New Wharton High head football coach Mike Williams (back) met with some of the Wildcats before Covid-19 forced the cancellation of his first spring practices with his new team.

Mike Williams didn’t leave a job coaching football at Van Nuys High School in California just to win a few games in Tampa, his hometown.

He left to make a difference.

This fall, he will try to do so at New Tampa’s Wharton High. A former All-American wide receiver at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, and first-round NFL draft pick, Williams is Wharton’s choice to replace longtime head coach David Mitchell, who resigned after 15 seasons last fall but remains the school’s head wrestling coach and assistant track & field coach.

Williams, who is building a home close to the Wharton campus, said he wanted to be a Wildcat because of the challenge of coaching in the state’s highest classification, 8A, and because he wants to be able to mentor and mold his players to become disciplined, model young men.

Moved by the death last summer of Middleton High freshman Hezekiah Walters, who collapsed during summer workouts, Williams returned from Los Angeles to Tampa to train local youth players.

He applied at Middleton, and was quickly tabbed to replace the former Tigers head coach, Fred Reid, who was reassigned.

He was hired at Middleton at the end of July 2019, just a few weeks before the start of the season. He didn’t rush his mourning players to the field, instead taking his time to help repair the program’s damaged collective psyche. Williams’ wife, Giavonna, had passed away in her sleep two years prior, so the new coach understood all too well the pain of losing someone close to you.

The Tigers didn’t hold their first practice until July 23 and two weeks later, they opened their season with a 12-7 win over Alonso. 

The team finished with a 5-5 record and went from a team involved in a well-publicized bench clearing brawl in 2017 to being the least penalized team in the county in 2019.

Rewarding Job

The job he did at Middelton under trying circumstances, both on and off the field, made him an attractive candidate when Wharton went looking for a new coach.

“He was by far our best choice,” said Wharton athletic director Eddie Henderson, who convened a committee that included principal Michael Rowan, along with student and parent representatives, to find Mitchell’s replacement. “We liked the fact that he took Middleton and turned them around in two weeks. That’s what we were very impressed about — the relationship he had with those kids.”

Williams was able to meet his new team briefly for some workouts in the weight room shortly before Covid-19 closed down schools in March.

Workouts were finally okayed for June 15, which is when Williams would get to work trying to rebuild the Wildcats program into the district and state power it has been in years past.

When Williams and the Wildcats finally convened for workouts, they did so under new training and safety protocols named after Walters: the Hezekiah Walters Sports Medicine Educational Plan on Hydration and Heat Illness.

As a coach and mentor, Williams will have an office on campus but will not have to teach any classes at Wharton, so he can focus on imparting his can-do attitude into his players.

From The NFL To New Tampa

Tampa Bay-area football fans might recall the path that Williams took from Plant High standout to All-American wide receiver at USC and ultimately to the NFL, when the Detroit Lions made him the 10th overall pick in the 2005 draft.

His journey to being named head football coach at Wharton this past January, however, is likely a road that is a lot less known.

Williams actually first began his coaching career way back in 2004, because the bigger story that year was that he declared himself eligible for the NFL draft – after amassing 2,579 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns in just two collegiate seasons — following the case of former Ohio State University running back Maurice Clarett that opened the door for underclassmen to leave school early to start their NFL careers.

When that door abruptly shut, and the NCAA didn’t restore Williams’ collegiate eligibility, he instead returned to his South Tampa roots while he waited for the NFL Draft.

“Coach” Williams helped the Interbay YMCA, where he spent countless hours as a youth, launch an 8-man tackle football team. That year, the Hammerheads went 7-0 and many of his youth players surrounded him at his 2005 draft party, appearing on ESPN when Detroit selected him.

Williams went on to play five NFL seasons with four different teams over a seven-year period.

“Going to the pros was extra,” says Williams, the second youngest of seven siblings, including a sister he lost a couple years ago. “I always, always wanted to be a coach. Everybody wants to make it to the pros. I’ve really been living my dream the last eight years coaching.”

Williams said he is ready for his latest challenges, including preparing for tough Class 8A competition without being able to gather his team on the field or in the weight room due to Covid-19. The new guidelines have been a challenge, and while Wharton has a 2020 schedule — it hosts a preseason game against Blake High on August 14 — the season itself still remains up in the air.

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