Fred Williams grew up in Watts. He lost his father when he was 11. His mother worked three jobs to help him, an only child, through school. She died when he was 22.
Other than his 9-year-old daughter, Yardley Williams, who lives with his ex-wife in California, Williams is alone.Unless you count the Utah Starzz and their extended Jazz family and the 45 or so people who called Williams within two hours after he was named the Starzz's new head coach Monday morning following the resignation four games into the WNBA season by 67-year-old Frank Layden. "They heard it on the radio," said Williams.
The only call he had been able to make until at least mid-afternoon Monday was to his daughter, who often spends summers with him. "She knows every player in the WNBA and the NBA," Williams said. "She was very excited for me, but her next question is, 'Where's coach Layden?' "
The Starzz's top assistant coach since April 1, 1998, when he was hired by Denise Taylor, who was replaced by Layden July 27, 1998, Williams found out about 8 a.m. Monday that Layden was stepping down, though he will remain president of the Jazz.
The top Starzz executives paid Williams an early visit in the Starzz office in the lower level of the Delta Center. "Tim (Howells, general manager), Scott (Layden, VP of basketball operations) and Dennis (Haslam, president, sports and entertainment) came in, and I didn't see Frank, so I knew something," Williams said of how his epic day began.
"They said Frank was resigning and offered me the job. It took me about five or 10 seconds (to say yes).
"I was deeply shocked. I really respect Frank," said Williams about Layden's resigning after a frustrating week that included road losses by 24 and 20 points to the two top teams in the WNBA Western Conference and Saturday's 85-75 home win over Sacramento, which had won its previous three games. Utah is 2-2 as Williams takes over.
He conducted a 90-minute practice Monday but considered Tuesday's practice to be the first of his tenure, the first one into which he could put some thought and personal philosophy.
Williams' first game as head coach is Thursday at 2 p.m. MDT in Sacramento. His home debut will be Saturday at 7 p.m. against Minnesota.
Williams has two years of head-coaching experience at University of Southern California. He took the Trojans to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 1997 with a 20-9 record before stepping down in what was termed a mutual agreement.
He spent eight years as a USC assistant and two more as associate head coach with Cheryl Miller, now coach of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. USC won the 1984 NCAA championship and appeared in two title games while Williams was on the staff. He is a 1980 graduate of Boise State and a 1975 graduate of Inglewood High in Los Angeles.
Though Monday's changes left Williams a bit numb, his first pro coaching job comes earlier than he expected. "I'm always ready," he said. "Opportunity knocks at different times." But he admitted, "I'm going to be mentally drained the next few days" with all the friends and media calling.
He talked of seeing that oversized, retired No. 1 Jazz jersey with Layden's name on it hanging in the rafters of the Delta Center every time he comes to work. "I am proud, in a way. I had an opportunity to coach alongside and for coach Layden," he said.
"I can only take the knowledge of the great coaches and great people that I have come in contact with. I've had a lot of coaches call me this year after the preseason game (at Orlando) when they saw me sitting on the bench between K.C. Jones and Frank Layden. I had to think about that for a second because you're talking about living legends.
"I'm very fortunate. I'm going to take all this energy that I have gotten from (them)," he said, adding he knows Layden will still come around, "still giving words of wisdom to the players and coaches, and that's always welcome."
Williams is perhaps the most familiar name the Starzz have, now that Layden has stepped down. There are three Laydens on the Jazz/Starzz staff, including part-time Starzz assistant Mike, the youngest of Frank and Barbara's children, whom Williams expects to stay on, along with long-time Jazz assistant Richard Smith.
"I'm really happy for coach Williams," said Starzz player Adrienne Goodson. "It's a great opportunity for him. He's definitely got a good supporting cast in this team. We are a diamond in the rough, and we're going to shine."
"Coach Williams is more relaxed and laid back. He doesn't talk too much," said co-captain Wendy Palmer.
Unlike Layden, whose cacophonous howls can still fill a gym even at age 67, Williams is understated. "I'm like, 'Silence is golden,' " he said. "When it's time to speak, I really mean it."