When the University of Virginia selected her as its next Director of Athletics, the significance of the choice was not lost on Carla Williams. Williams is the first female African-American athletics director at a Power Five conference institution and is the fifth active female athletics director at that level.
While her appointment is historic, however, she does not see that as the lone defining characteristic of her hire. She emphasized that hard work, preparation, and service are the traits that brought her to the top of a Power Five athletics department with the opportunity to create history as a result.
“Lastly, I do understand and appreciate the historic nature of me being named athletics director at The University of Virginia,” Williams said in her prepared remarks. “I have served as a role model throughout my career as a student-athlete, as a coach and as an administrator. I take great pleasure in serving others. I will continue to be a role model to help others reach their goals. For anyone who aspires to be in this position, it does not matter if you are black or white, male or female, if you aspire to be in this role one day, the most important thing you need to know is I am the athletics director at The University of Virginia because I have always done more than what was expected of me.”
“I have pushed myself to earn advanced degrees,” she continued. “I made it a point to get experience in every area of intercollegiate athletics. I believe no job or responsibility within athletics is too small, and no one person is too big. I have played, coached, and managed at the highest levels of the NCAA, and, yes, I am an African-American female. I see that every morning when I wake up and look in the mirror. (smiles) Dreams do not know categories. Dreams do not know genders or colors. I am living proof that anything is possible if you have the nerve and the imagination to believe it can happen.”
Williams’ preparation for her first job as the head of a college athletics department comes from experience. She played basketball at Georgia and professionally before joining the Bulldogs’ coaching staff. In that role, she helped the program reach the Final Four and play in the National Championship game. With an eye on a future in administration, however, she left the coaching ranks. That led to administrative roles at Florida State, Vanderbilt, and Georgia from 1996 through the present.
She comes to Virginia, of course, from Georgia where she held a variety of roles as Georgia’s deputy director of athletics. She was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department and its $127 million budget. She worked as the administrator with oversight for football and women’s basketball. She also worked with supervisory responsibility for academic support services, business operations, compliance, and more. She worked as a liaison between athletics and the president’s office and provost’s office as well. She held other roles as well.
Over the course of her career, Williams has administrative experience with each varsity sport sponsored by Virginia with the exceptions of field hockey, rowing, squash, and wrestling. That wide-ranging understanding of sports and coaching combined with her work in administration eventually made her the leading candidate for the job.
“She has deep experience but also broad experience, having worked at three major universities. Altogether she has more than 30 years of experience in intercollegiate athletics, as a student-athlete, coach, and senior administrator,” outgoing Virginia President Teresa Sullivan said in her prepared remarks introducing Williams. “Education is a priority for Carla, as demonstrated by her multiple academic degrees and her dedication to the academic achievement of student-athletes. She’s committed to the success of every varsity sport, and this is a perfect fit for UVA, where we’re committed to broad success across sports programs. She also has experience with one of the nation’s top football programs. Perhaps most importantly, Carla is committed to the values we promote at this University. She believes in the principle of ‘Uncompromised Excellence,’ and she’s committed to upholding the high standards we have at UVA.”
While experience became part of what attracted the search committee to Williams, the closing factor was her understanding of what UVA wants athletics to look like. Virginia’s branding of itself with “Uncompromised Excellence” is a reference to the desire to be an elite University in both academics and athletics. The school expects its student-athletes to invest and embrace the opportunities on both sides of that fence.
Initially, that led some outside observers and even some members of the search committee to weight previous ties to the University significantly. While no names were mentioned as official candidates, some people that would fit that consideration would be the likes of Val Ackerman of the Big East and Boo Corrigan of Army. Both spent significant time around the University prior to their professional career paths.
In the end, the committee believed that Williams understood what made those previous ties attractive in the first place.
“Oftentimes we’ll say, well, we want someone who has tremendous experience with the University of Virginia. That is simply a proxy for the thing that is the most distinguishing feature about this University, which is a student experience,” UVA Rector Rusty Conner said in his prepared remarks. “And I started out in there thinking we need to find someone who knows the University, has been part of the University, or somehow understands who we are. As we progressed, we realized that we found someone who does value the student experience and whose passion is making each student the success that he or she can be. Not only on the playing field, but in the classroom as well. In fact, we found that a person who is so passionate about this, and whose focus has been on academic excellence, on developing leadership skills and on dealing with engagement with the community in a way that we can learn an awful lot from. So when we say we need to find someone who knows the University, I think we found someone who simply does know the University, and who is going to teach us and be accretive to our culture.”
Williams not only appreciated those tenets, but had been waiting for that type of opportunity in her profession. She said she believed that college athletics programs that have the opportunity to provide an elite education and a chance to win championships are not available in abundance. So when Virginia, a program she had admired from an outside perspective in the business, became a possibility, she did not ignore the chance.
“I knew the quality of the University here at Virginia,” Williams said. “So I think an elite, world class University that has proven you can win championships, there aren’t many of those. I recognized that a long time ago. And that’s something that’s always been very important to me. Because winning championships and getting a great education, those things aren’t mutually exclusive. You can do both. You should do both. So this is one of those places in the country where the foundation is there, thanks to Craig and his staff. The foundation is there, and I believe I can build upon that.”
Virginia certainly has proven itself in that regard over the years. Routinely ranked as one of the nation’s top public universities by US News & World Report, UVA also has excelled in athletics. Much of that success can be attributed to retiring Director of Athletics Craig Littlepage, who received public appreciation from Williams, Sullivan, and Conner during the press conference Monday.
Littlepage served for 16 years at the head of the athletics department and led the Cavaliers to significant accomplishments. During his tenure, Virginia finished in the top 20 in the Director’s Cup that measures all-sports standings in each of the last 11 years. Over the course of his tenure, UVA won 76 ACC Championships and 13 NCAA National Championships. Virginia has won a league-leading 64 ACC team titles since the ACC expanded in 2004-05.
Littlepage reflected on his 16-year tenure on Sept. 6 and during that press conference he said he thought a six- to eight-week timetable may be ambitious. Just six and a half weeks later, UVA introduced Williams at the John Paul Jones Arena. She has agreed to a five-year contract with a base annual salary of $550,000, plus incentives. She said she expects to begin her new job at Virginia in either December of January after she and her family tie up some loose ends in Georgia.
Joining a department with widespread success will not be any sort of shock for Williams. During her time at Georgia, its teams have won 37 SEC Championships and 16 NCAA National Championships.
Finding someone that could understand Virginia’s depth of success and quality of coaches was important to the school’s current coaches and the search committee.
”First of all, Craig Littlepage has been I think the standard for this department for a long time – he’s been here for 30 years as well, 16 as AD,” UVA rowing coach and committee member Kevin Sauer said. ”So someone who had his calmness under pressure, his leadership in that area, his vision, and that type of thing. So somebody that could pony up to that, but also brought some new ideas in as well and had done a lot of thing in athletics and also had the experience that we thought would help us going forward to build on Craig’s legacy.”
“I just think that she was a presence when she came into the room,” Sauer said. ”She was somebody I think we looked at and said ‘Wow, this is an impressive woman.’ She had great experience. … I think there were a lot of things there at Georgia were very impressive and the ideas she had for the future.”
Some of those ideas will need to include the football program. For all the success UVA has produced over the last 16 years, the football program meandered through a lost decade that saw only two winning seasons. During that time period, Virginia underwent a reseating initiative at Scott Stadium as well.
Those two factors combined to create dwindling attendance in the most visible and revenue-generating sport at the college level. This past weekend’s Homecomings game with a 5-1 team entering the game drew an announced attendance of 39,216. Through five home games this season, the team has not cracked 40,000 in any of them. Bronco Mendenhall is in his second season as the head coach of the program.
The committee included that background in its search with both Sullivan and Conner mentioning the desire for candidates to have an understanding of football and its important role in the department. Williams met that goal as someone who played the sport as a kid against boys, but more importantly as someone who worked as the administrator with oversight of the football program at Georgia. Former Bulldogs coach Mark Richt requested her for that supervisorial role.
Mendenhall said Monday that he had spoken with Richt about Williams after meeting her this weekend. He left both conversations feeling encouraged about the future of Virginia football.
“I was really impressed with Carla as a person, not only from a professional standpoint and all the things she’s done preparation-wise and things on the resume that have helped her build her career to this point, but I was very impressed with the communication skills,” Mendenhall said. “I think the core principles in which she operates from, and the successes that she’s had. I’m really encouraged.”
“I had also a chance to talk, and Carla said because she supervised Mark Richt, so I had a chance to talk with Mark at Carla’s request, and he also was just really favorable about the kind of person but also the kind of professional and the insight and vision and results that she’s able to get,” he continued. “Not only was I impressed but everything that I’ve heard, and I wouldn’t have reached out to anyone unless she asked me to, and it just has been glowing endorsements, and I’m really excited for the chance to build an exceptional football program, and I think with her experience at the University of Georgia and within that league, there’s some really nice points of reference that I think will be helpful, and so I’m looking forward to partnering with her, and I think it’s an exciting time for UVA.”