March 26, 2014
Travis Williams says decision to return to Auburn was an easy one (Lauren Barnard photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – As signing day for the Class of 2001 neared, Auburn assistant coach Joe Whitt went on a recruiting trip that would include what he expected to be unpleasant duty. He intended to tell linebacker Travis Williams that Auburn did not have a scholarship offer for him.
Williams had finished a stellar career as a linebacker at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C. Defensive coordinator John Lovett wanted to sign him, but Whitt thought he seemed too small to play linebacker in the Southeastern Conference.
“He had great speed, but he was an undersized football player that I thought we would better off without,” Whitt says. “John Lovett was pushing and wanted to sign him. I said ‘I’ll go look at him and we’ll turn him down.’”
Instead, after visiting Williams and his family, Whitt’s opinion changed dramatically. And in February of 2001, Williams took the only scholarship offer he had. It was from Auburn.
“I was a pen snatcher,” Williams says with a laugh. “I grabbed that pen and signed as fast as I could.”
And that, Whitt says, was a big day for Auburn and for Williams.
“He loves Auburn,” Whitt says. “He’s an Auburn man. He’s a man from the ground up, every bit of him.”
Last month, 13 years after he signed his name, Williams returned to Auburn as a defensive analyst on the staff of second-year head coach Gus Malzahn.
Williams arrived at Auburn in 2001 with the intention of proving those who said he was too small wrong. And he did. He became, at 205 pounds, a two-time All-Southeastern Conference middle linebacker. He led the unbeaten 2004 Auburn team in tackles and was second by a single tackle in 2005. He was a leader supreme, earning the Pat Dye Leadership Award in the spring of 2005.
“When I talk to linebackers, they are amazed at the size that I played at,” Williams says. “I don’t know if I would get a scholarship at Auburn this day and age. It’s a big man’s league. People always used to say I should gain weight and all that. I used to say that if you could find somebody to consistently whip me, then I would gain weight.”
Williams became a popular and beloved Auburn player. And, he says, Auburn became part of the very fabric of his life.
Williams went on to play two years for the Atlanta Falcons. He spent two seasons as a graduate assistant on Gene Chizik’s Auburn staff, helping win the 2010 national championship. He coached linebackers at the University of Northern Iowa in 2012. Last season, he was the defensive coordinator at Creekside High School in Fairburn, Ga., and helped show the way to a 15-0 record and state championship.
It was, Williams says, a memorable experience. But when Malzahn called, Williams quickly accepted.
“The decision was easy once I talked to Coach Malzahn,” Williams says. “Just being back at Auburn, being an Auburn man and being what Auburn is, the decision to come back was a no-brainer.”
As an analyst, Williams can sit in on staff meetings and chart practices. His main duty, he says, is to mentor Auburn players. And that’s what attracted him most to coaching in the first place.
“It makes you see that you’re not just here,” Williams says. “You are actually impacting lives and changing lives. I think that’s why we all get into coaching, to change lives. Even when I was coaching in high school, you coach to change lives. If a kid gets something out of me being here, that’s what I was supposed to do.”
Williams’ wife, a school teacher, and 3-year-old daughter will join him when school is out for the summer. He says he wants coaching to be his life’s work, but for now he is looking no further than his mission at the school where he grew up.
“I think the decision I made to come to Auburn changed my life,” Williams says. “Auburn has been a part of my life for the last 13 years. I met my wife here. I met a lot of my best friends here, a lot of great coaches and great people. It’s an honor to be here, because I know the opportunity Auburn gave me back when I was a skinny little linebacker in Columbia, S.C. Auburn is giving me opportunity now to learn under these great coaches. You can’t beat it.”
On that fateful recruiting trip, Whitt went to the house where Williams lived with his father and two younger brothers. He was impressed immediately.
“When I get there, his dad isn’t home,” Whitt says. “It’s Travis and two younger brothers at the home. I spent about an hour with the three of them. I saw the way he interacted with his younger brothers and they with him. I was just so impressed. The house was really, really neat and clean. The boys were preparing dinner. Eventually, his dad came and I was just as impressed with him. I said ‘This can’t be wrong. This will work.’ From that day on, I recruited him.”
Thus began a relationship that grows stronger still to this day. Whitt is now an assistant athletics director and fundraiser. Like Williams’ Auburn playing career, his Auburn coaching career ended at the end of the 2005 season after 25 years.
“Coach Whitt was one of the greatest coaches to ever come through here,” Williams says. “He was the greatest linebacker coach I ever had. He made me believe I was 6-4 and 260. He made all of us believe that. He’s a man’s man. He will shoot you straight.”
Whitt challenged Williams from the time he arrived. He demanded near perfect execution. That was not easy for a freshman in a strange place
“When I first got here, it was rough,” Williams says. “He used to call me table head. He said you were either a table head or a sponge. You pour water on a table and it slides off. You pour it on a sponge and it soaks in. I ended up being a sponge before I left.”
When a back injury ended Williams’ NFL career, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Even before he left Auburn in 2011, he tried his hand at music with some success. His Song “Tiger Walk” was a big hit with Auburn fans. But when the opportunity came to coach again, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“Music was something I liked to do in my spare time,” Williams says. “I made some songs folks liked. You can’t do both. Coaching is going to be what I am going to do.”
Williams watched from afar as Auburn rebounded from a disastrous 2012 season to win the Southeastern Conference championship and play in the BCS Championship Game last season. He was proud.
“I loved every bit of it,” Williams says. “Auburn reaches out so far. Words can’t express how happy I was for the kids and for the coaches. I loved the way they competed and fought their tails off. As an Auburn man, that’s what you want.”
Williams was at Jordan-Hare Stadium when Chris Davis ran 109 yards with a missed field goal to beat Alabama 34-28.
“I’m hugging people I don’t know. We’re crying,” Williams says. “We talk about family atmosphere, and that’s what it was. It was great.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: