When Virginia Director of Athletics Carla Williams introduced coach Tina Thompson last week, it represented the start of a new chapter for the women’s basketball program. It also marked the first coaching hire of Williams’ tenure at UVA.
As a result, the way the coaching search and subsequent hire unfolded gave Cavalier fans a glimpse at how Williams operates. She made a strong impression at a recent football alumni event and in other places, but this hire showed some of what goes into her decision-making process and athletic department vision in a more public setting. Plus, fans often judge athletic directors and their performance on the success or failure of their coaching hires.
A few things stood out about the Thompson choice when it comes to Williams’ process and decision in a coaching hire. First, she prefers to keep things quiet and maintain a group of advisors to evaluate the job and the candidates. “My personality is to really have a small circle in the first place,” she said. In this case, that group was particularly small because of Williams’ first-hand knowledge of women’s basketball as a former player and coach herself. She said that she spoke to a “small number of people in the industry that I trust” for this hire, but noted that less familiarity with a sport in hypothetical future hires could lead to a different sized circle of advisors.
“It depends. I think it depends on the sport,” Williams said. “This worked right now because of the circumstances. I know a lot of people in women’s basketball. I may not know a lot of people in other sports. And so, for this particular job, the process that we used worked well.”
Beyond a quiet search devoid of many leaks or updates, Williams also showed that she prefers a precise but thorough approach. She mentioned during Thompson’s introductory press conference that the search started with a small list of candidates and that she conducted multi-step interviews with Thompson. The message boards, of course, speculated that multiple interviews took place during the search with multiple candidates.
“We started this process with a very short list, and Tina’s name was always on that list,” Williams said.
“Phone conversations, and the very first phone conversation we had … we were just blown away,” Williams also said.
In total, 26 days passed between the announcement of Joanne Boyle’s retirement on March 20 and the announcement of Thompson’s hire on April 16. During the nearly four weeks that passed, the program missed the first NCAA Evaluation Period in recruiting for women’s basketball that occurred from April 13-17. During an evaluation period a college coach may watch college-bound student-athletes compete, visit their high schools, and write or telephone student-athletes or their parents. With that said, Thompson quickly offered a pair of point guards once giving the go-ahead by Williams.
Still, the willingness by Williams to measure and evaluate the candidates without rushing the decision to meet that first recruiting period deadline shows a certain level of thoroughness.
“The process was fun for me. Some people may think it took a long time, but I think it took the appropriate time to get the right person. And I’m convinced that we have the right person,” Williams said.
The nuts and bolts of the process aside, that last part may provide the biggest insight into Williams’ hiring decisions. Who is the right person? She listed several characteristics that match up with the University of Virginia’s department goals and she likely drew on similar atmospheres at Georgia and Vanderbilt from earlier in her administrative career. One, she wanted a coach that valued the education part of student-athletes. Two, she wanted someone that could connect with players and someone who had the ability to motivate those players in both school and sports. Three, she wanted someone that could connect with recruits. Finally, she wanted someone with experience in winning and winning championships even if that wasn’t in the head coaches’ chair.
Williams noted that there are a lot of good coaches that fit some of those criteria, but the ability to connect with recruits and players is significant.
“I think it’s critical,” Williams said. “You know, there are great coaches out there that may not have players they need to be successful, and if you can start with great players and someone that can connect with not just recruits but also with the players to get the most out of the players, I just think you place a high premium on that because once the – you have great players, and if those players will play hard for you and believe in what you believe in, you’ve got a great chance at success.”
Thompson is now the fifth coach in program history following Barbara Kelly, Dan Bonner, Debbie Ryan, and Boyle. She is the first African-American head coach in the program’s history. Williams, who became the first African-American woman athletics director at a Power 5 school when UVA hired her, said that did not play into the decision-making process for the women’s basketball job.
“No, I don’t think I really even think about that,” Williams said. “I think I just look for the best fit. All the qualities that I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of great coaches out there, head coaches and assistant coaches. But for us, we needed to find the right fit for the right time. You know, and that’s Tina. I think she’s going to do a great job. It doesn’t matter – just like me, it really doesn’t matter if you’re a black female or something else. If you are talented, then you’ll get opportunities, if you’re diligent and you work hard and all those things. Tina has done that, and she has earned this opportunity.”