Buffalo Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe never had met Gregg Williams until the two shook hands in a Nashville hotel a week ago.
To say the two became fast friends is the understatement of the year for the Bills. The 42-year-old Williams today will be introduced as the 12th head coach in franchise history.
Williams' stellar reputation as defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, his incredibly organized nature and the blockbuster performance he gave in his interview with Donahoe in Nashville were the key factors in his winning the job.
"I'm eager," Williams said from his Tennessee home Thursday night. "I'm eager to get started and to meet all the people I'm going to get to work with and to meet the fans of Buffalo.
"I'm an NFL junkie, and the history of the Buffalo franchise intrigued me," Williams said. "The kind of franchise the Bills have, and the great fans there is part of what drew me to the job, what made me want to go all out for it. What a great place to be."
The hiring was an upset.
While Williams has a Super Bowl appearance on his resume, it was two other Super Bowl defensive coordinators, Marvin Lewis and John Fox, who were presumed to have the inside track with the Bills because of their past working relationships with Donahoe.
It didn't turn out that way.
Two NFL sources said Lewis, the leader of the Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens defense, did not have nearly as impressive an interview as Williams. It appears he finished second in the running.
Williams' Tennessee defense allowed the fewest yards in the NFL this season and helped carry the Titans to the Super Bowl last year. Tennessee has had one of the most aggressive defenses in the NFL under Williams. The Titans led the NFL in combined sacks and takeaways in both '98 and '99. In 2000 they were second in the league in sacks.
But Williams was picked for more than his defensive prowess.
He has demonstrated a minute attention to detail in his career, and his organizing skill is a quality that Donahoe greatly admires and considers crucial to a head coach's success. Williams has benefited from working with respected Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, who gave him a glowing recommendation. And when he got to his interview with Donahoe, Williams impressed with his command of strategy and tactics and he knew exactly whom he wanted in all key positions on his staff.
When Williams walked out of the interview with Donahoe 5 1/2 hours after it began, he felt like it had gone exceptionally well.
"That's one of the reasons I withdrew from the Cleveland job," said Williams, who informed the Browns he no longer wanted to be considered for their position. "No. 1 was my confidence in how well the interview went and the mesh of personalities with Tom Donahoe. No. 2 was I was comfortable with my position with Tennessee.
"I spoke with Mr. (Ralph) Wilson today, and I really look forward to working with him, as well," Williams said.
Sources in Tennessee said the strong candidate to be Williams' defensive coordinator is Titans defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, a former Pro Bowl cornerback for the Los Angeles Rams. They also said the Bills had asked for and received permission to speak with Titans defensive quality control aide Ronnie Vinklarek about an assistant's position.
Those sources weren't so sure about offense. One available coordinator whom Williams has worked with is Kevin Gilbride, who recently lost his job in Pittsburgh and who coached Rob Johnson in Jacksonville. A Gilbride hire might indicate the Bills are picking Johnson over Doug Flutie at quarterback.
An NFL source familiar with the contract negotiations said Williams' deal is likely to be for three years and a total of $3 million.
"He did a remarkable job during the interview process and made a strong presentation for his plans to lead our team into the next chapter of Bills winning football," Donahoe said in a statement. "His strengths are in the areas of leadership, knowledge of the game of football, organizational skills, and people skills.
"This was a rather exhaustive process with several very qualified candidates being seriously considered for the position. But I am confident that we have selected the candidate who best fits our needs."
Besides Lewis, Fox and former Bills defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell were the other coordinators interviewed. But Cottrell had not heard from Donahoe since his interview two weeks ago. Sources in New York said Donahoe had not called Giants coach Jim Fassel in the past week.
Just where Lewis' interview went wrong was not exactly clear. It's believed he did not exude the same degree of enthusiasm for the job that Williams did.
Lewis, contacted by the Baltimore Sun Thursday, confirmed that Donahoe called him Wednesday night. Donahoe apparently wanted to give Lewis one more chance to make a strong impression. It obviously wasn't enough.
Lewis' Atlanta-based agent, Ray Anderson, was disappointed.
"I think the most disappointing thing from my standpoint, is the process was suspect in that there was no discussion of contract terms, there was no chance to meet or talk with Ralph Wilson, who was supposedly going to make the decision," Anderson said. "There was no opportunity to see or get a feel for the Buffalo facility or the Buffalo community, where Marvin was going to have to move his family. My personal opinion: that made the process incomplete."
While Lewis and Donahoe did not talk contract terms, a Bills source said Lewis did have an idea of the financial parameters the Bills had in mind.
It's doubtful the Bills were interested in paying a contract equal to what Ravens coach Brian Billick got two years ago -- about $1.5 million a year. The belief that a first-time NFL head coach should be more concerned about winning than a big contract fits with Donahoe's philosophy.
Donahoe wound up passing up the two minority candidates on his list, Lewis and Cottrell.
The NFL has added one new minority head coach this season, the Jets' Herman Edwards. Six other positions (in Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, Kansas City, Washington, Houston) have been filled by white coaches this offseason.
Donahoe also is the only GM who was willing to wait until after the Super Bowl to give Lewis a chance to interview for the job.