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Titans defensive coordinator has drive to be a head coach

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© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2000

ATLANTA -- It was so cold Wednesday, you could see the breath of Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Was this a Super Bowl or the Winter Olympics? Air temperature 26 degrees. Wind chill a fracturing 4.

But soon he was warming an Atlanta interview tent, expounding on coaching passions from Missouri high schools to the NFL, plus a fiery desire to become pro football's next Tony Dungy or Jeff Fisher.

"I want to be an NFL head coach," said the 41-year-old Williams. "For a guy like me, not widely known across America, a Super Bowl can be life's huge opportunity.

"If we're good enough Sunday to defense St. Louis nearly as well as Tampa Bay did in the NFC final, which was the best full game of tackling I've ever seen, well, it could lead to some wonderful things."

Like a Super Bowl ring.

Like the job of Gregg's dreams.

After some bickering, the New York Jets picked a new coach, but New England and New Orleans are shopping. If owners of the Saints and Patriots crave somebody new and promising, they should pick the lock on Williams' briefcase, sneaking a peek at his secret computer.

This fellow is programed.

"If a head-coaching chance suddenly arises, I refuse to be caught short," Williams said. "For a long time, I've had lists of my top 10 prospects at every assistant coaching position. I constantly update it. If somebody impresses me, I move him up in my rankings. If a guy makes me angry, I drop him.

"It's not just coaches in my computer but also trainers, scouts, front-office people and equipment men. Background data on everybody; ages, experience, even salary situations. If some franchise hires me, I'm ready to make calls now, quickly assembling a great staff."

Ten seasons ago, Williams was making $5,200 as a University of Houston graduate assistant. That's a bit misleading, since a year earlier Gregg was getting $45,000 to coach at Belton (Mo.) High School.

"We'd done okay at Belton, but in 1988 the head coach's spot opened at my alma mater, Excelsior Springs (Mo.) High School," Williams said. "I tried hard to get it. I figured I'd go home and coach 40 years until I retired."

Excelsior Springs snipped that idea. He didn't get the job. "It hurt me being only 25 years old. I told that committee, "You've probably done Gregg Williams the biggest favor of his life.' I've sent them periodical notes as I rose in the coaching profession."

Next was that low-paying stop in Houston, which requires some explaining. "Back in Missouri, my wife had a big job with a gas corporation," he said. "She got headhunted for a great opportunity in Houston. Leigh Ann figured she'd have to turn it down, but I said, "Whoa! Let's rethink our family options.'

"I was eager to take a shot at college coaching. A friend put me in touch with Jack Pardee, then in charge of University of Houston football. I knew he had experience in the NFL. Jack said he couldn't offer anything but a graduate assistant's position. He apologized about the money. I took it, knowing Leigh Ann's salary would carry us for a while."

Two years later, Pardee was hired by Houston's pro team, the Oilers. Gregg wasn't about to be left behind. He took the lowliest of assistant coaching positions for $35,000 in 1990. Williams helped with scouting and personnel evaluations.

"Until then, I didn't know how to turn on a computer," he recalled. "Eventually, the laptop became my friend. I moved up as a defensive coach. Learned a lot from (Oilers coordinator) Buddy Ryan in 1993, then from his successor, a guy named Jeff Fisher."

By 1996, the Oilers had agreed to relocate to Tennessee. Fisher was the boss. There would be one miserable season in Memphis (1997), then one vanilla year at Vanderbilt University (1998) before this glory run in new Adelphia Coliseum that has led to the Super Bowl.

"I'm not an insecure person," Williams said. "I don't lack for confidence. I can handle almost any situation. I'm intense. Don't have any hobbies. It's just family and football."

Are we talking resume?

"My motivation comes from knowing how to place athletes in the best possible positions. I work at putting my defense under heavy stress in practice. Producing under stress is the best measure of a person."

Sunday's television cameras could reveal, if Tennessee struggles defensively, a flurry of shouting between Williams and Fisher. They're best buddies, but it may not always be apparent. At times, Titans strength/conditioning coach Steve Watterson has stepped between the two strong-willed defensive minds.

"Jeff is also an intense competitor," Williams said. "It's nothing personal, but we do argue. Jeff won't let me coordinate from the press box, figuring there's a better feel on the sideline. But if, sometime Sunday, we have the look of enemies, well, don't believe it.

"Strictly allies, fighting for the same cause."

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