“Holy smokes, that’s Cadillac Williams.”
Cody Kennedy had that moment of surrealism wash over him when he walked the halls of West Georgia’s football offices. He’d lean over to Austin Armstrong and repeat those words time and again, the reality of it all still sinking in.
It was 2016, and Kennedy was the offensive line coach at Division II West Georgia. Armstrong was a defensive graduate assistant for the Wolves. Both grew up in Alabama — Kennedy in Florence, Armstrong in York — and remember watching Cadillac Williams tear through the SEC in the early 2000s at Auburn when the two were still in grade school.
Read more Auburn football: Cadillac Williams on first home game as Auburn’s head coach: “You can’t make this up”
Now all three were colleagues at West Georgia on Will Hall’s coaching staff — Williams as a GA working with the running backs — each in the early stages of their careers and cutting their teeth at the Division II level. It was difficult for Kennedy to grasp, even now.
“It just hit different for us,” said Kennedy, now the offensive line coach at Arkansas and a 2021 Broyles Award semifinalist. ” That was kind of the funny part of it, and you know, he’s going through the same thing we’re going through and the struggle of young coaches — grinding, long hours.”
Williams’ time as a graduate assistant at West Georgia represented one of the early stops in an unexpected coaching journey of humble beginnings. The former All-American and first-round NFL Draft pick has gone from Division II coaching intern to now interim head coach at his alma mater in the span of seven years, an unforeseen path that has suddenly reignited hope at Auburn amid a season of tumult.
Who better to lead Auburn out of the dark than one of its own, a beloved program legend who has earned his keep in the coaching business?
“He’s worked for this,” Hall, now the coach at Southern Miss, told AL.com. “He didn’t get this just because he was Cadillac Williams the running back.”
Seven years ago, Williams was helping clean up the locker room at Henderson State.
He swept the room, made sure cleats weren’t left out, pads were hung up properly and everything was straightened out. It was a small part of his duties during the first stop in his coaching career, when he was an intern running backs coach for Scott Maxfield’s Division II program in Arkadelphia, Ark.
“That was probably one of the things he probably wasn’t prepared for,” Maxfield told AL.com. “You know, a guy that’s been some of the places he’s been. That’s always the thought when you get a guy who was a first-round draft pick coming in here, he might feel like he’s too good to do some of the duties we have to do, but he bought into everything, did everything with a smile on his face and jumped right in there.”
Williams got his foot in the door at Henderson State just a few years removed from his playing days in the NFL thanks to the NFL Players Association coaching internship program. He was paired with Henderson State, provided a small on-campus apartment and daily meal tickets for use on campus. It didn’t pay much, but Williams was already financially set from his time in the league; this opportunity was about gaining experience, not money.
“Man, I had a ball coaching there,” Williams said. “I was back in the locker room, the camaraderie of being around those kids, guys gravitating toward me. It made me feel so good, like that purpose — I had purpose; it was back.”
Williams struggled to find that purpose at first after his NFL career ended due to injury. He last played in 2011 with the St. Louis Rams, and he was hopeful to sign somewhere the following season but was unable to pass his physical due to earlier injuries to both knees during his career. He was recently married, and life was good — but something was missing; Williams described it as being “on autopilot.”
He was just coasting, with no real guiding light. He returned to Auburn in 2014 to finish his degree, needing just seven credit hours to graduate a decade after his decorated career on the Plains wrapped up. That’s when his wife, Evan, made a suggestion: Why not get into coaching?
Williams had never considered that path, but his wife made a point that was hard to argue with. He was still consumed by the game he loved, and all his spare time on the weekends was spent talking about football with his friends, so why not reinvest in the sport that afforded him the life he had?
“I thought about that,” Williams said. “I do love the game of football. I do love to serve. I love to give back. I know how important that player-coach relationship is because it changed the whole trajectory of my life, because a coach poured into my life.”
Williams’ season at Henderson State only reaffirmed that idea. He arrived just before the start of fall camp in 2015 and was eager to absorb as much as he could from the experience. His resume as a player brought gravitas to his title in the Reddies’ running backs room, and it afforded him immediate credibility with his players — one of whom, Rodney Bryson, wore No. 24 the prior season because that was Williams’ number at Auburn.
He was humble and a people person; he quickly established relationships throughout the program and enthusiastically took on every responsibility that Maxfield put on his plate — yes, even the occasional locker room clean-up task that rotated among the small-school coaching staff.
Williams’ goal was to work his way up the coaching ladder. Maxfield imparted some early advice to help him along his path.
“Be the same person every day,” Maxfield said. “Don’t be fake; be who you are… Just coach to your personality, get after the kids when they need to be getting after, and try to love them up afterwards. I think that’s important after you get on their ass; you got to love them up a little bit.”
Kennedy recognized the passion and eagerness in Williams’ eyes, even through some of the more challenging moments.
There was a learning curve for Williams early in his career. The transition from player to coach isn’t always natural; it doesn’t come easy to everyone, but Williams worked to find his place.
“There’s a difference in designing the bridge and building the bridge, and you could tell he really wanted to learn how to design the bridge,” Hall said.
Williams wanted to understand every aspect of his new profession—not just the X’s and O’s, learning why you run certain plays in specific situations, but in the behind-the-scenes work, too. He wanted to learn how to break down film and compile cutups for team meetings. He wanted to learn the data-input systems and other technologies being adopted by coaches to expand his understanding of the game.
It wasn’t just about relying on talent. There had to be a willingness to learn and adapt; a different kind of work ethic that not everyone is cut out for. “He was humble, he was Lac,” Hall said. “He wanted to learn. He wanted to jump in.”
That eagerness imbued confidence in Hall that Williams had what it took to succeed as a coach. He had an inquisitiveness about him; he was intrigued by what it took to be a good coach. There were some speedbumps along the way, what Kennedy described as “green moments” in the learning process for Williams behind closed doors.
That was to be expected, but the desire to learn was evident.
“If you look at his career and his track record, you would think the learning phase was done and he had mastered the ability to play running back and do that, but you never felt that,” Kennedy said.
Out on the field was where Williams shined brightest.
The teaching aspect came naturally to him. He had an innate ability to transfer the knowledge and skills that made him so successful as a player — he’s No. 2 on Auburn’s career rushing list (3,831 yards) and was the NFL Rookie of the Year in 2005 — to his players. He took pride in being able to explain techniques and how to develop good vision as a running back.
“Once you got him on the field, man, it was on,” Kennedy said. “Obviously, you can’t argue with the results he had as a player.”
Williams saw Gus Malzahn’s name flash across the face of his Apple Watch on Jan. 21, 2019, while he was on the practice field in San Antonio.
The former Auburn running back, then an assistant coach with the AAF’s Birmingham Iron, was at training camp when the then-Tigers coach called. Malzahn wanted to meet with Williams about becoming Auburn’s new running backs coach, and the two discussed the opportunity over dinner at a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio.
“I told him at the time, I know I don’t have a lot of experience; I’m just getting into it, but I told him: I know Auburn,” Williams said. “I know that I can relate to players. I know that I can recruit. I know I can get guys in there. The coaching thing, I can get up to speed on that; I’m a workaholic, I’ll work my tail off.”
The next day, Malzahn offered him a job. Williams was coming home.
When Williams boarded that flight out of San Antonio, he never anticipated being where he stands today. After three-plus seasons as Auburn’s running backs coach, Williams was named the Tigers’ interim coach last week following the firing of Bryan Harsin, who lasted less than two seasons on the Plains and went just 9-12 during his tenure.
Williams was overwhelmed by the opportunity, understanding the burden he carries with his new title. He has never been a head coach at any level before, and he admitted last week that he didn’t know if Auburn would win any of its final four games.
Yet there’s optimism in the promotion of Williams, belief that he’s the ideal person to navigate Auburn through this final stretch of 2022. That hope was evident on the field Saturday night in Starkville, Miss., when Auburn battled back from a 21-point first-half deficit to twice take the lead in the final minutes before losing in overtime.
The final score read Mississippi State 39, Auburn 33. Afterward, Williams didn’t sound like someone who’d lost a game. Neither did his players. For the first time in six weeks, Auburn sounded victorious. There is work to do yet, but Auburn felt it got better this last week under Williams’ leadership.
“I had a Cadillac jersey when I was 3 years old,” linebacker Barton Lester said. “I wore it to church, and they had to get me out of it. I’ve always had a ton of respect for Cadillac. He’s not a perfect man. He knows he’s not the pinnacle head coach right now, but gosh, guys get behind him and believe because they know his story. They know what he’s done for his university. They know the heart he has.”
That’s not just Cadillac Williams, Auburn legend. That’s Coach Lac.
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.