Willie Lam Breaks Into College Coaching
HARRISONBURG – Willie Lam’s online bio once stated that “his friends may not recognize him” after adding about 70 pounds since arriving at Wake Forest in the fall of 1995.
As a 305-pound offensive lineman for the Demon Deacons, Lam – a former Spotswood High School star quarterback – learned a few tricks in the trenches to neutralize defensive fronts while playing against some big names in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I guess Julius Peppers kind of stands out,” Lam said casually, before bringing up another North Carolina Tar Heel, Vonnie Holiday, and Wake teammate Calvin Pace, who he went up against in practice.
Lam, now 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds, will coach defensive linemen in his first collegiate job at Bridgewater College. He was recently announced as a newcomer to the Eagles’ football staff along with incoming Turner Ashby High School and BC graduate Bret Colbert, who played at William & Mary and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh in 2004. That gives Bridgewater’s staff two former local stars with Division I experience.
Entering his 20th season at the helm, BC coach Mike Clark said having two locals aboard as assistants does not necessarily signal a shift in recruiting strategy.
“I’ll get the players wherever I can get them,” said Clark, who handles local recruitment but has built his Division III program with a healthy dose of out-of-area talent.
“If I could Kenny Brooks ’em, I’d Kenny Brooks ’em,” Clark added, referring to James Madison’s women’s basketball coach, whose star players hailed from nearby TA. “If you can have your nucleus [be] people you see on your way home from work [I would]. … We have to say, ‘Let’s go for best available.’”
That goes for hiring assistant coaches, too. And Clark described Lam and his assistant coaching hires overall this year as steals.
“Every head coach loves a no-brainer, and that’s what I fell into here,” said Clark, who left the interview with Lam surprised by his level of preparation and how he carried himself.
Colbert, who will coach wide receivers, instructed running backs and tight ends at Cornell in 2006 and was the offensive coordinator at St. Vincent for the past six years under his father, Bob, a former BC offensive coordinator who has returned to the Eagles as a preseason assistant.
Long ago, Clark said a coach told him to be aware of coaching turnover at the D-III level and to be prepared to have to coach coaches.
“In this round of hiring, that isn’t something I’m going to have to do,” Clark said. “I’m lucky enough to have brought in people that have experience.”
As for Lam specifically?
“This guy just ain’t on a whim,” Clark said. “He’s prepared. He’s prepared to do well and I think, I’ve always said this, good coaches can go in a lot of different directions. My first job was coaching the defensive line as a secondary guy.”
It’s been an unusual route for Lam, who took his first coaching job at Spotswood High School as an assistant under Eric Baylor in 2001. Instead of being a graduate assistant coach – the streamlined approach to becoming a college coach – Lam moved to North Carolina and continued coaching offensive line for six seasons at Cary High School, where he was also the run-game coordinator.
During his time there he worked as an implementation consultant at Merck, a pharmaceutical company, in Durham, N.C.
Lam, who is now 37, liked the flexibility of his job and thought he was “too old” to get into college coaching. But last January he pounced on an opportunity to coach the O-line at Hargrave Military’s post-graduate football program in order to get on a track toward his dream. However, that program folded four months later unexpectedly in April of 2013.
Lam ended up coaching defensive linemen for the first time last season at Milford Academy, a post-graduate program roughly 60 miles southeast of Syracuse that has LeSean McCoy and Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton on its alumni list.
“I’m a local guy. It’s exciting to me to get back among family and friends,” said Lam, who left Spotswood as its all-time leading scorer and rebounder as a 235-pound center in basketball after setting school records with 2,325 passing yards and 19 touchdowns in football. “I’m proud to tell people I’m joining the Bridgewater staff.”
As it turned out, his offensive expertise provided a blueprint and allowed him to teach defensive linemen how to counter.
“I think the reason why people like hiring former offensive linemen as coaches is that seems to be the most complex line play, the most complex part of the game,” Lam said.
“Playing quarterback as well, I think I have a pretty good knowledge of both sides of the ball. … Having some expertise and watching some film of the offensive linemen we’re going to be competing against, I think I can spot some tendencies… so we can exploit them.”
Spoken like a double-agent spy that’s switched sides.
Above all else, Lam expects to bring a new mantra to the Eagles: EOE, which stands for “effort over everything.”
“I think a lot of defensive play in general is about effort, wanting to get to the ball and being physical,” Lam said. “… If you’re not giving full effort on every play, then you’re not going to play a whole lot.”