Williams Eager to Build on Legacy of Success
Oct. 23, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE — It’s a two-hour drive from the College of William & Mary to John Paul Jones Arena, and she had plenty to do in Williamsburg, but Samantha Huge did not hesitate. She hopped in her car and headed west on I-64.
“I wasn’t going to miss it,” said Huge, who’s in her first year as W&M’s director of athletics.
The occasion was a Monday afternoon press conference at JPJ, where her friend Carla Williams was introduced as the University of Virginia’s AD. Williams, who expects to start at UVA in December or January, will succeed Craig Littlepage, who’s retiring after 16 years as athletics director.
Huge’s presence at JPJ did not escape the notice of Williams. They’re former colleagues in the SEC: Huge at Texas A&M and Williams at Georgia.
“When I walked in and saw her, it made me feel really good,” Williams said. “We’ve always been very supportive of each other. When she got that job [at W&M], I reached out to her. When I got this job, she reached out to me.”
In the NCAA’s Division I, only a handful of women are athletics directors.
“I’m looking forward to the day, as I know the other women in my position are, that that’s not even part of the conversation,” Huge said, “but in the meantime it’s important that we serve as role models.”
Williams has another distinction. She’s the first African-American woman to be named AD at a school in one of the Power Five conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12).
“It’s a big deal to see Carla appointed,” Huge said, and Kevin Sauer agreed.
Sauer, the Cavaliers’ head rowing coach, was on the search committee UVA formed this fall formed to help choose Littlepage’s successor.
“We’re hopefully growing to a point where that shouldn’t matter,” Sauer said, “but I think it does. And I think she’s going to be a real leader in that area, for sure. But I think the most important part of this is that she’s very talented.
“The fact that she’s an African-American female, the first one to lead a Power Five conference school, is significant, and I think that’s something that everybody knows. But more important than that is how she leads us, this department, going forward, and I think we’re really looking forward to seeing that and have a lot of trust that that will happen very, very well.”
The eight-member search committee also included Phoebe Willis, a former UVA field hockey player. Willis is now finishing her work on two graduate degrees at the University — one in the law school and the other in the Darden School of Business.
“I think the most exciting thing about Carla Williams is, she’s done this being herself,” said Willis, whose youngest sister, Catesby, plays on Virginia’s field hockey team. “She can stand up there and talk about her family, and she’s warm and personable, but she also gets the job done. And she’s someone who knows the complex nature of college athletics, inside and out.
“She knows her stuff, but she’s very comfortable in who she is. And I think that should serve as an inspiration for any student-athlete, regardless of gender, sex, religion, race. Carla Williams is somebody who wasn’t born into this role, but she had a vision for what she wanted to do and she was the best at everything she did, and now she’s here.”
Williams, 49, has two degrees — a bachelor’s and a master’s — from Georgia and a doctorate from Florida State. A former student-athlete and assistant women’s basketball coach at Georgia, she’s worked in athletics administration at her alma mater for the past 13 years, most recently as deputy athletics director.
In that role, Williams oversees the day-to-day operations of a department with an annual budget of $127 million. Equally impressive to UVA officials was Williams’ supervisory role with Georgia’s football program.
Virginia “needed someone who knew football and knew football at a very high level,” said Rusty Conner, UVA’s rector. “I would say that she’s had that experience.”
Williams also has worked in athletics administration at Vanderbilt and Florida State.
During the search, Conner said, UVA officials “came to understand, as Craig has been telling us for a long time, intercollegiate athletics is a complex business. It’s not something learned on the job. You have to know it coming in. The philosophy of change is so dramatic, we have to have someone who is remarkably experienced.”
In Williams, Conner said, Virginia “found someone that is consistent with what the coaches told us: `We’d love for you to hire someone who has been a coach, who understands what we have to deal with in recruiting and admissions and protecting and supporting our student-athletes. We want someone who can help us recruit.’ We certainly have found that person.”
Littlepage, who was singled out for praise several times during the press conference, said Williams is more prepared for the job, because of her vast experience in athletics administration, than he was when he took over in 2001.
“The only difference being that I was here at the University of Virginia,” said Littlepage, who was promoted to succeed Terry Holland.
Williams, who was an All-SEC basketball player at Georgia, had no ties to UVA. Ultimately, though, that did not hurt her candidacy.
“I think people thought about that,” Sauer said, “but then also the other side of the coin is: Do you really need that, or do you need the experience [Williams has]? Do you need somebody that comes in and looks at it with a fresh set of eyes?”
Willis said: “I think the idea that you have to have played or coached at UVA isn’t necessarily what we mean when we say we want somebody who knows the school. We want somebody who understands that academics do come first and integrity is paramount, and that is the definition of Carla Williams.”
Before Williams made her opening remarks, UVA’s president, Teresa Sullivan, and Conner spoke at the press conference. Williams’ family had front-row seats. The audience also included UVA coaches, student-athletes, officials and staffers, as well as alumni such as former basketball star Ralph Sampson.
Williams’ credentials are impressive, Sullivan said, but 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.”
Virginia appealed to her, Williams said, because it’s “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.”
Her goal, Williams said, is “to enhance the strengths, to identify and address potential shortcomings, so our student-athletes can continue to have incredible experiences, receive a remarkable education, and compete for conference and national championships.”
Williams is from LaGrange, Georgia, where she and her brother were raised in a working-class family.
“My parents have both passed,” said Williams, a first-generation college student, “but I do want to acknowledge and thank them for giving me the most important thing a parent can give a child, and that is knowing that you are loved. I did not have great material things as a child, but my brother and I felt like we were richly blessed because our parents loved us.”
Williams thanked many of the people who have helped her in her journey, including Andy Landers, her basketball coach at Georgia, and Greg McGarity, the school’s athletics director. She also thanked her husband, Brian, an associate professor at Georgia, and their three children: daughters Carmen and Camryn and son Joshua.
“This moment is for you too,” Williams told them. “Today is proof positive that dreams do come true. May you never doubt the power of faith, hard work and an education.”
Growing up in LaGrange, Williams said, she played football and basketball “with and against boys. From a very early age I learned some very valuable lessons. I learned no one has to feel sorry for you, so do not feel sorry for yourself. Whether you fall down or get knocked down, get up. Try again, Fight on.
“I learned how to compete against people who were seemingly bigger, stronger, and faster than me. Don’t be intimidated. Always be prepared. I learned humility is strength. Humility reminds me that it is about the team and it takes a team working as one unit to achieve greatness. As UVA’s athletics director, you can expect to see those characteristics in me on a daily basis.”
Of her singular status among Power Five ADs, Williams said she understands the historical significance of her position.
“I have served as a role model throughout my career as a student-athlete, as a coach and as an administrator,” she said. “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. 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. 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.”
Her friend Samantha Huge, for one, never doubted her.
“I’m so excited for Virginia,” Huge said. “You all have hired one heck of an AD.”