FAYETTEVILLE — When he found out he was going to be Arkansas’ next defensive coordinator, the first person Travis Williams called was his wife.
It wasn’t until that night that the couple told their three daughters. Leaving the home of Disney World, where Williams had the same role at UCF, can be hard to sell for kids between the ages of 5-11, but they were excited about the move to Fayetteville.
“We told them all together that night and they were just fired up,” Williams said. “Put the stadium on the TV and ‘That’s where we’re going.’ And said, ‘You know, we may have some snow.’ And they were fired up about snow.”
The prospect of cold temperatures isn’t always viewed as a positive when coming from the Sunshine State, but Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman quickly realized that wasn’t the case for what he described as a “beautiful family.”
“That was the biggest sell,” Pittman said with a smile. “When I talked to them on FaceTime, they were going, ‘And snow, and snow and snow.’ And I’m like — you know how it is — you’re going, ‘Is that a good thing? Or a bad thing?’ I felt pretty fast it was a good thing so I started, ‘Oh yeah, and snowmen.’”
The hire of Williams — which Pittman called a “home run” — capped what was, from the outside looking in, a wild search for Barry Odom’s replacement. New names surfaced seemingly every day as fans tracked the UA plane’s every move.
Pittman said Williams was one of “several” candidates he interviewed and the interview took place in Tampa — a move he made to throw fans tracking the plane off his scent. From there, it was a pretty easy process.
“Once I got in front of him, I was like ‘Okay,’ because I heard all the stories about how great of a guy he is,” Williams said. “To get in front of him, it was easy. It was easy. Very excited to be here.”
It may sound weird when applied to a football coach searching for a coordinator, but it was very much love at first sight for Pittman.
“When I got in front of him, I can remember calling Hunter Yurachek and saying ‘I found him,’” Pittman said. “There was no doubt in my mind. I said, ‘This is the guy, this is the guy that we need.’”
At that point, it all just came down to timing. A few days later, Pittman told reporters he was closing in on a hire and the next day, Saturday, work finally leaked that it was Williams. The hire wasn’t officially announced until Monday morning.
“I wanted to do it the right way — I didn’t want to hurt our team, I didn’t want to hurt UCF’s team and all those things,” Pittman said. “To be honest with you, some situations had changed at UCF where we were able to, in my own mind, clear not hurting their program. Our program, I felt like we needed to name a coordinator and I talked to Gus. We came to a conclusion of, well, let’s do it Saturday.”
For Williams, it was an opportunity to return to the SEC. He played at Auburn from 2001-05 and then coached for the Tigers as a graduate assistant (2009-11), defensive analyst (2014-15), linebackers coach (2016-20) and co-defensive coordinator (2019-20).
“I like the competition, recruiting, football, everything, so it was just important to get back (in the SEC),” Williams said. “Just understanding the landscape, understanding what it takes, understanding the type of players you need to be successful in the SEC, that was a big selling point, as well.”
Travis Williams Contract Details
According to a copy of his employment agreement obtained by Best of Arkansas Sports via a Freedom of Information request, Travis Williams agreed to a three-year deal with Arkansas that will pay him seven figures.
His base pay and other compensation totals $1.1 million for the first year and includes automatic $75,000 raises the next two years. That means he’ll make $1.175 million in 2024 and $1.25 million in 2025.
That is a significant increase from the $600,000 annual salary Williams had for the same job at UCF, but is no where close to what the Razorbacks were paying Barry Odom.
Odom was the highest-paid defensive coordinator in the SEC in 2022, though, so that was to be expected. In fact, he ranked third among all assistant coaches at public universities with a $1.85 million salary this year.
Between what it is paying Williams, new tight ends coach Morgan Turner and new strength and conditioning coach Ben Sowders, the UA is saving about $850,000 in salaries compared to what it was originally set to pay in 2023.
Before it was publicly known that Travis Williams was his guy, Sam Pittman told reporters that he was looking for a defensive coordinator who was a bit more aggressive and played more four-man fronts while still being multiple.
That’s a contrast to how the Razorbacks have been the last three years under Barry Odom, who was known for his rush-three, drop-eight scheme that was more bend-but-don’t-break than aggressive.
It sounds like Williams won’t be using that as much moving forward.
“I watched every game (UCF) played last year and he scared me a little bit, because they were ultra aggressive,” Pittman said with a laugh. “A little more zero than I (would do), but if you’ve got the guys that can do it, (do it.)”
He didn’t use the word “aggressive,” but Williams insinuated that was the case when asked to describe his coaching style on the defensive side of the ball.
“We’re going to play intimidating defense,” Williams said. “One of the best things you can get from an opposing coach is, ‘Man, your guys play hard.’ So when you watch us, we’re going to play hard, we’re going to play physical. We’re going to have that mental and physical toughness that you need to play. We’re going to get our tails to the ball, and it’s going to be sound.”
Travis Williams’ Initial Role with Arkansas Football
Unlike tight ends coach Morgan Turner, who dove head-first into bowl prep upon his arrival, Travis Williams is taking on a more observational role and focusing on recruiting until after the Liberty Bowl.
Linebackers coach Michael Scherer will serve as the interim defensive coordinator because of his familiarity with the system, as he also played in it for Odom at Missouri.
Sam Pittman said they haven’t even decided which position group Williams will coach. Odom was in charge of the safeties, but Williams is a linebackers coach by trade. Whether or not that’s what he ends up coaching likely depends on Scherer’s decision — stay at Arkansas or follow Odom to UNLV, potentially as a defensive coordinator.
In the meantime, Williams will get a feel for his personnel and work the phones with recruits.
“I want him to evaluate what we have,” Pittman said. “It’s hard to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for, so I think that’s the biggest thing, to be able to evaluate and let Mike and those guys run the defense for us right now.”
Because of his time on the recruiting trail at both Auburn and UCF, Williams is already familiar with a few guys on the team, including linebacker Chris Paul Jr. and defensive tackle Cam Ball.
“He was recruiting me in high school at Auburn, so we already had a relationship established back then,” Ball said. “Since he’s gotten on campus, we’ve just rekindled it. He’s a very good coach.”
The first chance he had to meet the other guys, though, came during a workout this week, when he was able to shake each player’s hand.
He familiarized himself with the team by watching a little bit of film before taking the job, but didn’t want to form too many opinions before seeing them in person. Luckily for him, the timing works out so that he can watch them in bowl practices rather than having to wait until spring ball for his first look.
“You watch them on Saturday, you can kind of get a grasp of what they do, an overview of what they do,” Williams said. “So I’m kind of up to date on what they ran last year and we’ll be a little different. You look at it and kind of see the personnel. It’s going to be better for me watching them at practice, watching the guys move around and evaluate the guys.”
More about Travis Williams at 16:20 below:
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