May 17, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — It would be difficult for University of Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall to speak much more highly of his new boss, Carla Williams, and vice versa.

“It’s just the beginning stages, but I just feel really lucky that she’s here,” Mendenhall said Thursday of Williams, who took over in December as UVA’s athletics director.

“Bronco is really, really good, so that’s why I see a bright future [for Virginia football],” Williams told a group of reporters last week, “because he’s already done so much with what he’s had to work with. And so if we can get him the help he needs, then I think we’ll be in good shape.”

Williams, who has a Ph.D. from Florida State, came to UVA from the University of Georgia, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and which, like FSU, has a perennially strong football program. She’s impressed Mendenhall with her management style and her understanding of football’s importance in a Power 5 athletics department.

“Her intent is to help and listen and then question, to get a really clear understanding, and then lead,” Mendenhall said in his McCue Center office.

Williams already grasps the strengths and weaknesses of UVA’s football program, Mendenhall said, “and it’s been validating to me to have another set of eyes come in relation to what we’re trying to do and in relation to what our competition is doing, and realizing now what deficiencies there are, and putting a plan into place to address those things in the short term and the long term — not only for the sake of football but for the sake of the entire athletic department and its sustainability.”

Williams said: “A healthy football program is a win for an entire athletic department. It just is. There’s so much more potential for increased revenue because of football that helps the entire athletic department. And when the program isn’t as healthy as it needs to be or as it should be, then over time you’ll start to see that affect the entire department.”

When he learned last year that Williams’ predecessor as AD, Craig Littlepage, was retiring, Mendenhall said, he was “asked what qualifications or what qualities would I hope for. I listed just a couple of things.

“First, that this person would be a great person, just morally and [in terms of principles] and character. I also hoped they might have had coaching in their background and have a tangible understanding of what that position felt and looked like.

“Third, and these aren’t really sequential in order, was that this person would be coming from a place that knew what exceptional football looked like, not only on the field, but [with relation to] the support structures and the infrastructure needed to not only build but sustain. In my experience with Carla in just five months, it’s clear that she has all three.”

In December 2015, Mendenhall came to UVA from Brigham Young University, where in 11 seasons as head coach he posted a 99-43 record, with 11 bowl appearances. His first team at Virginia finished 2-10. The Cavaliers improved to 6-7 last season and advanced to a bowl for the first time since 2011.

So there’s been progress. Still, significant obstacles remain in Mendenhall’s path as he tries to make the Wahoos consistently relevant again. Williams recognized as much soon after starting her new job.

After touring UVA’s athletics facilities and meeting with Mendenhall, student-athletes and staff members, Williams said, it “didn’t take very long for me to start to realize that we’ve got a structural problem in football. We are understaffed in some areas. Obviously, we’ve got some facility issues in some areas. Our budget is not where it needs to be. All of those things need to change to have a consistently competitive football program.”

The master plan being formulated for UVA’s athletics complex includes a new operations center for football.

“We’re hoping that starting this summer we’ll be closer to knowing what that’s going to look like and what it’s going to cost,” Williams said, “so we can start putting together a fundraising plan for it.”

In the short term, the Virginia Athletics Foundation has raised funds to augment the strength and conditioning staff for football, to hire three new analysts to assist the coaches, and to increase the program’s operating budget.

“I knew that before any shovel went into the ground for a facility that we had serious deficiencies that we had to address now,” Williams said.

“There are some very fundamental things, that help football programs begin to build on successes, that we needed. It may seem simple to say that two more strength coaches is not a lot. It’s huge. It puts us on a level playing field with our competitors. Having more support staff is huge. It puts us on more of a level playing field with our competitors.”

Williams played basketball at Georgia for legendary head coach Andy Landers. After graduating, she worked as an assistant coach on Landers’ staff before moving into athletics administration, so Williams understands the role recruiting plays in a program’s success.

“I don’t care what sport it is,” she said, “you can’t thrive without great talent.”

Highly regarded prospects are “going to choose the schools that they think are making an investment in their future,” Williams said. “Because if you’re a four-star recruit, you probably have aspirations of playing in the NFL, and your college experience is your opportunity to do that. And so if we don’t show recruits that we are committed and invested in our football program, then the messaging is that.”

Virginia has “some work to do in that area,” Williams said.

In the meantime, she’s optimistic, because she believes Mendenhall “is superb,” Williams said. “He’s the type of person that I would want my son to play for, and I’ve seen him with recruits and recruits’ parents, and he is excellent. He is everything that Virginia espouses in coaching and teaching and mentoring.”

As an assistant coach and later as an athletics administrator, Williams said, she discovered how much she enjoyed recruiting. That hasn’t changed.

“I love talking to parents,” Wiliams said, “I love talking to prospects, and I do a lot of that, and I’ve done a lot of that with football thus far.”

Mendenhall welcomes her help. Recruiting, he acknowledged, has been harder than he expected at UVA, particularly with in-state prospects. Virginia has not defeated Virginia Tech in football since 2003. Until that losing streak ends, Mendenhall knows, the challenge facing him and his staff will be enormous.

“Winning the Virginia Tech game will have more influence on in-state recruiting than anything else,” he said. “The last time the kids that we’re recruiting now saw Virginia beat Virginia Tech, they were 4 years old. That’s their families as well, that’s the high school coaches.

“The hardest players to get currently for the University of Virginia are from the state of Virginia. I’m talking of the quality that we really want. There are players coming from Florida, for example, that see UVA as an ACC school with an amazing education, with a coaching staff that has proven winning in their background, and they can’t wait to come … It’s taking about one-fifth the amount of time and energy to bring players from out of state as opposed to in-state. I wouldn’t have expected that, but the … discrepancy on the field in [the UVA-Virginia Tech series] has made it to be what that is.”

In 2016, the Hokies humbled the `Hoos 52-7 at Lane Stadium. The score last season at Scott Stadium was 10-0.

The Cavaliers’ next opportunity to reclaim the Commonwealth Cup will come Nov. 23 in Blacksburg, where they haven’t won since 1998. If Mendenhall didn’t fully appreciate the importance of UVA’s annual clash with Tech when he came to Charlottesville, he does now.

“That game is of disproportionate value for the University of Virginia at this time, at this stage of the program, and that’s just how I see it,” Mendenhall said.

Another factor in the Hokies’ recent dominance of the series: superior facilities. For decades, Virginia Tech has devoted substantial resources to football, and the school’s commitment to the sport has been clear to potential recruits.

“The optics matter,” Williams said. “So we just have some ground to make up. We’ve got the right people. I would put our coaches up against any coaches in America, but we’ve got to be able to show prospects in our state that Virginia intends on having a great football program consistently … You’ve got to give them a reason to stay in-state.”

A new operations center for football will help the Cavaliers close the gap on the facilities front. Until that’s a reality, however, Mendenhall knows he must build on the strides UVA made last season. More than a decade has passed since the `Hoos made back-to-back bowl appearances.

“The progress we made from Year 1 to Year 2 in the program, that’s in advance of any of [the staff or facility upgrades],” Mendenhall said. “So the simple idea now is sustainability on the track that we’re on. That doesn’t mean flat. That means growth. By working as diligently as we can and maximizing our current resources, postseason play is possible again.”

One of Mendenhall’s favorite sayings is that “organizations are perfectly designed for the results they get,” and UVA’s lack of commitment to football, compared to that found at many other Power 5 schools, has contributed to its struggles on the field. He’s confident positive changes are coming under Williams’ leadership.

“It’s a new time, there’s a new design, with new emphasis, and my job is, in the short term, to win the right way with the right principles and the right young people in the meantime,” Mendenhall said. “This is why I came. I love to build, and that’s exactly what’s happening.”

The Cavaliers have proven, particularly during the tenure of Hall of Fame coach George Welsh, that they can win in football.

“The challenge is being consistently competitive,” Williams said. “and so that’s where you have to make sure the infrastructure is solid. You can’t be a Band-Aid here or a Band-Aid there. We’ve started in the basement to address some very, very fundamental needs of a program, and it’s just going to take time, and I’m hopeful because I think we have the right coach.”