Thirty years after the Bucs made him a historic first-round pick in 1978, Doug Williams is now helping the team make its current draft decisions
Thirty years ago, on the second day of May in 1978, Doug Williams sat in a gymnasium on the Grambling campus, near the office of head football coach Eddie Robinson. Williams contemplated his next move, thought perhaps he might be headed to Dallas or Green Bay, or perhaps even back to his home town to get a job coaching high school football.
It was the morning of the NFL's 1978 draft and Williams, a big, laser-armed quarterback prospect at perhaps the most famous historically black college, had no idea what was going to happen. In the coming decades, as the NFL (and specifically its draft) became enormously more popular and technological advances ramped up the flow of information, draft prospects would gradually become more and more informed. In the NFL's modern era, most players have a very good idea of the approximate part of the draft they should start expecting a phone call.
Williams had no clue, but he did suspect that the almost nonexistent history of black quarterbacks in the NFL would push him down the list, even if that was a fallacy perpetuating itself. He believed Green Bay, which had two first-round picks might come calling, or perhaps the Cowboys at the end of the round. He also believed he might be sitting in that gym, waiting for Coach Robinson's phone to ring, all day.
"I had just gotten my degree and I always wanted to be a high school coach," said Williams. "So I said to Coach Robinson, 'If I don't go in the first three rounds, I think I'm just going to stay home, go get a job and coach high school.' I remember him saying, 'No, you can't do that. No matter where they call you, you've got to go.'"
Williams had also noticed Tampa Bay Buccaneers Director of Player Personnel Ken Herock hanging around at a lot of Grambling games and practices the previous fall. Joe Gibbs, at the time coaching running backs and coordinating the Bucs' offense, had paid him a visit in Monroe, where Williams was student-teaching. But just a week before the draft, the Buccaneers had shipped the first overall pick to Houston in exchange for the 17th pick, tight end Jimmie Giles and three other picks over the next two drafts. For some reason, Williams felt at the time that the trade probably meant the Bucs were targeting a different player. He really had no means to gather any useful information to support or break down his assumptions.
"You talk about 30 years ago – ESPN hadn't even come into play then," said Williams. "You didn't have all these gurus where players are going to go, where they should go and where they would fit. You've got to understand that I went to Grambling. You figured they were maybe going to call you by the end of the day, not in the first round. Now, it's a little different."
Looking back, the future Super Bowl MVP believes the Bucs had come to the same conclusion he had: Williams could easily slide down the board, despite throwing for more than 8,000 yards in his collegiate career and finishing fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1977.
"We're talking about 30 years ago, and the chances of somebody drafting a quarterback from a black college in the first round seemed slim to none," he said with a laugh. "I think Tampa understood that at the 17th pick that I was probably going to be there anyway, because nobody was going to take a chance."
Indeed, the late John McKay, then the Bucs' head coach, said after the Bucs picked Williams at that 17th spot that the team was confident he would be there. Giving up the pick that would turn into future Hall of Famer Earl Campbell was risky, but the return made the risk pay off. Tampa Bay would end up with a franchise quarterback, a four-time Pro Bowl tight end, three other useful picks and – less than two years later – a division title for a team that had been a doormat since its 1976 birth.
"In that trade, we were fortunate enough to get Jimmie Giles, who I think played a vital part in what we did here," said Williams, not mentioning that he himself was a starter from his first game, a hard-nosed leader on the field and still one of the best QBs in team history. "Plus, we got three extra picks, one of which we used on quarterback Chuck Fusina.
"They drafted Earl Campbell, but at the end of the day, when you measure what occurred, we came the farthest. With Jimmie and I coming here, and what happened in the next few years, I think it was a pretty even trade. I think the Buccaneers would make that trade again – you get Jimmie Giles and still keep your first-round pick and get three other picks."
As the 30th anniversary of that fateful trade and draft rolls around, the Buccaneers are still relying on Williams and Giles…on the other end of the phone lines.
Williams left the Buccaneers following the 1982 season thanks to a contract dispute with the team's previous owner, Hugh Culverhouse. He played two seasons in the short-lived USFL, then came back to the NFL when the Bucs traded his rights to the Washington Redskins in 1986. Following the 1987 season, Williams led the Redskins to a 42-10 victory over Denver in Super Bowl XXII. The first black quarterback ever to start a Super Bowl, Williams won game MVP honors after throwing four touchdown passes in a single quarter to spark the rout.
He retired following the 1989 season and, for a time, actually fulfilled his alternate dream of coaching high school football in his home state. He also took on such assignments as scouting for the Jacksonville Jaguars, coaching in the NFL's World League and dipping into the world of college coaching. Then, in 1998, Williams came full circle to that gymnasium at Grambling, replacing the legendary Robinson as the Tigers' head coach. He spent six successful years at the helm at Grambling, leading the team to a 52-18 record overall, before that phone in Robinson's old office once again got a call from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This time, the team wanted to bring Williams back as a personnel executive, and in the process close that loop that had been left open in 1982. The team was under new ownership and new management, and Williams hadn't really held on to any bitterness, as so many expected. He accepted, and the Bucs were thrilled.
The 2008 draft will mark the fifth the Buccaneers have conducted with Williams in the room. One of the first things General Manager Bruce Allen asked him upon his return was whether he could tab a former Buccaneer teammate who might want to handle the job of being one of the team's on-site representatives at draft headquarters in New York City. Williams' rather obvious choice: Giles.
Since 2004, Giles has accompanied the team's Video Director, Dave Levy, to New York to work the phones and hand in those all-important index cards. Each team keeps a dedicated phone line open between its draft room at team headquarters and its table in New York during the entire draft. While the decisions are made back at headquarters, it is technically the player that Levy or Giles writes on the cards that will be selected. It's a sober responsibility.
"This is his fifth year up there and my fifth draft," said Williams. "That this is the 30th anniversary of that draft where we both came here, and that we're now a part of picking the players, I think that's kind of neat."
Williams has been part of a very successful drafting operation since his return. The last four drafts have produced such critical starters as Barrett Ruud, Alex Smith, Cadillac Williams, Michael Clayton, Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood, Arron Sears, Gaines Adams and Tanard Jackson, as well as part-time starters like Will Allen, Dan Buenning and Bruce Gradkowski. The continued development of such players as Paris Warren, Maurice Stovall, Charles Bennett, Sabby Piscitelli, Quincy Black, Adam Hayward and Greg Peterson could eventually make those drafts among the best in Buc annals.
Though the Bucs have won two of the last three NFC South titles, they've also overhauled the roster in that span and injected some much-needed youth into the equation. Though the defense is still anchored by the likes of Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber, many of the team's most promising players are still in the early stages of their NFL development. Expectations are high. It's a fun time to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.
The same was true in 1978, says Williams, who looks back at that time fondly despite the contract disagreements that marked both his arrival and his departure. In between, he got to take part in the rise of a franchise, just as Brooks and Warren Sapp and John Lynch did in the mid-90s. The Buccaneers infamously lost 26 straight games in 1976 and '77, their first two seasons, and were 5-11 in Williams' first year. But they won the NFC Central title in 1979 and advanced to the conference championship game, and returned to the postseason in 1981 and 1982.
Williams can rattle off every little detail and every name about those early years. He raves about the linebacking crew of David Lewis, Richard 'Batman' Wood, Cecil Johnson and Dewey Selmon. He thinks Lee Roy Selmon could have been even better in a 4-3 defense, with fewer double-teams. He recalls the defense giving itself the nickname, "The Rubber Band Defense," for its propensity to bend but not break. And he remembers the camaraderie.
"When I look back on it, those five years that I spent here were five great years because I got a chance to play with some great guys," said Williams. "My second year, we had this record that was playing all the time in the locker room – 'Ain't No Stopping Us.' The first five games, we were 5-0 coming out of the chute. We went up to New York and got beat and everything kind of came to earth. Towards the end of the year, we only had to win one game to win the division, and we lost three in a row. Then we came back here in a driving rainstorm and ended up winning 3-0 [over Kansas City] to go to the playoffs for the first time. It truly was 'Worst to First,' and those were great times."
He could have ended up in Dallas or Green Bay. He wouldn't have hesitated to chuck it all and head to the sidelines at his hometown high school. But the Buccaneers believed in Williams, and he made the most of the situation, just like the franchise made the most of a risky trade. Now he's back in Tampa, about to watch another handful of college stars realize their NFL dreams. It didn't take long at all, it seems to him, to get from Point A to Point B, from the gym at Grambling to the draft room at One Buccaneer Place.
"It's hard to imagine that 30 years ago in May, I was a rookie!" said Williams. "Thirty years ago…Wow!"