Make no mistake; the University of Cincinnati's new president is a sports fan. Gregory Williams checks out ESPN, loves to watch the Super Bowl and Final Four and enjoys watching college football and following coaches with whom he has crossed paths at previous stops.
He's witnessed big-time college athletics during years as a student or administrator at Maryland, Ohio State and Iowa, where he served on the Board in Control of Athletics. During his tenure as City College of New York president, the Division III school added baseball, and Williams talks about attending volleyball games where the announcer spoke Spanish because of the school's diverse student body. He also enjoys pointing out that CCNY is the only school to have won men's basketball NCAA and NIT titles in the same year (1950).
Williams discussed a wide range of topics in close to an hour and skillfully handled questions about the college football playoff debate, the money and attention lavished on college sports and, of course, whether Cincinnati and Ohio State should play every year in men's basketball and football (I had to ask, right?)
On Ohio State, he said, smiling, "I'm going to leave that up to the athletic directors and coaches. (Ohio State) President (Gordon) Gee is a good friend of mine, but I don't think neither he nor I will be scheduling games."
Here are questions and answers from the session related to sports.
In the context of higher education, how do you view college athletics?
"I think college athletics have an important role to play in an institution. Obviously it's an opportunity for the school (and) the alumni to really come together and show pride. A common purpose and a common goal can be a great unifying factor and bring prestige and recognition to the institution in a way that is very hard to emulate in other things that you might be doing."
Impressions of athletics here at UC?
"From what I've seen so far it certainly is a unifying factor, not only on the campus but in the entire city, and throughout Southwest Ohio folks are very supportive of UC athletics. That's obviously quite gratifying."
You have many priorities. Where do sports fit in? When do you start to think about your goals for athletics here?
"I think sports play a big role. Obviously it's hard to figure out where they are on the priority list. No. 1 the university is an academic institution. The No. 1 priority is to be the best we can be academically - that means in the classroom, in the programs that we offer students, in the research that we do and that the faculty is engaged in. We want to be a complete university, and part of that is the opportunity for students to participate in athletics, as well as for students to be involved and engaged in following the teams and being supportive of the teams."
Do you have goals in mind for UC's athletic program?
"I want us to be the best we can be."
Are you familiar with the drive for the indoor facility and potential stadium expansion?
"I have some familiarity with that." (He laughs)
How do you view that need and where that fits into things?
"There are certainly needs that we're going to try to address. A number of those are being addressed right now. I would anticipate we'll be able to move fairly quickly on addressing the most urgent needs. I want to emphasize that Athletics is pursuing private dollars for these needs so that the financial burden does not fall back on the University's general fund."
There's always the debate about college athletes - that coaches get huge salaries and there is a disproportionate amount of attention paid to athletics. How do you view where athletics is, the priority it gets and the money spent?
"The priorities, of course, are clear. As I said earlier, we are an academic institution. That's what we are and that's what we always will be. In fact, we don't call them 'athletes,' we call them 'student-athletes.' Ultimately they're going to graduate and go onto a number of different professions, and we want to be supportive of that."
Will you be visible? What kinds of sporting events will people see you at?
"I try to attend as many sporting events as I can. You might see me wearing my Bearcats jacket."
What kind of relationship will you have with Athletic Director Mike Thomas?
"We're very fortunate to have a great athletic director. As the president, I have responsibility for everything. While I am not a micromanager, I expect to be informed as to what's going on, and Mike has done a tremendous job in keeping me informed and abreast of what's happening."
Will you have face-time with UC student-athletes? Will you meet them? Will you be available to them?
"The basketball coach wants me to speak to the team, and I look forward to that. I've already had the chance to meet some of the football players. I enjoy meeting athletes. Every place I've ever been I've had the chance to interact with athletes. That's always a fun experience to hear about the challenges they're facing and talk about their goals and aspirations."
What advice or thoughts do you share with them?
"Student-athletes really face great challenges. When I was on the Board in Control of Athletics at the University of Iowa, we did a study on what time it took to be a student-athlete. For instance - this was a long time ago; I don't remember this exactly - but in a week that the football team would have an away game, we found that students were spending over 48 hours that week on things related to athletics and football. Obviously they aren't practicing all that time. It was like having a full-time job. You really have to have your priorities in order. I think athletes that are successful learn to establish those priorities and learn how to negotiate that. It is very difficult and it requires a single-mindedness if you're going to be successful both in the classroom and in the field."
As time goes on, what are people going to learn about you as a person?
"I think they're going to learn that I'm a very hard worker. I'm very dedicated. I'm focused. I am competitive, and I think that comes from my own time as a student-athlete. From my own background, I understand many of the struggles that our students have in terms of facing financial and other obstacles to pursuing their education."
How was attending the Big East meetings on your first day on the job (Nov. 1)?
"It was great. The reception was very warm from my fellow presidents. I knew a couple of them and had had good relationships with them before I started. They were very excited to a person about the great things that are happening with UC football right now. The Big East members take great pride in that. I didn't have anything to do with that, but it's on my watch." (He smiles)
How familiar are you with the Big East overall?
"I am familiar with the conference, I am familiar with some of the challenges that they face. I came away from that meeting feeling that the Big East is a very strong conference and folks are very committed to it. The presidents are excited about the conference and what the potential is in the future. There was a real energy and enthusiasm in the room for the Big East among the presidents."
I know you played football and basketball as a kid. Do you still play anything?
"I played basketball up until a few years. I don't do much basketball (anymore). I try to work out pretty regularly. I do a lot of aerobics, as well as weight-lifting. I try to do bicycling from time to time. My wife and I were avid bicyclists."
Sports heroes growing up?
"Sure. Growing up in (Muncie) Indiana, it was basketball, and one of my heroes was Oscar Robertson, who was a few years older than me."
Have you met yet?
"Yes, actually we have met and we have a number of friends in common, folks I know who live in Indianapolis, who grew up in Indianapolis and other people he played with over the years, particularly from my hometown of Muncie. ... I think we met at an alumni gathering. It was great. Absolutely I was l looking forward to meeting Oscar Robertson; no question about it. Once the decision was made for me to come to Cincinnati, I was thinking of folks I was looking forward to meeting and obviously Oscar Robertson was one of them."
Pro teams that you follow?
"Since I have two cousins who are assistant coaches with the Cincinnati Bengals (Jonathan and Jay Hayes), I root for the Bengals."
How are they related?
"Our grandmothers were sisters. "
Were you a better quarterback or a better basketball player?
"In retrospect, I was probably a better football player than I was a basketball player. But in Indiana, in those days, it was all about basketball. As I look back on it, I certainly had more success playing football because I played quarterback and I played linebacker, as well. Those were the days when you played both ways. But I loved basketball."
This is Part I. Part II will deal more with Williams' background and his book, "Life on the Color Line." I expect to post that the week after Thanksgiving. I've got a fun story for next week which should bring back some fond memories.