Dana Hall McCain: Cadillac Williams and the power of character

By Dana Hall McCain 

Carnell “Cadillac” Williams

This is an opinion column.

People hunger for leaders with character, whether they realize it or not. The last two weeks at Auburn prove it true.

I’ve been an Auburn fan all my life. My daddy was an Auburn man, and my brothers and I were Auburn kids on the playground when it wasn’t fun. Like, Doug Barfield levels of not fun. Then Pat Dye rode in from Wyoming and restored our self-respect, improving the playground dynamics for kids in Auburn shirts worldwide. For forty years, I’ve believed those pre-Dye depths of poor performance were forever behind us.

Then Bryan Harsin arrived from Idaho (it seems they’ve given us potatoes and little else I long to retain) and took us back to the cellar of the SEC with alarming speed. Adding insult to injury, he acted as if we were unreasonably concerned about that while he cashed his $5 million annual paycheck.

During the Auburn-Arkansas game, I looked at my husband a few minutes into the third quarter and said, “Let’s go.” He stared at me blankly. “Are you serious?”

“Very.”

I couldn’t watch the second half collapse again. It was too painful. As much as I love Auburn, I had to get out of Jordan-Hare Stadium. I survived Doug Barfield as a kid, but I’m older now and less resilient. We left.

Finally, university leaders fired Harsin. That announcement brought relief and a different type of anxiety. We knew that ripping that band-aid off and doing the rest of the season with no head coach and a decimated staff might take us from bad to worse for a time. Do it, we said. Just rip it. We’d rather bleed than live like this.

None of us could have imagined that AU leaders would make the mother of all strategic public relations decisions and name beloved Carnell “Cadillac” Williams Interim Head Coach. Because in all my life, I’ve never seen such genius. In the space of about 48 hours, Auburn people went from trying to give away their season tickets to packing the car in anticipation of their Cadillac-themed tailgate parties.

Shirts and buttons were printed with lightning speed. The Texas A&M game–a no-stakes contest with another 3-6 disaster–suddenly became a sellout. We would’ve crawled across broken glass to get back to our posts in that stadium. And it wasn’t because we thought we were sure to win. It was because we loved and trusted the man trying to lead us like weary Israelites through this desert.

Just like Moses, Carnell Williams isn’t a silver-tongued wordsmith. But when he speaks, he speaks with such sincerity people are hanging on every word. He keeps his messaging simple and stays on a few talking points about his philosophy of what is needed at Auburn right now: serving one another, being disciplined, and believing. Auburn people are rolling up their sleeves and asking to inject it straight into their veins.

His team is responding to it. They are still a long way from championship football, but they are playing with a level of intensity that was lacking before. With the new energy and attitude, they came within one weird OT play of winning on the road at Mississippi State with only three days to prepare. They did win in front of an electrified home crowd against Texas A&M.

How has one man with a set of talking points that would fit on a matchbook changed the entire dynamic at Auburn so quickly? It’s not the message. It’s all about the credibility of the messenger.

Carnell Williams exudes integrity. As a player, he was viewed not just as talented–and boy was he talented–but also as grateful and humble. He was the kind of player you could cheer for without reservation because he was a quality human being on and off the field. As a position coach, his love for the players and his desire to help them become better men has been his brand.

We’re all losing our minds over Carnell Williams because, deep down, we hunger for leaders who exhibit character. We crave it. Our culture often gets lost in the woods of making the conversation always and only about competence, forgetting the role character plays in shaping our destiny. But when we see it, we run to it like we’re dying of thirst, and that character is a fresh spring.

It’s not that we think Cadillac has all the answers to what is ailing this team. It’s that when he speaks, we know he’s telling the truth as he knows it. We trust him.

We believe that he cares about those players–and all of us–and that he’ll grind himself down into a fine powder trying to fix what’s broken. We believe he wants success for Auburn even worse than we do. Rightly or wrongly, that’s something we never believed about his predecessor.

There’s a group of fans so grateful that they’re pushing to make Williams the next head coach. I don’t know if that’s the best thing for Auburn. I wonder if Williams would even desire to take that on at this stage of his coaching career. And because I respect him so much, I want what’s in his best interest as much as I want what’s in Auburn’s best interest.

But I know this: Carnell Williams was the only person on the planet who could have taken this four-game stretch on the back side of hell and used it to heal the psyche of the Auburn family the way he has. He is a man created for such a time as this, and I’m so grateful I’ve gotten to watch the game-changing power of character on full display at Auburn.