During his days as a student at Cal, Michael Williams considered it a special coup that he knew someone with keys to old Harmon Gym, allowing him and his friends to play late-night pickup basketball.
As interim athletic director at Cal, Williams, 53, is now that guy.
“When I went up to Memorial Stadium and I had a pass that opened the football offices, it was unbelievable,” Williams said Wednesday during his first media interview since being given the keys to operate Cal’s entire athletic department.
“There are elements of this that are just a dream job,” said Williams, a former Cal wrestler now retired from a successful career in investment management. “When you think about it as a fan, I get to talk to all the coaches whenever I want. And I get to interact with the student-athletes.”
A resident of Lafayette, married with three children, Williams officially began his job Wednesday as interim replacement for Sandy Barbour, moved to a different position on campus by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.
But Williams actually has been at work for about three weeks now, not counting volunteer assignments that include serving as a trustee for the U.C. Berkeley Foundation, working on the chancellor’s Task Force for Academic and Athletics and on the search committee for a new provost.
Dirks said Williams was the only person he asked to take this assignment, which could last close to a year. “He’s somebody for whom it was a natural,” said Dirks, explaining that he will rely on Williams’ input as he conducts the search for Cal’s next permanent athletic director.
Williams said he couldn’t say no to Dirks, although he first had to clear things with his family. His wife Jeanne of 17 years “knew she married someone who’s not going to shy away from challenges, from opportunities, from doing big things. I think that might be a little bit about why she loves me.”
The job is complex, Williams conceded, but also exciting.
“What is more specifically appealing is we are at such a time of change in higher education. It’s going to be interesting to be a part of that change,” he said. “I also firmly believe the whole world is going to look at what places like Cal do.”
Williams doesn’t believe Cal’s athletic department to be in significant disarray. “The nice thing is nothing’s broken,” he said.
Williams said Cal’s much-criticized stadium renovation financing plan continues to be positively tweaked. He pointed to the July 26 international soccer game at Memorial Stadium as an example of how the facility can generate revenue and expose the campus to outsiders.
He also said the academic performance of Cal’s athletes is strong in most sports, but acknowledged recent poor scores and graduation rates for football and men’s basketball were “disappointing.”
“There’s probably only one thing you can get our 475,000 alums to agree on, and that is don’t do anything to mess with the value of our degree,” he said. “I hope and I believe — and we’ll see — but that was an aberration.”
Williams cited early academic progress in second-year football coach Sonny Dykes’ program and said he’s impressed so far with new basketball coach Cuonzo Martin.
“I have spent a fair amount of time with Sonny already. I really like him,” Williams said. “I think he’s a man of very high principle, high character. He gets that it may take a different type of recruit to become a different type of player to be become a different type of a student-athlete at Cal.”
Williams also is “optimistic” that the Bears will fare much better this fall than a year ago, when they were 1-11.
His relationship with Cal’s coaches is not as a short-time babysitter, but as their supervisor with all the attending responsibilities.
“I am absolutely performing that role,” Williams said. “The chancellor has put me in the seat to do that job.”