LINCOLN — Before he would take on Tom Osborne in tennis, before he would try to emulate Osborne's life, before he would come back to work for the man later in life, Jamie Williams had to hear from Osborne.
It was Nov. 1, 1980. Eighth-ranked Nebraska had just disposed of 15th-ranked Missouri 38-16 at Memorial Stadium.
All around the Nebraska locker room, the Huskers celebrated. So why was Williams slumped in front of his locker, pouting?
Williams was a sophomore that season, a third-team tight end. He thought he should be starting. But that day, Williams just wanted to play. Just wanted into the game, for one play.
His mother had traveled from Davenport, Iowa, to see the game. She had never seen her son play college football.
Earlier that week, Williams had told Osborne and his position coach, Gene Huey, that his mother was coming to the game. He asked if he could play. Both coaches said they would try to sneak him in.
“The game was a little closer than what it should have been,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘I can help.' But I never got in.
“After the game, I'm sitting at my locker. The guys are cheering. I'm like, man, how am I going to explain this to my mother? I was like, should I be doing this? Should I stay here?
“So, Coach Osborne comes over and sits next to me. I wasn't looking for him. I was in my own world. He says, ‘I apologize for not getting you in.'
“But he says, ‘Hey, I want you to understand something. You are going to play for me and you're going to play big-time. I don't want you to worry. I don't want you to think this is the only game. You're going to play. Don't fret.'”
Williams called it a moment that changed his life.
“I never forgot that,” Williams said. “A lot of players didn't get in that game. He chose to come over and say ‘I know how much that meant to you.' A lot of coaches wouldn't have done that. That brought us closer.”
Williams would get into the game eventually. And how. Two-time All-Big Eight tight end. Two-time Big Eight champion. And then he was on his way down the yellow brick road, to a 12-year career in the NFL, writing scripts for Hollywood, becoming an executive coach and athletic director at an arts college in San Francisco.
“It's a long journey, still being written,” Williams says. “But you see the dots connect.”
Thirty-two years later, Osborne has put Williams into the game again. And you may connect the dots however you like.
Williams has returned to Lincoln, to Nebraska, to Osborne. The coach asked and the player jumped. Williams is the associate athletic director in charge of diversity, inclusion and strategic planning. It's all corporate lingo, and when you ask Williams what his job description is, he laughs because he can't really explain it.
“I'm kind of a special forces guy, like an army ranger or something,” Williams said.
How about athletic director at Nebraska in training?
“I didn't come back for that,” Williams said. “I came back to help my alma mater. I came back for the challenge.”
“I would not read anything into it,” Osborne said. “Other than Jamie's a great person and brings a lot to the table.
“He's kind of a renaissance man.”
Williams' title at Nebraska should simply be “Jamie Williams.” Meet him, and you understand what he's doing here, why Osborne had to have him back.
The man oozes personality, a big personality, and a passion for all things Big Red. He can talk NFL, academics (he has a master's and doctorate degree), Hollywood stars (Williams co-wrote the script to “Any Given Sunday,” and there's a poster of that movie in his office signed by Al Pacino). He can talk NCAA, a group he got to know real well as he started the athletic department from scratch at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
He can also tell you what it's like to come from a family of 13 (he has eight brothers and two sisters) in a two-bedroom house with blue-collar parents providing what they could. And how to make it from that two-bedroom house to the NFL and Hollywood and beyond.
That's the kicker with Williams. He can help NU with NCAA compliance or scheduling, or run his two sports, men's gymnastics and women's swimming. But it's his story, and his passion to sell Nebraska to anyone who will listen, that makes Williams a valuable guy. He's got credibility. He's been there.
You'd better believe NU will want recruits, of any sport, to stop by Williams' office on their way around Memorial Stadium. That he's African-American is absolutely part of the equation.
“We have not had a strong African-American presence in our athletic department,” Osborne said. “When our student-athletes walk down the hallways, there needs to be people of color that they can relate to as athletes.”
Osborne added that Williams would also be involved in meeting recruits, saying, “Sometimes it helps to talk to someone who's been there. He came from inauspicious beginnings. He's been successful in athletics, academics, Hollywood world and in the corporate world. He's a father. He's got kids in athletics.”
Williams was born in Florida. His father moved the family to Iowa when Jamie was young because that's where jobs were. His dad was a welder, his mom was a maid at a local motel. They made ends meet.
Jamie played all the sports. He grew big. Football and hoops were his loves. Hayden Fry was still a year away from moving to Iowa City when Jamie was a senior at Davenport Central. Nebraska, Penn State, Notre Dame, Texas and Iowa State pursued him. It came down to NU and Penn State because they were the only ones who talked academics.
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He chose Nebraska because it was closer to home. And because of the man who visited his living room.
“We clicked,” Williams said. “He was just so consistent. I felt like I could trust him. There was something about him. He's just a pillar of integrity. It's almost angelic or spiritual in a way.
“Most of us aren't that way. We're going to drink too much. We're going to fall off the cart. Him, I've never seen it. That's something I could count on.”
Williams says he was actually scared of Osborne his first two years at NU. But after the Missouri game in 1980, Williams found himself growing close to his head coach. There were a handful of players Osborne talked to, asked their opinion about what the team was doing. They went over to Osborne's house for dinner. Played tennis with the coach.
“He was good,” Williams said of Osborne. “I didn't think he could move like that. We always saw him jogging. We said, there's no way he gets to that shot. But he did.”
When asked about the tennis games, Osborne laughed and said, “I remember those. I don't remember if he (Williams) ever beat me.”
Williams' colorful career could be the subject of one of his movie scripts. He gives NU credit for molding him, but the dots he connects go back to one man.
“As a black guy, I tried to emulate him,” Williams said. “I knew he didn't listen to the same kind of music I did. I knew he wasn't hip. I mean, he's from Hastings.
“But there were qualities in him that I really liked. I needed to be more like him. If I say I'm not going to use profanity, I'm not going to use it. If I say I'm going to help you, I am. That consistency. There was no zigzag. I wanted to do the same things he did.”
Williams' road back to NU was pure happenstance. After a long career in the NFL that included a Super Bowl ring with the San Francisco 49ers (1990), Williams got connected in the movie business. He was consulting executives. Those looked like sweet gigs.
He was consulting Kevin Anderson, now the athletic director at Maryland and then associate A.D. at Cal. Anderson told Williams he should be an athletic director. Williams mentioned that to his mentor, 49ers president and former coach Bill Walsh, who told him, “That's a great idea. You should be doing that.”
The next thing he knew, Elisa Stephens, president of the Academy of Art University, called him to talk about what the school should do to start an athletic program. Williams told her what they needed to do and the type of person they needed to hire.
“When can you start?” Stephens asked.
The Urban Knights were born. There were 14 sports. And one mantra from the former all-Big Eight tight end and teammate of Roger Craig, Turner Gill and Irving Fryar.
“I watched Tom Osborne do things the right way for years,” Williams said. “I told my staff, if you don't want to do that, I'll let you out of your contract right now.
“Are we going to be Nebraska? No. That's not the point. But we're going to take the best practices of what they do, things they did to build a legacy and maintain it.”
Right after the 2007 football season, Williams was invited to the Bear Bryant Coach of the Year dinner in Houston. He was seated at a table of former Huskers, NU boosters — and Osborne, who had just been named athletic director at NU.
“I told him that I was an A.D. now,” Williams said. “He just kind of looked at me. He started smiling. He had a smirk on his face.
“I remember leaving there thinking, ‘I wonder what he was thinking?' You gonna make me run some stadium steps, coach? You gonna put me in the game?”
Was Osborne, football's chess master, playing two or three moves ahead in his mind? Did he see a future A.D. at Nebraska?
“I was probably surprised,” Osborne said. “I'm not sure there were any deep thoughts there.”
Williams started sending Osborne notes, updating him on what AASF was doing. Osborne would return the favor, asking Williams if he was keeping up on NU's athletic growth. Now, Williams sees what Osborne, ever the psychologist, may have been doing.
“Coach Osborne is kind of a slow boil,” Williams said. “I would see him at something or we would talk and he would say, ‘Have you been paying attention to what we're doing? What do you think about this?' It wasn't an active recruit thing. But I could see what he was doing.”
Williams was all but signed up when, at an athletic directors' meeting, he overheard several Big Ten athletic directors talking about whether NU was ready for the Big Ten. Williams said, “This was a chance for me to come here and slap them in the face. I'm like, ‘OK, you don't know the Nebraska I know.'”
Last April, after meeting with Osborne during spring game weekend, Williams agreed to come back — to spread the word about the Nebraska he used to know. And wants to help bring back.
“I'm here to do whatever I can to help make Nebraska one of the best teams in the Big Ten and the nation,” Williams said. “I'm a black guy who graduated from here and had success academically, athletically and professionally. That would not be the best use of my time if I didn't help (in recruiting).
“That bugs me when I hear you can't get a recruit here. People have this myth about Nebraska. But have you ever been here? Somebody says, it's 10 miles from Siberia. There are no black barbers there. You can't get soul food there, the food isn't good. You gonna be living in a log cabin. And some of these people believe it.
“So what do you do? You break the myth. I'm a myth-breaker. I have no problems talking to any kids, of any color, and setting them straight about this great place. I think it's a shame, that some kids don't give themselves a chance to see what's here.”
He's ready to get in the game, Coach. And he's willing to play any and all positions the school has in mind.
“I'm sure people are going to think what they want to think,” Williams said. “I'm at my alma mater. I'm not here to ruffle feathers. The feathers I'm going to ruffle are in Columbus, Ohio; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Chicago.”
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