Donte Williams makes history as USC’s first Black head football coach

Players, past and present, reflect on what this means for them, the program and the university itself.

Donte Williams with USC football team

USC’s interim head football coach, Donte Williams, made history on Sept. 13 as the first Black head coach to ever run the football program after Clay Helton was fired. Former cornerbacks and associate head coach Williams, 39, is a seasoned coach and praised recruiter, who has spent over a dozen years coaching other high profile college football programs such as Oregon, Arizona, San Jose State and Nebraska.

Williams was promoted to the job — not hired — at the predominantly white prestigious and private institution. However, that does not change how the L.A. native feels about the job.

“I feel like this is the opportunity I was born for,” he said in a video shared on USC football’s Instagram page. “To be the first African American head coach at USC means a lot to me. I mean it’s a lot of people who came before me that have paved the way for me to have this opportunity.”

Williams is only the fifth Black head football coach in the Pac-12 conference this year, along with Stanford, Arizona State, Washington and Colorado. The Power Five conferences, including the Pac-12, are made up of 46% Black football athletes, yet the hiring of Black coaches is still unequal. In 2020, three of the 11 Black Power Five head coaches lost their jobs and for the first time since 2015, no Black head coaches were hired in any of the five conferences, according to The Undefeated.

Rodney Peete, one of USC’s last Black quarterbacks and an NFL quarterback for 15 years, explained that, in the football world, many Black coaches get passed over, so he is rooting for Williams. “When over 50 percent of your team is Black, you have to have that diversity in your coaching staff, and leadership is so important that way,” he said.

Peete believes the team will respond to Williams as a coach with energy, and said, “If there is a dramatic turnaround with his team, I do hope they give him that shot [as head coach].”

C.J. Pollard, who played safety for the Trojans from 2016 to 2019, said the appointment of Williams feels like when President Barack Obama was elected. Williams recruited Pollard out of high school to play at San Jose State when he worked there. Although Williams was not coaching at USC while Pollard was there, Pollard believes Williams was built for this job and that he is well prepared.

“[Williams] just relates to young culture. He’s a smart, young, aspiring future coach that is Black, leading a predominantly Black football team, so I think culture will be impacted and shifted dramatically,” Pollard said.

Williams is coaching the majority Black team through more than wins and losses; he is also a life coach to the young men. He spends numerous hours with them a day and helps form the players’ lives, as the “Trojan Family” entails.

Jaylin Smith, a current cornerback for USC, explained how Williams recruited him throughout his high school career, so they already have a bond and he’s excited for his coach’s new opportunity. “It’s an honor being a part of Coach Williams’ era as becoming the first Black Coach!” he said.

Similar to Smith and Pollard, Williams has recruited players for the different institutions he coached at who are now Trojans, USC athletic director Mike Bohn explained in a press conference on Sept. 13. “He knows them, he knows their families, he has great relationships with them, he has impeccable poise, he’s a leader,” Bohn said.

Tim McDonald, a former strong safety for the Trojans in the ‘80s and a six-time NFL Pro-Bowler, said he’s only heard good things about Williams and he looks forward to seeing him do a good job. “I think it’s pretty exciting that there is finally a chance to get to show the diversity that USC is capable of.”

Williams led the Trojans through a 45-14 win against Washington State University on Sept. 18 at the team’s first away game.