Heisman hopeful Williams keeps Memphis running smoothly
Aug. 31, 2005
By Dennis Dodd
CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- So what does the most famous man in Memphis -- the big timer with his own stock car -- drive around town?
"A '97 Blazer," DeAngelo Williams said. "It has more dings. ... The windshield wipers don't work. I have more bumps and bruises. ..."
Williams might drive a junker, but in Memphis the senior tailback also drives the bus, the one that leads Tigers football out of anonymity.
DeAngelo Williams is among the best football players Memphis has ever produced. (AP)
That's no small feat here in the middle of SEC country, where Memphis football isn't even the biggest thing on campus. It might start with what was arguably the biggest offseason story in college football -- a 1/24th-scale model car that sprung from the mind of Memphis sports information director Jennifer Rodriguez.
Her husband, a big NASCAR fan, collects car models. She got the idea while trying to think of a unique way to kick off Williams' Heisman candidacy. Rodriguez came up with the vision for the 8½-inch by 2-inch, blue and gray No. 20 car -- made in China, for ages 3 and up -- to hype the nation's leading all-purpose runner last year.
But a fun idea became much more than that. The cars became this summer's Beanie Babies. Everyone had to have one. They were mailed to Heisman voters as a promotion. Fans and collectors jumped on them like they were the last helicopters out of Saigon.
It has become a lesson in economics. The original supply of 3,500 cars priced at $35 were snatched up by boosters and fans long ago. The school has made at least a $40,000 profit. The car was officially a collector's item before Monday's season opener against Ole Miss.
In July, Memphis president Shirley Raines needed six more. A cocktail party acquaintance offered athletic director R.C. Johnson $150 for one. Cars have begun showing up on eBay for $200.
"We're out of them," Johnson said.
It became a lesson in guerilla marketing. The trend among SIDs lately is that less is more. All the Heisman T-shirts, postcards and bumper stinkers were thought to turn off the media. Why waste the money? Major programs market themselves by being on TV each week.
Will the car make any difference in the Heisman race? Yes and no. It might get Williams a trip to New York as a finalist but the odds against any player from a non-BCS school winning the hardware are huge.
Memphis isn't on TV each week and remains overshadowed by John Calipari's basketball program. But maybe that's not the point. The car got Williams and the Tigers mentioned on national television, in major newspapers and, well, on every major sports Internet site.
If one recruit, maybe the next DeAngelo Williams, notices Memphis because of the car then it was worth it.
"If I'm a voter, I throw a bumper sticker in the trash," coach Tommy West said. "That car, I'm doing to put on my desk."
Best of all, it became a lesson in doing the right thing. It focused attention on a fun-loving kid from tiny Wynne, Ark. who just might be the biggest personality in this town since Elvis. The 22-year old literally can't walk down the street without being recognized.
Mostly because he can't say no -- to his teammates or his adoring fans. He played with the emotions of Memphis by drawing out his decision to stay for his senior year and not head to the NFL.
"I've decided to forgo," Williams said before pausing, "my NFL career."
"I said, 'You dirty dog,'" Johnson said. "He played it right to the end."
Over the weekend, Williams stayed for 4½ hours at a fan fest signing every last scrap of paper, shirt and plastic stock car shoved in front of him. At Memphis' summer camp he did an impromptu signing for almost two hours.
At a black-tie fundraiser, Williams was "mobbed," according to one assistant coach, while Memphis Grizzlies players Shane Battier and Mike Miller looked on.
"We can go to a grocery store and half the grocery store is like, 'Oh, it's him,'" said best friend and teammate Maurice Avery.
"If I want to have fun somewhere, I might call him out and say, 'This is DeAngelo Williams.'"
"(In the city) there isn't a person who doesn't know who he is," said offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. "This kid gets pulled every day. Jennifer gets requests for him to appear at kids' birthday parties. I've been hit up at golf tournaments."
Who is your pick to win the Heisman this year?
Somebody will come out of nowhere
Good thing Williams is a willing participant. He has a heart as big as the Liberty Bowl and smile as wide as the nearby Mississippi. The NFL just doesn't make sense right now.
"They call it 'work,'" he said. "Everybody I talk to in the NFL calls it work."
Memphis has become his comfy lounge chair. The city is loving him back. They know Williams is largely responsible for Memphis assembling consecutive winning seasons for only the second time since 1977.
Twenty times since 1978, the program has finished under .500. In Williams' three seasons, Memphis has gone to two bowl games. The Tigers have won 14 of their past 19 games as Williams shot up the charts.
Last year, he led the nation with 185.8 all-purpose yards per game and is the nation's leading returning rusher (1,948 yards). He comes into this season as arguably the school's best player ever. The school career records for rushing, scoring and all-purpose yards already belong to him. His "touches" are magic -- he averages 7.3 yards per catch, rush or return.
"I don't really care about if they're making money off me in college," Williams said. "They're paying for my education. If they're going to give me $65,000-plus to attend their university and they make $40-, $50-, $60 million I don't care. That degree will mean something to me forever."
Williams admittedly has changed his outlook from high school. It used to be about getting to the NFL. Now it's about enjoying one final blast of a senior season, a la Matt Leinart.
"He's going to give you that veteran talk, 'You need to go ahead and get your money,'" Williams said of Memphis grad and St. Louis Rams receiver Isaac Bruce, who worked out on campus in the offseason. "That's because he's been there for 13 years. If you get the other view (from a free agent), they'll say you need to stay in school to get your degree."
There was good reason other than fun for Williams to stay. Had he come out, he might have been the fourth back, at best, taken behind Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams and Cedric Benson. In 2006, he is already being projected as a top-five overall pick.
Amazing stuff for one of those who got away. Big-time recruits in the South usually don't commit to places like Memphis. Williams' other finalists three years ago were Iowa, Arkansas and Ole Miss. Which one doesn't belong in the picture?
"You don't turn down the University of Arkansas for Memphis," Williams said, "You turn it down for USC, Michigan and other top schools."
But Williams did just that. His high school coach told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life, that Memphis is a "graveyard."
"It was based on, after college, would I live there?" Williams said. "Look at the Auburns, the Arkansases, the Alabamas. You get the picture now? Some of those places Wal-Mart is a big hit.
"Memphis is a big city. You never see the same people twice."
Get this picture: Williams is the spitting image of Barry Sanders as a runner right down to the No. 20. At 5-feet-10 and 217 pounds he can turn the corner, catch passes or bust it up inside.
He might lack Williams' uncanny cutting ability but there is something else.
"His calves, they're like darn softballs," Fichtner said. "Don't tell me there's not something to this. You know, it's power."
Williams also is the class clown. When he and Avery were tormented by upperclassmen as freshmen, they vowed it would never be like that when they got older.
"We wanted to change things so bad," he said. "It was crazy around here. If you stepped on a stick too loud, you'd get (grief)."
Freshmen now are told two things by the seniors. They won't be hazed but they will have to provide what Williams calls "a little music." During lunch, freshmen are required to stand up and sing a song of their choice.
When half the team went to Williams' church in Wynne, the boys cracked up. Each player was required to stand up and tell something about themselves. Imagine how uncomfortable you would be in front of a strange congregation.
"This is a serious world but laughter cheers us all up," he said.
The question has to be asked: Can one player turn around an entire program?
"No, but I think one personality and one hard worker can change the work ethic of others and influence change in a team," Williams said.
The whole thing started small, ran for 5,498 all-purpose yards and evolved into a plastic phenomenon. Memphis officials wanted to do something for this gem in their midst. West originally vetoed a Heisman campaign but finally signed off on the model car after seeing Rodriguez's presentation.
"When you're us, you try harder," West said.
After that, you hand the ball to No. 20 -- and smile.