From Sandlot Football to Athletics Director, Williams Talks Firsts With President Ryan
Audio: ‘Inside UVA’ with Director of Athletics Carla Williams(16:38)
Williams’ love of athletics stretches back to her girlhood days playing sandlot football.
President Jim Ryan: I know your days are long and they’re very full. But what do you do during your time off? Do you have any hobbies? Do you ever get back on the basketball court to unwind?
Carla Williams: When I do have time, I enjoy cooking. It’s probably one of my most favorite things to do … and watching sports.
Ryan: I don’t think that counts!
Williams: It does if it’s not one of our teams!
Ryan: I’m Jim Ryan, the president of the University of Virginia, and I’d like to welcome all of you to another episode of “Inside UVA.” This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people at the University and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make UVA the institution it is.
Today’s guest is Carla Williams, UVA’s athletic director. Carla, thanks so much for being here.
Williams: Thanks for having me.
Ryan: So, Carla, you are an incredibly accomplished person. I don’t even know where to begin. Before joining us at UVA, you were the athletics administrator at the University of Georgia and then deputy director of athletics. You’ve competed, coached and administered at the highest level of intercollegiate athletics. You were an all-SEC guard on the basketball court and a three-year starter while playing for Georgia. And you have become one of the highest-ranking female administrators in Division I athletics and now serve as a first-ever Black female athletics director at a Power Five conference.
This spring, you managed to recruit a new football coach at UVA, a new women’s basketball coach, and the women’s swimming and diving team just won the national championship. I want to explore all of that. But before we get to that, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what I understand was your middle school career playing football.
Williams: So I actually grew up in a small town in Georgia where football was very popular. Still is today. And so I grew up playing football, sandlot football, since I was a little girl. And I probably didn’t stop playing until I was in high school.
Ryan: What position?
Williams: Quarterback and wide receiver.
Williams: Yeah. Skilled positions.
Ryan: Excellent. And was it even remotely possible that you could continue playing in high school?
Williams: No, because I knew I couldn’t earn a scholarship playing football in college. So I stayed with basketball.
Ryan: Well, speaking of your athletic scholarship, I’ve heard you say, on occasion, that you wouldn’t have been able to go to college, that it wouldn’t have been possible without basketball. Can you talk a little bit about that and the doors that it opened?
Williams: Yeah, absolutely. So I realized that I was pretty good at basketball when I was 8 years old. I remember the day, I remember the court, I remember the gym, playing against boys. And my parents did not go to college; they weren’t well-versed in what it took to get to college. They could not have afforded to send me to college.
And so when I got into ninth grade, some of the teachers at my school would pool together their money to send me to basketball camps at different places, so that I could be seen by the college scouts. And fortunately, I got the opportunity to go to college to play basketball. And not only did I get a chance to go to college playing basketball, but because of basketball, I was able to choose which college I wanted to go to because I was recruited.
Ryan: And how did you choose Georgia?
Williams: So I narrowed my schools down to three. They were all in the Southeast, the Deep South. And growing up in Georgia, obviously you think about your home-state school all the time. But I grew up 30 minutes from Auburn University. So Auburn was one of my schools and so was the University of Alabama. And all three had really good women’s basketball programs during that time. But I chose Georgia because I loved Coach Landers. It was the home-state school and it wasn’t that far from home.
Ryan: Yeah. And when did you decide to turn athletics into a career? Was it while you were a player?
Williams: I think so. I think the seed was planted because when I was being recruited by these coaches, I didn’t know anything, and I just thought the coaches were in charge of everything. I didn’t even know there were athletic administrators. I just thought coaches were in charge.
I got to college and I saw these administrators, and two women in particular, who were administrators working with all of the sports. And I was intrigued by that from the very beginning. And they are role models for me. And so I think, you know, that was the first time the seed was planted. And then I just kind of – along the way, I wasn’t ready to leave college, even when I graduated. So I stayed for my master’s degree and worked in the athletic department, and each year, I just learned more and more about athletic administration and thought that was what I wanted to do.
Ryan: And you had an incredible run at Georgia. And obviously, it’s your alma mater. So what made you decide to leave Georgia and come to UVA? I mean, the answer might be obvious for UVA fans, but walk us through your reasoning.
Williams: So I realized when I went back to Georgia in 2004, and began to advance along the way, and, and I realized that I was going to hit a ceiling at Georgia. At some point, I made a list of the schools that I would like to be an athletic director. And it was a short list because I had a great job and I could have stayed at Georgia for years. And Virginia was on that list.
And you know, someone from Virginia called me to say that there may be an opportunity here, and I got excited. And it was the first athletic director’s job that I earnestly pursued.
Ryan: It seems to have worked out.
Ryan: So when you were hired, as I mentioned earlier, you were the first Black female to be an athletics director at a Power Five conference school. What does that mean to you? I mean, is it, is it something that’s meaningful? Or is it something that’s a burden? Is it somewhere in between?
Williams: It’s very meaningful, because I get to set an example, an example that I didn’t have when I was aspiring to be an athletic director. And, and so that’s why being a mentor is really, really important to me, because I know what it means. So it’s, it’s very meaningful. It’s very fulfilling.
And as you mentioned, and as I have said before, it is a bit of a burden, because I want others who look like me to have the same opportunity. So there is a pressure to get it right and to do well, so that others will also have the opportunity.
Ryan: So I’m going to ask you a question that you are probably asking yourself, when you first went to college and you saw athletic administrators: What does an athletic director actually do? I mean, I know that you hire coaches, but for those who don’t understand that position, what else is in your portfolio?
Williams: Yeah, it varies. Sometimes it feels like from minute to minute. But we’ve got 750 student-athletes, 250 employees, 27 sports, so we’re the 12th-largest athletic department in the country. So it’s a lot of people, a lot of moving pieces. So, of course I you know, work with coaches – hiring and, and sometimes having to let coaches go, same with administrators.
I got into this profession because I love student-athletes. And so the time that I get to spend with student-athletes as a mentor, helping them with their career aspirations, or any issues that they may have on Grounds or in Charlottesville – I love working with student-athletes. So that’s a big part of my job as an athletic director, but that doesn’t mean it’s a part of every athletic director’s job.
Lots of contracts, whether they be game contracts, or business contracts, recruiting. I love recruiting, I loved it as a coach, and I’ve always loved it as an administrator. So I help a lot of our sports when they have prospects and parents come to Grounds. So I do make sure I carve out time for that.
So it’s just like running any business. So we’ve got Compliance, we’ve got Marketing, we’ve got Promotions, we’ve got Facilities.
Ryan: So you mentioned working with student-athletes. UVA has, I believe, a well-earned reputation of supporting both halves of that hyphen, students and athletes. And I’m curious how you and coaches help support a student-athlete’s overall development, both on the field and in the court, but also in the classroom and beyond. How do you help students strike that balance?
Williams: Well, I think the first thing that someone like me looks for is the culture, because if you don’t have a culture that puts student-athletes first, then it’s very difficult to do that as a coach or as an administrator. So the culture here at UVA has always put students first. And so that makes it really easy because we have coaches who expect that. And when we hire new coaches, they understand that that’s a part of it. And the same is true with administrators.
So we have a program, it’s our Center for Citizen-Leaders in Sports Ethics, where we make sure that the student-athletes can have a great experience in career development, personal development, community engagement, leadership development, and also academic achievement.
And so we call that program “Pathways.” And it’s very popular; it’s been 3½ years in the making. We’re still, it’s still evolving, but the coaches are starting to use it more and more in recruiting. So it’s an online-based, individualized program to help student-athletes. We kind of meet them where they are. So in any of those areas, if someone is really focused on leadership, and they want to develop their leadership skills, we’ve got a track for them there. And the same is true with career development or personal development.
Ryan: Right. So, switching topics just a little bit: For those who haven’t heard about the athletics master plan, what’s your elevator pitch about why that’s so important?
Williams: Has anyone not heard of it?
Ryan: I’ve heard of it once or twice. I don’t know about others.
Williams: Yeah, I don’t talk about it much! You know, it is an opportunity for the vast majority of our student-athletes to be in facilities conducive to learning and growing and developing and being the best that they can be. And so the vast majority of our Olympic sport student-athletes right now are in temporary facilities, because they were in University Hall. So we are working diligently with the University Architect’s Office, Facilities Management [and] our foundation, to really raise money and build facilities that help those student-athletes in the Olympic sports, as well as our football student-athletes, be in facilities that can help them maximize their time here at UVA.
Ryan: So let’s talk about the future of college sports for a second. So will college sports look the way they do now in five or 10 years? And how will, how do you predict the changing rules around name, image and likeness? The Austin decision which allows student-athletes to receive larger scholarships and other rule changes? How do you think those are going to impact the future of college sports?
Williams: Yeah, a lot has happened in the last few years in college athletics. And I’ve been around it for 30 years, or close to 35 now, but I haven’t seen changes like this in my entire career, what we’ve seen over the last 24 months, and so I don’t know.
So you mentioned a couple of them – the Austin decision; there was also the O’Bannon decision that was as impactful. The landscape has changed. And it’s impacted recruiting, which is the lifeblood of college athletics. So I think that these court decisions – there’ll be more and more litigation against the NCAA related to revenue generation, because it is a huge industry. I can’t predict; I don’t know what it’s going to look like in five years.
I hope that it still looks like the NCAA or the collegiate model that I grew up in. I mean, that’s why I’m sitting here, because of that opportunity. And I think other than a GI Bill, college athletics has educated more young people than any other entity in the history of our country. And then for women and people of color, you know, there’s nothing that compares to it, not even the GI Bill, in terms of providing access for people of color and women. So I hope it doesn’t change much.
But I do understand it’s a huge industry with a lot of revenue that’s generated because of student-athletes in football and men’s basketball. And so I understand that those student-athletes deserve an opportunity to share in the revenue. I just hope it’s not at the expense of the overall enterprise.
Ryan: Right. So do you envision a day where there will be pay for play?
Williams: Well, there always has been, because you have to participate to get your scholarship.
Ryan: Fair enough. Yeah. Right. Right.
Williams: So it has always existed to some degree. You know, once upon a time, you could cancel a scholarship for athletic reasons. And so the rules have changed recently to not allow that. So, student-athletes have always received a financial benefit for participation. So the question now is, is it for profit for the student-athletes in certain sports that bring in the big dollars? So I think it’s all relative; if it’s pay for play, or an additional scholarship or more of a stipend, it could be called something else. But it’s just more of what already exists.
Ryan: Yeah, fair enough. I really want to thank you for spending time with me. It’s been great to speak with you. And I will say on behalf of all of us at the University of Virginia, we are so incredibly fortunate to have you as our athletic director.
Williams: Well, thank you. And let me just say that I am incredibly fortunate to be here. And so thank you for selecting me as the successful candidate four years ago. So I appreciate that.
Ryan: All right. Thanks, Carla.
Williams: All right, thank you
Mary Garner McGehee: “Inside UVA” is a production of WTJU 91.1 FM and the Office of the President at the University of Virginia. “Inside UVA” is produced by Mary Garner McGehee, Matt Weber, Brooke Whitehurst and Nathan Moore. We also want to thank Dr. Carla Williams, Stephanie Ryan, Monica Shack, Athena Hanny and McGregor McCance. Our music is “Turning to You” from Blue Dot Sessions.
Listen and subscribe to “Inside UVA” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back soon with another conversation about the life of the University.
Overseeing 750 student-athletes, 250 employees and 27 sports, Carla Williams, the director of athletics at the University of Virginia, runs the 12th-largest athletic department in the country.
Williams, who made history in 2017 when she became the first Black female athletic director at a Power Five conference school, is this week’s guest on “Inside UVA,” UVA President Jim Ryan’s podcast on all things UVA.
In the last few months alone, Williams has recruited a new football coach, Tony Elliott, and a new women’s basketball coach, Amaka Agugua-Hamilton.
Basketball was Williams’ sport in college. She was an all-Southeastern Conference guard during her time at the University of Georgia, where she was a three-year starter.
But Williams traces her love of athletics back even further, telling Ryan in the podcast that she grew up playing sandlot football in her home state of Georgia as a young girl and “probably didn’t stop playing until I was in high school.”
“What position?” asked Ryan.
“Quarterback and wide receiver,” she responded.
Of her present duties as athletics director, Williams said, “It’s very meaningful because I get to set an example that I didn’t have when I was aspiring to be an athletic director.”
She added, “I got into this profession because I love student-athletes. And so, the time that I get to spend with student-athletes as a mentor, helping them with their career aspirations, or any issues that they may have on Grounds or in Charlottesville … I love working with student-athletes. So that’s a big part of my job as an athletic director, but that doesn’t mean it’s a part of every athletic director’s job.”
Learn more about Williams’ job and her guiding philosophy by tuning into this week’s episode of “Inside UVA,” which can be streamed on most podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.