MOSCOW, Idaho – Aric Williams isn’t a Montanan by definition, but he may as well be.
“My wife is from Butte, America,” he explained.
Williams, a former all-conference cornerback at Oregon State, had heard of the Montana Grizzlies due to the proximity of Corvallis, Ore. and Missoula, but didn’t truly understand the culture of the Griz until he was hired as a defensive assistant in December of 2009.
“They are crazy. Like any big program, they want to win,” Williams said of the Griz and their fans. “I love Missoula, I love the people there, I met my wife there and actually got married this summer in Bigfork, Montana. I go to Montana, not necessarily Missoula, but every Christmas and every summer we’re there. I love Missoula and the people there, it’s a beautiful city.”
It’s also the landing spot that launched his coaching career. Following stints in the NFL, NFL Europe, the Arena League and a quick stop on the staff at Arizona State, Williams was part of Robin Pflugrad’s inaugural season with the Grizzlies, a 7-4 campaign that left some fans doubting the staff.
But the following season UM went 11-3 and advanced to the FCS semfiinals. Williams paired with Mike Breske, Ty Gregorak and Legi Suiaunoa on the defensive side of the football, coaching some of the greatest athletes in program history.
“I had the privilege to coach Trumaine Johnson. He was a gift, like ‘Here you go,’” Williams said of the all-American and current NFL cornerback. “Jimmy Wilson was pretty good when he came back. We had some pretty good defensive backs. Chase Reynolds was the running back there, Jabin Sambrano was a receiver, there are a lot of names that I could go on and on. (Jordan) Johnson was the quarterback, there were a lot of good players there and they were fun times, we won a lot of games.”
Forty-two to be exact. Williams spent five years in Missoula, advancing to the second round of the FCS playoffs three times, including the semifinal run in 2011. UM also missed the postseason twice, 2010 and 2012, snapping a record of 17 straight playoff appearances.
Still, Williams found success with the defensive backs. Johnson and Wilson were exceptional talents, but Williams coached numerous others to all-conference accolades and still holds an appreciation for the program to this day.
“The thing about Montana is, it’s been such a winning program for so long that teams will come in there and be intimidated by what it says across your chest: it says ‘Montana,’” said Williams. “They’re intimidated by the stadium. We weren’t the most talented team a lot of times when we played, but we were tougher and we worked harder than them. That’s what we’re teaching here. Coach (Paul) Petrino is tough, he’s Montana tough. He teaches the same thing here (at Idaho), ‘We’re going to be tough and outwork these guys. We may not always be the most talented, but we’re going to beat them because we’re tougher and because we’ve outworked them.’”
It was the Griz connection that brought Williams to Paul Petrino’s staff with the Idaho Vandals. Former Montana defensive coordinator Breske played a major role in bringing Williams from Missoula to Moscow, joining forces with a staff loaded with Treasure State connections.
“I didn’t really think about it until one day my second year I was thinking, ‘Wow, we do have a lot of Montana ties,’” said Williams. “Montana is a football state. You have your football there, but there aren’t any professional teams, so you have your college football. When you have the Griz-Cat game or the Cat-Griz game, however you want to say it, the state shuts down and you can hardly get a ticket. It’s a football state with the Carroll Colleges, the Havres, Montana Western, Montana Tech in Butte. There’s just good football there.”
2017 is Williams’ third as the cornerback coach with the Vandals and his seventh season as a college football assistant overall. He has aspirations of climbing the coaching ladder and eventually leading his own program, perhaps back in the state that started it all.
“I want to become a head coach down the line, but I have to work my way up the coaching steps and coaching ladders. I’m originally from Los Angeles, Calif., and if I make it back there great, but my wife is from Montana and I’ve become more of a small-town guy,” he said. “I played my college ball at Oregon State and Corvallis is a small town. I like the northwest and ‘happy wife, happy life,’ so if we make it back to Montana I know my wife would be happy.”
It would also make Williams a full-time Montanan, though to some Griz football fans, he may be already.