Donte Williams didn’t find the time to call his mother until Monday night, hours after talking with the USC Trojans for the first time as their football coach, breaking down a barrier some thought might never fall at the prestigious private institution.
Maxine Wimberly Williams already had heard. It was Donte’s childhood football coach who texted Maxine with the news, setting off a symphony of ringtones singing joyously throughout the afternoon inside the small, red-brick Crenshaw home where she and her husband, Antone, reared their family just three miles west of the Coliseum.
During Donte’s two-decade trek from junior college cornerback to scholarship athlete at Syracuse to junior college assistant coach to one of the best major-college recruiters in the country, Maxine saved room for one university in her heart — symbolized by a cardinal-and-gold jacket she bought 21 years ago in hopes that one day she’d have a real reason to wear it.
“I’ve always prayed he would get to USC, always said one day he’s going to come back,” Maxine says.
Donte returned as the calendar turned to 2020, wanting to be closer to family as his father struggles with dementia and hoping to lead a rejuvenated USC recruiting effort in the city that made him.
That Donte Williams is now the Trojans’ interim coach after taking over for the fired Clay Helton — making Williams, at age 39, the school’s first African-American football coach — is a reality Maxine still was processing Tuesday.
“It’s a part of history,” Maxine says. “I wish my mother could have lived to see it.”
Donte’s father is here, but sadly, he isn’t able to appreciate his son’s accomplishment because of the steady progression of his dementia. The memories are there in Antone’s mind somewhere, how he and Maxine worked hard in construction and insurance, respectively, so that their children could have opportunities, how they insulated Donte from the city life by encouraging his passion for football.
Donte’s story has been all too relatable in living rooms and locker rooms across Southern California, and it took on more authenticity and power Monday.
"To be honest, it's a humble, humble, humble thing because there's been a lot of guys before me that probably did more than I've done to have the opportunity," Williams says. "So it's not just about me, per se. It's about a lot of guys that came before me, it's a lot of guys that will come after me, so it's about making sure I do what's best for this team, for this university, for this community, and that's what I'm going to do."
Williams may not yet realize it, but multitudes around the country will be cheering him on this fall — and they don't have to be humble about it.
“It’s almost like when Barack Obama becomes the president,” says C.J. Pollard, a Carson native who played at USC from 2016-19 and was recruited by Williams when he was at San Jose State. “Just the ability to say, what if an African-American head coach can lead these young football players who are predominantly Black, what type of results would we get, how would the players respond? I know, me personally, I would run through a wall for Coach Donte.”
Those who follow college football know that the interim label comes with the best of intentions but there are no guarantees it will work out. USC athletic director Mike Bohn clearly values Williams — he paid the freight to take him from Pac-12 rival Oregon, after all — and the expectation is that Williams can handle the huge task ahead: get the Trojans to compete at their talent level and keep recruits believing in the big picture Bohn’s administration is trying to paint of a coming return to glory.
Williams can do both those things and still not keep the job — or have his old one under the new coach, who could feel threatened by his popularity with the players or simply want to bring in people he trusts.
For now, though, there’s a game Saturday at Washington State, plus nine more after that, and it’s up to Williams to once again take advantage of what’s in front of him.
“He was the young coach on the grind trying to make a name for himself,” says El Camino College offensive coordinator Tim Kaub, one of Williams’ many mentors across the region. “Every door that’s been open for him, he’s kicked that thing in.”
Maxine and Antone were engaged parents, and they noticed early what they could use to motivate their son.
“To get him to start reading, I subscribed to Sports Illustrated,” Maxine says.
As Donte grew up, Maxine knew that playing football was only going to protect Donte from the temptations around him for so long. They lived in the neighborhood that fed into Dorsey High in the Los Angeles Unified School District, but Maxine figured out a workaround.
“I didn’t want him to go to an all-Black school,” she says. “I was worried he was going to get into trouble.”
Maxine got him into Culver City High, where he starred as an undersized defensive back. He was overlooked by Division I recruiters because of his 6-foot, 150-pound frame, went to Pasadena City College to put on weight and accepted a scholarship offer from Syracuse. After Williams finished his college career at Idaho State, he played two seasons in the Arena Football League 2.
Around that time, even though Williams didn't want to give up on his pro football dream, he told Greg Goodyear, the Culver City offensive coordinator and a high-school mentor, that he was interested in possibly becoming a college coach.
“Look dude,” Goodyear recalls saying, “if you’re a phenomenal recruiter, you’re never going to want for a job.”
While finishing up in the AFL 2, Williams started on the bottom rung at L.A. Harbor College, where he spent one year, parlaying that into one-year gigs at El Camino and Mt. San Antonio College, honing the craft of building connection.
“Coming up from the JuCo level, relationships are all you have,” Kaub says. “It’s not like you have a big recruiting budget or a logo on your shirt. You gotta win the kids over being who you really are. He cut his teeth as a recruiter early on, and he’s so authentic, it’s hard not to trust him.”
People liked Williams and kept recommending him, and all of a sudden he was a quality control coach at Nevada, a graduate assistant at Washington under Steve Sarkisian and a summer coaching intern with Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks. His first college assistant position came in 2013 at San Jose State, where he brought a fearless attitude on the recruiting trail.
For instance, Williams went after Pollard, a four-star recruit out of Gardena Serra, who had many Power Five suitors.
“He gave me the offer and said, ‘I’m gonna go ahead and offer you, C.J. Pollard, but I know I can’t get a kid like you right now,’” Pollard says.
The “right now” infers Williams knew he was going places further than San Jose. Stints at Arizona and Nebraska led to Oregon, where Williams promptly began plucking five-star recruits like defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux and linebacker Justin Flowe straight out of Southern California, sounding the alarm at USC’s Heritage Hall that something had to be done to stop this man.
“I always told him, ‘You gotta do something to be different and make people have to hire you,’ ” says Jason Brown, the former coach of Compton College, now of Netflix's “Last Chance U” fame. “That’s what he did at Oregon and got a chance to come back home. USC had to hire him.”
Mike Bohn might have felt he had to hire Williams after the 2019 season, when the Ducks planted a flag in the region with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin. He certainly did not have to promote Williams to interim coach this week, paving the way for a hometown kid to stride into the spotlight.
"Donte's recruited a great number of these players, and some of the players he recruited from other institutions where he was and came to USC," Bohn says. "So he knows them, he knows their families, he has great relationships with them. He has impeccable poise. He's a leader. And we wanted our coordinators to coordinate and do a great job ... while Donte's doing everything he can to rally the team and pull them together."
That's a sound argument, but Williams' supporters certainly know USC could have tuned it out.
“Big respect to Mike Bohn and [chief of staff] Brandon Sosna,” Pollard says. “They had a chance to say, 'Hey, we can go with Graham Harrell or Todd Orlando.' But the message is it’s not just about being a young African-American — it’s that Donte earned this. He’s been successful everywhere he’s been. And it broke old trends, of USC not liking African-American leaders. We know nothing is promised, but I hope they do everything to make Donte [successful]. And don’t let him leave.”
As the USC coach with no previous experience as a program leader, Williams and his abilities will be scrutinized like never before. The Trojans, who began the season ranked No. 14, are now 1-1 and still control their destiny in the Pac-12 Conference race. Past interim coaches Ed Orgeron in 2013 and Helton in 2015 performed admirably but did not lead the Trojans to the Pac-12 title.
If Williams pulls that off — or even takes down surging crosstown rival UCLA to win the South Division — he would place himself firmly in the annals of Trojans lore no matter what happens with the program after this season.
That’s a lot to consider, and Maxine Wimberly Williams can’t even go there.
“Too stressful,” she says. “I almost have a heart attack at all the games. Just gotta deal with it, you know.”
When Williams reached his mother Monday night, he made her promise she’d attend the team’s next home game against Oregon State on Sept. 25 at the Coliseum, only a quick drive east on Exposition Boulevard from the Crenshaw house that raised USC history.
Times reporter Thuc Nhi Nguyen contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.