Jerry Williams: Star Cougar, pro innovator

Spokesman-Review Correspondent
Posted Jan 1, 1999


ACCORDING TO HIS lifelong friend, Bob Carey, when Jerry Williams was a teenager, living below Manito Park on Spokane's South Hill, the coach at Lewis and Clark told the aspiring halfback he was too small for high school football.

(Reprinted with permission from the Spokesman-Review)

"Hah," recalled Carey, hours after Williams, 75, a noted former college and professional player and coach, died following a long illness Thursday in Chandler, Ariz.

"My older brother and I were twice as big as Jerry and his brother Bill when we used to play in the neighborhood, but they tackled as well as they did the rest of their careers."

So Carey, who grew up two doors away in the Spokane Valley, told Archie Buckley of rival North Central about the Williams boys.

"He said `Send 'em over,'" Carey said. "So, I went over to their house and told them to report to North Central. Bill was a year older and a sophomore, and he said he'd lose a year of eligibility, so he decided to stay, but Jerry went to North Central."

Williams became an all-city player. And then he went to the University of Idaho and Washington State. And then to the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles. Then, he coached at the University of Montana and at Calgary and Hamilton of the Canadian Football League and with the Eagles.

Williams also played in the East-West Shrine Game and the College All-Star Game. He was an All-Coast running back at WSU, an All-Pro safety with the Rams and the CFL's coach of the year. He is a member of the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame, the Inland Empire Hall of Fame, and was picked by a panel of Cougar football experts for a spot on the all-time Cougar team chosen by The Spokesman-Review in 1995 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Cougar football.

And, according both friends and former players, he was an admirable man and a great competitor. "What an awful, awful loss," said former NFL defensive backfield star Irv Cross, the recently deposed athletic director at Idaho State. Cross, who both played for Williams and coached with him at Philadelphia, recalled the Spokane native as one of football's great innovators.

"Jerry was extra bright and always two or three steps ahead of everybody else," said Cross, who spent some time with Williams in Arizona during the summer.

"George Allen made a big deal out of running a nickel defense (five defensive backs), but it originated with Jerry Williams. The run-and-shoot? He ran that offense in Canada and we ran it the first year I was in Philly.

"I owe an awful lot of what I know about football today to him."

Cross also remembers Williams as a superior handball player.

"I'm not talking about some gym-rat player," he said. "He was a heckuva competitor. He was one of the greatest players in the country."

Bill Etter, a former Lewis and Clark High and Notre Dame quarterback, spent three years playing for Williams at Hamilton.

"He was just a first-class person, an excellent guy with players, and a tough, fair guy you could really play for," said Etter, who started a three-year run with the Tiger-Cats in 1973.

"I'm deeply indebted to Jerry Williams," Etter added. "He gave me a second chance to fulfill the potential that injury had denied me at Notre Dame. I only have one other coach to compare him to and that was Ara Paraseghian at Notre Dame, and he compares very favorably."

"He was a great guy and a great coach," said former North Central and WSU classmate Don Freeman of Spokane.

Williams graduated from North Central in 1942. That fall, he joined his brother at the University of Idaho.

When the war broke out, Carey, who had finished flight training, convinced his younger former neighbors to join him in the Army Air Corps. Jerry Williams earned his wings and flew missions as a P-38 fighter pilot in the South Pacific, while Bill was flying B-24s in Europe. Following the war, he turned up at Washington State.

Carey likes telling a story that underlines the 170-pound back's self-confidence.

"According to Jimmy Ennis (an eyewitness who became a legendary Washington coach), Williams walked into Phil Sarboe's office and introduced himself.

"Who's your running back," asked Williams.

"Bill Lippincott," answered Sarboe.

"Put Lippincott at your other running back spot," responded Williams. "I'm your running back."

Before he graduated after three seasons (1946-48), Williams returned a punt for 97 yards against Oregon in 1947 and returned kickoffs for 88 and 87 yards against Montana and California, respectively.

After piling up 1,500 all-purpose yards and earning All-Coast honors in 1948, he scored a touchdown in the Shrine Game.

In 1951, after returning a blocked field goal 99 yards for a touchdown against Green Bay, he helped the Rams defeat the Cleveland Brown 24-17 for the NFL championship.

Traded to Philadelphia, where he became a two-way player in 1953, Williams led the Eagles in all-purpose yardage with 1,151.

He left the playing field to become head coach at the University of Montana in 1955. After three years, he rejoined the Eagles as an assistant coach in 1958. Two seasons later, his defensive schemes paved the way to a 17-13 victory over Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers in the NFL championship game.

Williams, who earned a law degree from Temple University while he was with the Eagles, moved to Calgary as an assistant in 1953. A year later, he became the head coach. He was 1967 CFL coach of the year after the Stampeders broke all of the league's records for passing success. The next year, the Stamps played for the Grey Cup, which they lost to Ottawa, for the first time in 19 years.

He exercised a loophole in his contract to accept the head coaching job with the Eagles when controversial Leonard Tose purchased the team in 1969.

However, he lasted less than three seasons and was fired with a 7-22-2 record after three lopsided losses in 1971.

Williams, whose players denounced the decision as "a grave injustice," made further national headlines by vilifying Tose as "a man without courage or character."

Williams had plenty of both, friends insist. "I never heard Jerry Williams swear a single word," Carey said. "If he got upset, he'd say `obscenity!'." Carey said. "That's all he said. He was a real fine-charactered guy."

In 1972, Williams returned to the CFL and led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to the championship. He remained through the 1975 season then retired with a career CFL record of 44-28-1.

WSU inducted Williams in the second crop of its hall of fame selections in 1979. He joined the Inland Empire Hall of Fame in 1983. Three years later, North Central retired his No. 6 jersey.

Williams is survived by Marian Williams, his wife of 51 years; his brother, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court; and a sister, Arva Coffey, both of Spokane, as well as three sons, two daughters, and nine grandchildren.


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