By Jonathan Okanes
Cal Bear Blog
BERKELEY - H. Michael Williams was named Cal's interim Director of Athletics on June 27. A former Cal wrestler and longtime campus philanthropist, Wiliams will serve in the role until a permanent athletic director is named.
Williams recently sat down with the Cal Bear Blog to discuss his new position.
Bear Blog: What does it mean to you to be the interim director of athletics at Cal?
Williams: Well, first of all, it’s an honor that the Chancellor asked me to do this and to serve in this capacity. I’ve dedicated myself for most of the last five years as a campus volunteer, focused very much on students and the student experience on this campus. There’s really no better way to get at the student experience than through athletics.
In a lot of ways, it’s a dream opportunity. I’ve been a Cal sports fan now for nearly 40 years. To get an opportunity to interact with the coaches, the student-athletes, see all the facilities - it’s just going to be a great personal experience for me.
Bear Blog: What are your biggest priorities at the outset?
Williams: First of all, I’m really just trying to get to know and understand the department. I’ve been fortunate that we’ve been left with a very skilled and dedicated staff. I’ve been relying on them and they’re doing a wonderful job. The department really is in great shape.
I want to make sure that we are able to continue building our football program. Football is really core to any athletic department and success on the field is going to be essential to us as we go forward.
Bear Blog: What are the strengths of Cal Athletics?
Williams: We have a tremendous history of athletic achievement on this campus. Cal is known all around the world. I’ve been all over the world wearing my Cal T-shirts and no matter where I go I can always count on getting a ‘Go Bears.’ We have a fantastic reputation. It’s a tremendous brand. And we have student-athletes who want to be students first and who want to come here and compete for us. That’s a real advantage in this day and age.
Bear Blog: What is your vision of the Cal student-athlete experience?
Williams: First of all, we’re all lucky that the student-athletes have chosen to compete and study at Cal. We’re happy that you’re here and we’re glad you made that decision. A very big part of coming to this campus is the student experience, and we want to make sure that it’s a fulfilling and enriching experience competing in the classroom, getting to know your classmates, getting some extracurricular activities, really branching out and enjoying the Cal experience as your classmates have. Lastly, it’s important to get that degree because the Berkeley degree, the Cal degree, goes so far in the world. To have the opportunity to study for that and get that is really something that you shouldn’t let go by.
Bear Blog: What is your expectation of the student-athlete?
Williams: In my opinion, the student-athlete is really no different than any other student on campus. Our expectations are to see excellence. And at the end of the process, we’re graduating student-athletes who become impactful on their community. To do that, we must get athletes of good character and have them really excel in the classroom and in the field of competition.
Bear Blog: How do you perceive your role as interim athletic director?
Williams: I think the Chancellor has asked me to do the job. I’ve already signed off on contracts. I’ve dug deep into the financials of the department. I’m really excited about the upcoming soccer match on the 26th. I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate California Memorial Stadium is a multi-use facility. What’s even more exciting about that is we’re going to get a different type of fan on campus. It’s an opportunity to really show off this beautiful campus.
Bear Blog: What are your immediate goals?
Williams: I don’t think that I’ve been left with anything that is particularly problematic right now. I’m looking forward to working with Sonny Dykes. I want to hear from him how the football program is going to grow and get better. I told him that I don’t know anything about coaching football. If he wants to have conversations about managing money, I can talk all day.
Bear Blog: What do you want to see Cal’s student-athletes get from their experience at Cal?
Williams: Athletics for both the athletes and the fans is part of the experience on this campus. Nowhere can you get 60,000 people together on a Saturday and have them all agree on one thing – certainly not in Berkeley. We can do that with football. At the end of the day, we are still educators. What we can do in athletics is educate the next generation of leaders. Former Cal athletes have been my kids’ teachers, my kids’ coaches, my kids’ doctors. That’s what we’re doing here – we’re creating the next generation of community leaders and community service.
Bear Blog: How will your strong connections to campus help you in this role?
Williams: I think that’s one of the reasons why the Chancellor asked me to do this – because I have been an active volunteer on campus for so long. I have connections to deans, to faculty, and literally hundreds of students and alums. I think those will be very important as we do something that’s really critical right now, and that is bring Cal and Berkeley closer together.
Bear Blog: How will your experience running complex organizations help you as Cal’s interim athletic director?
Williams: We’ll see. It certainly turns out that this is a very complex organization. I did spend 25 years in finance – most of that in San Francisco – dealing with complex financial products and with the clients who invest in those products – teachers, firemen, university employees. So I have a very good feel for how to relate to the employee, to the product, and explain what it is we’re doing to the end user. Hopefully, that experience will translate well into the job of athletic director.
Bear Blog: Describe your philanthropic contributions to Cal.
Williams: Twelve years ago, former provost George Breslauer asked me back to the campus to serve on an advisory board for the College of Letters and Science. That really has served as a gateway to me to opportunities on campus that meet both campus needs and my passion. Currently, my second hat is Vice Chair of the Berkeley Foundation. I think you know that we just recently completed a successful capital campaign where we raised 3.13 billion dollars from nearly 300,000 individual donors.
What we’re really trying to do right now is build a culture of giving on this campus. Something that is very important to me and my wife – we are builders of Berkeley, and we think that giving and giving back is very important at this time.
Bear Blog: What is the significance of the Chancellor's Task Force on Athletics and Academics?
Williams: The Academic Task Force, which I am a member of, is nearing the recommendation process. I don’t know what the final conclusions or the written report that we offer the Chancellor will be, but I can tell you we found some things that really focus on not so much the student-athlete alone, but really on the undergraduate experience at Cal. So I would expect that some of the recommendations would be very focused on making life better for all of our undergrads, but with some really special carve-outs for the student-athlete. We really want this to be a good experience for the student-athlete.
Bear Blog: What are your memories of your Cal wrestling career?
Williams: I didn’t have much of a wrestling career because the program went away so quickly. I came in as a freshman as an invited walk-on. I worked my way up to second team and wrestled a few times. I’m not comparing myself to our really stellar athletes today, but I can relate to the difficulty of being a student, being an athlete and keeping those things balanced. When the athletes talk to me about the difficulty of scheduling, I can kind of go back to that time and remember.
Bear Blog: Who is Mike Williams?
Williams: I’m a Californian. I grew up in Fresno. I came up here in 1978 and have been involved with the campus in one way or another since then. I’ve lived all over the state. I lived six years in Los Angeles, so I’m particularly sympathetic to our friends, family, parents, students and alums in the Los Angeles area who just hunger to know more about Cal and what’s happening on campus. I worked in downtown San Francisco for 25-30 years. I lived in Oakland, Berkeley, the Marina. I’ve lived in Lafayette now for almost 17 years. I have three children. One has finished college, the second one is a senior at Pepperdine and I have a 12-year old flag football player/Little Leaguer.
Family is very important. Living in a community like Lafayette gives my wife and I an opportunity to do the things that we’re passionate about. I’ve helped coach Little League. My wife runs the Little League snack shack. My daughter was very involved in the youth group at our church. Those types of things are very important and very special to us.
Bear Blog: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Williams: I think we should all remember what a tremendous beacon of light Cal is in the world, and how we’re looked at, how we’re asked to lead, how we’re asked to stand up for what’s right. It’s very important that in moments of stress, moments of confusion and in moments of celebration, we remember what it is what we stand for. In sports, we say ‘Go Bears.’ But the campus says “Fiat Lux.” We should all remember: ‘Let there be light.’”