BERKELEY — Michael Williams makes it clear: The word “caretaker” is not the description for how he sees his role as interim athletic director at California.
In a little more than a month since officially replacing Sandy Barbour, Williams has hired coaches, negotiated contracts and put in countless hours already, building relationship with athletes and coaches.
“I’m here to do the job. I’m doing the job,” he said during a recent interview in his office. “I am here to do the job for as long as I’m in the seat.”
Williams has committed to staying in this role through next June, when Cal hopes to have a permanent successor to Barbour in place. His most high-profile role in that time just might be evaluating second-year football coach Sonny Dykes.
Dykes won just one game is his debut season at Cal, rankling alums who have waited more than a half-century for a return trip to the Rose Bowl, and contributing to Barbour’s departure in June.
Williams has traveled with Dykes as the two try to build a rapport, and he attends football practice almost every other day. A longtime Cal fan and season-ticket holder, Williams described his new role as a critic who wants to make sure the program is headed in the right direction after winning just four games the past two seasons.
Williams said he believes Dykes has the program on the upswing, citing a stronger commitment to academics after years of embarrassingly low graduation rates, and a changed culture that has produced a stronger work ethic.
“I don’t have a number of wins and losses, although I do expect to see wins this year,” Williams said. “I think the campus will be OK with a few wins if Sonny has the right type of player and academic performance. He’s doing that. We also want to see a more competitive team on the field. The way the season ended last year was a bit of a downer.”
Making the recent struggles on the field and in the classroom more painful at Cal is what Williams describes as “Stanford envy.” While the Golden Bears have fallen to the bottom of the Pac-12, their Bay Area rivals at Stanford have made four straight trips to BCS games while dealing with perhaps the toughest academic requirements in major college football.
It’s a far cry from just a decade ago when Cal was challenging USC for dominance in the conference and the Cardinal were bottom dwellers before Jim Harbaugh turned the program around. Williams said that example shows a turnaround is possible with the right coach and the right commitment from the school as a whole.
While overseeing the football program is the highest-profile task for Williams, it is not the most crucial. Williams said his three main priorities are helping Chancellor Nicholas Dirks develop a sustainable financial model for college athletics, improving the college experience for student-athletes, and restoring the focus on academics in the athletic department.
Most of Cal’s teams in the Olympic sports do an admirable job graduating athletes, but the football and men’s basketball teams have lagged far behind. According to numbers released last fall by the NCAA, Cal’s 44 percent graduation rate for football players who entered school from 2003-06 was the lowest of any major conference team. The 38 percent rate in men’s basketball was fourth worst among major conferences.
Dirks put together a task force to address those issues. Williams was a member even before he took on his new role as interim AD. The report will be released by the end of next month.
“I think he will be disappointed, I think the campus will be disappointed and I think Berkeley alums and the Berkeley community will be disappointed if we don’t see bold recommendations,” Williams said.
Williams wouldn’t discuss specifics, but said getting athletes more involved with the rest of the student body and making sure all students have access to classes they need for their majors were high priorities.
The department had already increased support services for athletes and has seen improved results. The football team had a 969 out of 1,000 in the Academic Performance Rate for 2012-13 released by the NCAA in May, and players have had strong grades ever since Dykes arrived.
“I’m very focused on academics and we were before I took over,” Williams said. “We have already made changes and will make more.”