Relationships between high school and college coaches are the lifeblood of recruiting. When it comes time for college players to move into the NFL, relationships between college and NFL coaches can be just as important.
One such relationship is why the Steelers are taking a calculated gamble on Nick Williams, a raw, 6-foot-4, 309-pound defensive lineman from Division I-AA Samford University. The Steelers selected Williams, who only played one year of high school football, with their final pick in the seventh round of the draft last week.
Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell has known Samford coach Pat Sullivan for 40 years, dating to their college playing days when Mitchell was at Alabama and Sullivan, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, played for Auburn.
Sullivan also is good friends with Steelers tight end coach James Daniel, who coached with Sullivan at Auburn in the late 1980s.
"I was watching the draft with my wife from the fifth round on, and we were hoping the Steelers would get him," Sullivan said in a telephone interview. "I consider J.D. one of my best friends in life and I'm very fond of Mitch. As soon as the Steelers took Nick, I got on the phone with J.D., and he said Mitch was real high on Nick. Hopefully, the relationship with will work out for both sides."
Williams played football as an elementary and middle school student in Birmingham, Ala., but he gave it up upon entering high school to concentrate on basketball.
"When I got to high school I had a growth spurt and got real skinny," Williams said Friday afternoon after his first practice at the Steelers rookie camp this weekend. "I was 6-2, 185. I looked like a basketball player, so I went out for basketball, did really good at it. Then 12th grade came around, I said, 'Hey I loved to play football when I was a kid. I'm going to play again.' "
Williams took up football as a senior, but he was not a highly sought recruit. In fact, Williams only got recruited to Samford because his father, Frederick, knew Sullivan through State Farm Insurance, where they both worked in the 1980s when Sullivan was out of coaching.
"He wasn't getting recruited, but he was a big guy with a great frame," Sullivan said.
It took a while for Williams to learn how to play college football. He did not start until his junior season, but, as a senior, he was among the top players in Division I-AA, earning all-Southern Conference honors. Based on his senior season, Williams was invited to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.