NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Terrell Williams’ stint as the Tennessee Titans’ acting head coach is more than just for their preseason opener Saturday in Chicago.
Coach Mike Vrabel is turning the Titans over to his assistant head coach and defensive line assistant for a 48-hour period running from Thursday through postgame Saturday afternoon for a simple reason.
The best way to learn how to be an NFL head coach is by doing rather than watching, and Williams, 49, said Thursday he hopes this sets a new standard for the whole league.
“There’s nothing better than actually getting the experience, and I think he deserves a lot of credit for doing that,” Williams said of Vrabel.
Williams, who is Black, came up through the NFL’s minority coaching program with his first stint in 1999 with Jacksonville and yes, he wants to be a head coach some day.
Vrabel announced Monday that Williams would serve as acting head coach for the preseason opener and later explained his intent was rewarding someone who had earned this opportunity.
The Titans coach said they’re trying to coach, teach and develop coaches and players. And yes, diversity in both ideas and personalities matter helping connect with everyone in the organization, especially players.
“We’re looking for the best candidates always, and we’ll do our best to continue to make sure that we’re hiring based on merit,” Vrabel said.
Currently, the NFL has six head coaches of color with three Black, one biracial, one Latino and one Lebanese-American.
Vrabel credited Bill O’Brien for showing him as much as possible when he worked in Houston for the then-Texans head coach. But Vrabel remembers his preseason debut as an NFL head coach only too well: He didn’t know what card the officials wanted when asked 90 minutes before kickoff.
That’s why Vrabel had Williams talking with officials during practice earlier this week to start preparing for this game. Vrabel talked Thursday to reporters before practice, leaving Williams to handle the media from the podium after practice.
Williams looked very comfortable too, easily dodging questions about playing time decisions.
Next was a team meeting scheduled Thursday afternoon. Williams will meet Friday with Matt Gregg, the associate head athletic trainer acting as top trainer for Todd Toriscelli, about injuries. The cascading effect of Vrabel’s decision also has defensive line assistant Clinton McMillan overseeing the line for Williams.
Three-time Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry called it very cool that Vrabel is giving this opportunity to a hard worker loved by his defensive linemen.
“And it’s a blessing,” Henry said. “I hope it pays forward to give him another opportunity when that time comes.”
Two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons agrees that the veteran coach earned this chance with his passion and attention to details down to field-goal blocking. He hopes to celebrate Williams’ victory with a Gatorade bath.
“Even though it’s just for a weekend right now, but hopefully eventually, that job comes up for him in the future,” Simmons said of an NFL head coaching job.
The Titans have been very active in giving opportunities for both assistants and front office executives. Tony Dews, who switched from coaching running backs to tight ends this season, attended the NFL’s coaching accelerator program with Brian Gardner, director of pro scouting, going twice.
That’s where controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk met Ran Carthon last December before hiring him as the franchise’s first Black general manager in January. Carthon hired two assistant general managers, including Anthony Robinson who’s also Black and started with Carthon in Atlanta.
Vrabel hired the franchise’s first full-time female assistant this offseason in Lori Locust, who won a Super Bowl ring with Tampa Bay and currently is a defensive quality control coach.
Dews said he’s very excited for Williams to get this opportunity Saturday as someone who’s great with both players and fellow coaches. Dews also credited Vrabel for promoting diversity on his staff.
“It’s evident with the amount of people that have been hired here, both minority as well as female,” Dews said.
Williams also wants to see some of his fellow Titans’ assistants get this same chance in the future.
For now, a man who has only ever coached defensive linemen will have the ultimate resume boost to show NFL head coaches don’t necessarily have to be coordinators first. Being an NFL head coach means being able to connect with players and coaches and able to see the big picture.
“You got to be able to connect with these guys or when times get tough, they’re not going to follow you,” Williams said. “So Mike saw that, and I believe that he’s a successful head coach because he also has that ability.”
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