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Playing old school

By Dan McGrath, Jour ’72

Larry Williams left his office at the University of Portland hoping to hustle home in time for the tipoff of the 2010 NCAA Tournament title game.

The Butler Bulldogs were not only the Cinderella story of the Final Four. They were playing for the national championship in Indianapolis, their hometown. Much was made of the fact that they had been able (and willing) to attend classes the day of the game.

The analyst for the radio broadcast was incredulous. In his pregame rundown, he suggested the Butler players should not have been concerned with going to class on “the biggest day of their lives.” Williams, listening on his drive home, was stunned and angered. It espoused one of the attitudes he finds most problematic in intercollegiate athletics.

“We’re not a minor league for pro sports franchises,” Williams says. “It’s big business, obviously, but we’re also in the business of using sports to help young men and young women with their development as people.

“That ‘biggest day of their lives’ is just wrong. What if they get married, have kids, graduate from college. Wouldn’t that be bigger?”

Williams, Marquette’s 49-year-old, first-year athletics director and vice president for intercollegiate athletics, is not some nerdy egghead acting out an anti-sports bias born of some long-suppressed frustration at having been the last guy picked in playground games. Quite the contrary: The middle child of nine in a rambunctious, sports-minded family, he was a two-time All-American football player at Notre Dame and logged eight seasons in the NFL as an offensive lineman with four teams.

At Marquette, he oversees the 16-sport intercollegiate program involving approximately 300 student-athletes.

“One of my early impressions is how passionate people are about the school,” he says. “I understand that. I’m proud of the fact that I went to Notre Dame, but I’m a Marquette person now and proud to be affiliated with such a great institution.”

Williams’ wife, Laura Lee, was a standout tennis player at Notre Dame and a national singles champion. They passed those athletic genes to their five kids.

Daughter Kristin was a varsity rower at the University of Santa Clara. She just graduated from law school at Cleveland Marshall and is following her father into athletics administration, having taken a position at Tulane University.

Eldest son Sean was an All-Ivy League football player at Yale University who is enrolled in Marquette’s Graduate School, studying international relations.

Sons Scott, a senior linebacker, and Eric, a freshman quarterback, play football for Yale.

Son Louis is a freshman at Marquette University High School and an avid golfer.

Having five kids involved in high-level sports meant an endless succession of games, practices and travel, and made for a rather hectic lifestyle in the eight cities the family has called home since Larry and Laura were married in 1986.

“It was difficult at times, but I think living in so many parts of the country and meeting so many different people turned out to be a great experience,” Laura says. “We always encouraged the kids to play sports or get involved in any extracurricular activity that appealed to them, but they understood that being a student came first. They were disciplined and accountable when it came to schoolwork. We were fortunate.”

Raising a sports-minded family against a backdrop of his own career experiences reaffirmed Williams’ old-school belief that athletics should be part of the education process, not the extent of it.

“I went to Notre Dame because we were Catholic and because the blend of academics and athletics appealed to me,” he says. “I’d gone to a very good high school, Mater Dei in Southern California, and I thought I was ready for Notre Dame. But I wasn’t. I fell behind, and then I kind of fought the system. Eventually the light came on and I started to appreciate the academic opportunity I had there.”

Williams missed that intellectual stimulation when he moved on to the all-football world of the NFL. As a remedy, he enrolled in law school, taking night classes during his second year with the Cleveland Browns. He quickly came to realize his campus days were far behind him.

“We were on a trip, and while most of the guys on the plane were playing cards or just relaxing, I was studying,” he says. “A coach walked down the aisle and stopped to look at what I was reading. We won the game, and I thought I played pretty well, but on Monday there was a note in my locker to see the coach. He asked me what I’d been doing on the plane. ‘Studying,’ I told him. He said, ‘You’re here to play football. If I ever see you doing that again, I’m going to cut you on the spot.’”  

Once he got over his initial shock, Williams got the point.

“He was right,” he says. “In the NFL, they’re paying you to play football, and that should be your total focus. But in college, we can use athletics to instill some wonderful learning experiences in our kids.”

That objective is among his top priorities at Marquette.

“If we’re just using players for our own enjoyment, using them up and spitting them out when their eligibility is done, we’re exploiting them,” Williams says. “We have an obligation to help them grow and prepare them for the lives they’ll be leading after they’re through playing.”   

Williams gained that perspective from seeing some teammates lose their way after their playing careers ended.

“Larry cares a lot,” Laura says. “The kids he works with are like his own children to him, and he wants them to develop their full potential. He has always believed that sports was just part of the overall educational experience.

“We talked a lot about what we would do after football. He went to school almost every year he was in the pros. He’d tell me that some guys weren’t ready to do anything else when they stopped playing, and it bothered him.”

It still does. “A lot of my friends haven’t been doing so well since the lights went out,” Williams says quietly.

With a growing family to raise, a second career was an imperative for Williams. He completed law school at the University of San Diego while playing for the Chargers and spent six years with an Indianapolis law firm before returning to Notre Dame to oversee marketing and licensing deals in the university business office. Most of the work was sports-related. The experience drew him toward athletics administration and a job as athletics director at the University of Portland in 2004.

The field “suits my personality,” he says. “I like the games, the competition and the opportunity for engagement at so many levels. I guess I’m wired that way.”

His Marquette engagement extends beyond athletics. Williams likes the short walk from his office to the Law School cafeteria for lunch, and he’s on a first-name basis with many professors. He enjoys interacting with students who aren’t athletes and wants them to feel as if they’re part of things.

He says he’s ready to handle the boatload of challenges he faces at Marquette, beginning with the circumstances of his arrival: a shakeup in the athletics department resulting from complaints over the handling of sexual-misconduct allegations against some Marquette basketball players.

The case is in no way similar, but if the sainted Joe Paterno can be pulled down from his lofty pedestal as men’s football coach at Penn State, perhaps no campus is immune to the win-at-all-costs mentality permeating big-time college sports.

“What happened at Penn State shook the foundation of college athletics, and rightfully so,” Williams says. “I can’t imagine that there is anyone in the country who isn’t deeply saddened by the Penn State situation, first and foremost for the victims of this terrible crime, and secondly for everyone associated with the program, PSU, and in fact, all of college athletics. This is the clearest and most cautionary tale of why it is so important to maintain integrity above all else.”

At Marquette, men’s basketball is the engine that drives the athletics train. Coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances, Coach Buzz Williams is channeling Al McGuire as a campus hero: a colorfully down-home, slightly off-kilter philosopher who can coach the bejeebers out of a basketball team.

Williams believes an emphasis on each student-athlete’s academic and social development will only make each program stronger.

“We are NOT de-emphasizing basketball,” he declares. “I expect us to compete for national championships, and I believe we’ll have the means to do it at Marquette, but there’s more to it than that. We’re going to do it the right way. We can be a beacon for what’s good in college athletics.”  

Meanwhile, Williams must navigate Marquette’s future in a turbulent world of nonstop conference reshuffling driven by the ever-increasing power of football while trying to grow his own athletics program with the addition of Division I men’s and women’s lacrosse. Deputy Athletics Director Mike Broeker, who has served with two basketball coaches and under three athletics directors, believes Williams is the right man for a challenging job.

“With his energy, his vision and his commitment, Larry is exactly the type of leader we need,” Broeker says. “He’s a man you’d want to help raise your kids.” ❍

Dan McGrath, Jour ’72, formerly a sports columnist for The Chicago Tribune, is now president of Leo Catholic High School in Chicago.


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