a team meeting later in the afternoon Monday. Though the timing of Harsin’s ouster was somewhat surprising, players were excited about the prospect of Williams leading them for the remainder of the season.
His message during that meeting was twofold. He stressed the importance of family; that aspect of Auburn is what drew him to the Plains to begin with back in 2001. He wanted the players to stick together through a trying time. He also reinforced the idea of a blue-collar mentality—relentless effort, finishing plays, never quitting and just outworking opponents.
It’s what he hopes can provide a recipe for success for Auburn as it tries to close out a turbulent season on a promising note. A bowl game is still within reach, even if it’s an outside possibility — games at Mississippi State, at home against Texas A&M and Western Kentucky, and on the road against rival Alabama all await Auburn during the final month of the season.
He knows nothing is promised, and the challenges ahead will keep him busy and surely short on sleep, but he’s embracing the opportunity to help keep his alma mater afloat.
“We’re just taking it one day at a time,” Williams said. “This is not ideal, but man, we are definitely looking forward to this challenge.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.