‘Family reunion’ takes center stage at Simmons’ introduction
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
Willie Simmons thanked a lot of people when he was introduced as the next head football coach at FAMU.
“I’m home,” he said, setting the tone for an introduction that had the flare of a family reunion. “It’s such a great feeling to be standing in front of all of you today. I’m so honored, privileged to be your football coach.
“Thank you for believing in me to lead this great program. You will get my very best.”
Many of the people Simmons called out were in the surprisingly large crowd that flocked into the Lawson Center on Tuesday. The only two he asked to stand up were his wife, Shaia, and his grandmother, Mildred McNeil.
His wife had been there before but it obviously was a first for his grandmother. She stood with an astonished look on her face, smiling all the time.
“I never dreamed,” she said. “He was away, studying and quiet. But there was something about him that stood out.
“I’m just excited. He is out there doing something worthwhile.”
She plans to attend every game.
Simmons brimmed with pride. Not just because the audience got a chance to meet the woman he called “the backbone of our family.”
But it was his homecoming to the university where he twice applied unsuccessfully – once as a player and for a coaching job.
“The third time is a charm,” Larry Robinson, who served three interim terms before recently becoming fulltime president at FAMU.
Simmons’ love for FAMU is obvious. Consider that his wife is a fourth generation Rattler. His mother, who died when he was 25, attended FAMU. She was one of seven children McNeil sent there.
Simmons’ son, Tre, is leading the next generation as president of the freshman class.
Simmons’ path back to Tallahassee took him from his hometown Quincy to Clemson and The Citadel where he played college football and a one-year stop in Arena Football with the Sioux City Bandits. He made four stops around the college football circuit as an assistant over a nine-year span before becoming head coach at Prairie View three years ago.
FAMU snagged Simmons, 37, from Prairie View. They gave him a five-year contract worth $300,000 annually.
“To me it wasn’t about the money, it was about the commitment,” said Simmons, adding that leaving the team he built at Prairie View was one of the most difficult things about his decision to come home.
His wife couldn’t be happier, though. She, like many of Simmons’ family, has long ties to FAMU.
She is looking forward to what she calls a labor of love, being mother to more than 80 players. She spent part of the morning getting acquainted with a handful of them.
She’ll spend plenty of time helping with their lives off the football field – just like she did at Prairie View. She recalled consoling players from the Houston area, helping them cope when their families were flooded out earlier this year.
She’ll try to make Thanksgiving and Christmas special for the ones who can’t get home, she said.
“That feels like the right thing to do,” she said. “They are an extension of our family. They truly are.”
Simmons replaces Alex Wood, who resigned at the end of this season after leading the Rattlers to a 3-8 record – their third losing season under him.
Simmons’ supporters who were there to see Simmons in his grandest moment, danced to the Marching 100 as they celebrated long after the event concluded. He was expecting as much from his supporters from the small Gadsden County town just 20 minutes from Tallahassee.
“If Quincy didn’t show up that would mean I did something wrong,” he said. “To have them here means the world to me.”
For awhile, the event had rock-star flare.
“We love you,” a voice bellowed from the crowd, stopping Simmons to acknowledge with “thank you.”
Before he could go on, someone else, yell: “We miss you.”
Not long after, he made them a promise bringing a deafening rouse from the crowd.
“You will see an exciting brand of football this fall,” he said, “because you will see a group of young men who truly love what they do.”