When he learned that Carla Williams would be leaving Athens, Georgia, for the University of Virginia, Mark Fox called Tony Bennett.
Fox is the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Georgia, and Bennett, of course, holds that position at UVA.
“I told Tony last night, I’m just crushed,” Fox said by phone this afternoon, “because she has been so good to Georgia, so good for me as a coach, but best for our student-athletes.
“It’s obviously with mixed emotions that we see her go. We’re happy for her, but we’re sad to lose her.”
Williams, 49, on Sunday was named athletics director at UVA. A former basketball player at Georgia, Williams has worked in athletics administration for the past 13 years at her alma mater, from which she holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Most recently, she’s served as Georgia’s deputy of athletics.
At UVA, Williams will succeed Craig Littlepage, who’s retiring after 16 years as athletics director.
Her colleagues at Georgia, Fox said, “felt like she was going to be an AD at some point. We knew we were probably on borrowed time with her.”
In an interview this morning at John Paul Jones Arena, Williams said the position at UVA interested her in no small part because of the school’s academic reputation.
Moreover, she said, “it’s in the ACC, which is a highly competitive conference, and Virginia has historically been very successful winning championships: not just conference championships, but also national championships, team and individual.
“It’s in a region of the country that I really like. It’s great for my family. We’ve grown up on college campuses.
“There are so many reasons why it’s attractive. There are great coaches here who are great people who really support the mission of education through sports participation, and that’s all very important to me.”
Williams and her family flew into Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon. She met that evening with two of the University’s most visible figures, Bennett and head football coach Bronco Mendenhall.
“I had heard great things about them from their colleagues,” Williams said, “and having a chance to sit down and visit with them really just reinforced the fact that both of them are remarkable human beings who also happen to be great coaches.”
Williams, who has a doctorate from Florida State, spent five seasons (1991-92 through 1995-96) as an assistant women’s basketball coach at Georgia before moving into athletics administration. During Williams’ time on head coach Andy Landers’ staff, the Lady Bulldogs reached the Final Four twice and advanced to the NCAA championship game once.
“I think one of the great strengths that she possesses,” Fox said, “is she understands this entire universe from everybody’s perspective. She’s been a student-athlete, she’s been a coach, she’s been in administration, she’s a parent.”
Former Georgia football star D.J. Shockley agreed.
“I think that’s what makes her special,” Shockley said. “She can relate to all sides of it.
“As a student-athlete, you look at administrators sometimes and say, ‘They don’t know what I’m going through.’ She’s the exact opposite. She knows exactly what you’re going through. No matter what sport it was, male or female, she found a way to relate.”
Shockley, whose final college season was 2005, got to know Williams after she returned to Athens in ’04. They still communicate with each other regularly.
“What she represents and what she’s all about is definitely what people strive to be,” said Shockley, who now works for the SEC Network and the ACC Network.
Mark Richt, head football coach at Miami, one of Virginia’s ACC rivals, worked with Williams when he coached at Georgia.
“Virginia did a great job in hiring Carla Williams,” Richt said today. “They hit a home run.”
Williams and her husband, Brian, an associate professor in Georgia’s School of Public & International Affairs, have two daughters (Carmen and Camryn) and a son (Joshua).
At Virginia, Williams will be reunited with a friend she’s known for more than two decades: assistant women’s basketball coach La’Keshia Frett Meredith. As a phenom at Phoebus High School in Hampton, Frett Meredith was considered by many a lock to attend UVA, but Williams, then an assistant coach at Georgia, helped persuade her to spend her college years in Athens.
“I just think it’s hilarious that both of us are here now,” Williams said. “I worked so hard to get her away from the University of Virginia to come to the University of Georgia, and we were both there and experienced so much success and so many memories, and now we’re both back here in Charlottesville.”
Williams has “always been a role model and mentor for me,” Frett Meredith said. “The most important thing that I feel about Carla is, I think she’s a great person. That’s always remained consistent through the years I’ve known her. She has always been someone that I’ve admired.”
During the recruiting process, Williams recalled, she followed Frett Meredith “all over the country.”
Williams’ efforts ultimately paid off, but “the most important thing to me was the relationship we had,” Frett Meredith said. “It was not that she was everywhere I was, watching me play. She may have been. But it was just who she was and the relationship we developed.
“I’m so happy for her. It’s just awesome with her getting this opportunity.”
Williams becomes the first African-American woman to be named athletics director at a school in one of the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12). Still, she doesn’t see herself as a pioneer, Williams said.
“Oddly enough, I don’t feel any different,” she said. “I think that’s because I’ve always been in a profession where I never saw a lot of people that looked like me in sports administration anyway.
“I’ve always been very comfortable playing [sports] with and against boys. I grew up that way. Even in college when you were playing pickup, it was always with the young men. So I don’t feel any different. What I do feel is incredibly blessed to have the opportunity.”
Williams also has worked in athletics administration at Vanderbilt and Florida State. About 15 years ago, she traveled to Charlottesville with the Vanderbilt women’s lacrosse team for a game against UVA.
Much has changed at UVA since the early 2000s. Many of the Cavaliers’ current head coaches were not in Charlottesville then, including Mendenhall, who was hired in December 2015 to revive a flagging football program.
The Wahoos, who finished 2-10 last season, are 5-2 this fall. Given her ties to Georgia, where football is king, Williams fully understands the importance of the sport to an athletics department.
“For college athletics in general, I think it’s important to have a broad-based program, so you want to support all of the programs and you want all of the programs to be successful,” Williams said. “From a financial standpoint, football is obviously a huge part of that financial engine, so it’s critical that football is healthy and vibrant and successful.”
Williams, whose bachelor’s degree is in sociology, has a master’s in public administration. She enjoyed coaching with Landers, but ultimately, “I realized that administration was the place for me,” Williams said.
At Georgia, she’s served in numerous roles. She’s worked closely with football, among other sports, and overseen academic support services, business operations, compliance, event management, external operations, facilities and new construction, human resources, sports facilitators, sports medicine, strength and conditioning, student services and ticketing.
“I love it so much,” Williams said. “I’m so passionate about it. It gives me great fulfillment every time I come to work, every time I meet with a student-athlete, every time I talk to a coach, every time I go to an athletic event. It’s just a great feeling. It’s not really work to me. It’s my purpose, and I’m fortunate enough to know that it is my purpose and I enjoy it.”
If her goal was to become an athletics director, Williams said, it never distracted her from her day-to-day responsibilities.
“I have always tried to focus on my current job and do the absolute best I could in my current job,” she said. “And even though in the back of my mind I knew I wanted to get experience to prepare for something else, I still focused on making sure I gave 100 percent to the job that I was in.
“I never sat around and mapped out how I was going to be an athletic director, but I know subconsciously I wanted to be prepared for the opportunity.
“I paid attention to everybody, but especially people in leadership positions. I always wanted to be as good a leader as I could be, so I always paid attention to people in leadership positions, whether that was a head coach or senior associate athletic director or athletic director or president or provost. I’ve always been very observant and always willing to learn.”
Williams grew up in LaGrange, Georgia, about 70 miles southwest of Atlanta. Most of her relatives still live there.
“I love LaGrange,” Williams said. “It’s a small mill town, but sports is really, really big, so I was able to play a lot of sports growing up: swimming, tennis, volleyball, football, basketball. I was very fortunate in that my neighborhood had a rec center that offered all of that.”
Their parents, who are deceased, instilled the value of education in Williams and her brother.
“They knew that an education would help me have a better life than they had,” Williams said. “So they always pushed me to do well in school. They did not go to college, so they didn’t understand everything that it took to be prepared for college. I had to figure some of that out when I got there. But them wanting a better life for me and my brother was one of the reasons that I was very diligent in trying to accomplish more.”
As a coach and now as an administrator, Williams said, she’s had “a genuine love for young people and seeing them fulfill their dreams. I think that comes through when I’m with young people, when I’m with student-athletes. It keeps me young, so I really enjoy helping them identify what it is they want to do and try to figure out a way for them to be successful at it.”
UVA announced last month that Jim Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, would succeed Teresa Sullivan as the University’s president next year. Williams met with Ryan, a graduate of UVA’s law school and a former professor there, during the interview process this month. They’ve spoken on the phone a couple of times since.
“I think he’s phenomenal,” Williams said. “He’s brilliant. He’s very genuine, and I’m really looking forward to working with him. I think we have a lot in common.”