New Virginia AD Carla Williams poised on center stage

Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity promoted Carla Williams to deputy AD in 2015. The new position merely confirmed her long-understood status.

“I don’t get hung up on titles,” McGarity said. “I get hung up on responsibility. I would say without question Carla’s been a right hand to me a lot longer than since 2015. … Carla and I talk every day, because her office is just 20 yards away from my office. As our staff knows, I’ve worn the carpet out going between my office and Carla’s.”

McGarity and I spoke by phone Monday morning, hours before Williams was introduced as Virginia’s athletic director. Williams’ subsequent eloquence was as striking as McGarity’s endorsement.

First in prepared remarks and later responding to questions, Williams was sharp, moving, funny and gracious. Knowledge gleaned from three decades in college sports — as student-athlete, coach and administrator — was evident throughout. So, too, was poise forged at the industry’s highest levels.

Williams spoke of faith and family. She thanked her late parents, career mentors and pastor in Athens, Ga. With a wry grin, she mentioned playing childhood football and basketball against boys.

Why, she even dropped a Bodo’s reference, a nod to Charlottesville’s best bagel shop.

Williams’ worked previously behind the curtains, as an assistant women’s basketball coach at Georgia, followed by administrative roles at U.Ga., Florida State, Vanderbilt and, again, at Georgia. But Monday she appeared ready for center stage.

“She’s further ahead, and I say this sincerely,” said retiring Virginia AD Craig Littlepage. “She is further ahead than I was when I took over as an athletics director in 2001.”

Williams’ career path is quite similar to Littlepage’s. Both were outstanding basketball players, she at Georgia, he at Penn. Both moved immediately into coaching, she under Hall of Famer Andy Landers at U.Ga., he under Hall of Famer Rollie Massimino at Villanova. And both transitioned to administration, their approaches rooted in academic, athletic and coaching accomplishments.

Williams left coaching in 1996, months after helping Georgia reach a second consecutive Final Four. But the move was long-planned.

“I knew when I went into coaching that I did not want to be a head coach,” Williams said. “I went into coaching to become a better administrator. So I coached for five years and had great success. We played in two Final Fours. We played for the national championship. And our daughter, Carmen, was born, and I realized it was time to go ahead and make that move to administration. It was perfect timing.”

William and Mary athletic director Samantha Huge has known Williams for more than a decade and thinks so much of her friend that she drove to Charlottesville for Monday’s presser. Huge used to work at Texas A&M, and she recalled Southeastern Conference meetings that became rather spirited.

“There’s some competition in that room,” Huge said. “She was always the voice that brought us to back where we needed to be. … Her thoughtfulness, her candor, she has such a way with people. She’s so calm.”

McGarity noticed the same, and when he became Georgia’s AD in 2010, he immediately retained Williams. Moreover, he added to her responsibilities. And added and added and added.

Major college athletic directors operate best at 30,000 feet, while staffers on the ground endure the routine grind. Sport oversight, NCAA compliance, external and event operations, human resources, budgets, academic support: Williams ran the show day-to-day.

Moreover, she was among the few women nationally entrusted to supervise football.

“I felt that Carla’s skillset was ideal for managing, for being the supervisor, or the facilitator as we call it, for football because she had done that so successfully in other sports,” McGarity said. “She proved that she as totally capable of handling situations that arise. …

“She was very adept at understanding what coaches go through, what they experience, how hard it is to recruit and the time it takes away from your family. (She’s someone) that gets it and can communicate and be brutally honest with people. That’s the thing I love about Carla, is her ability to be brutally honest in a compassionate way. There’s always a way to say no, and having the art to say no in a very thoughtful manner is the way Carla handles things.”

Fundraising is paramount in college athletics, and Virginia is asking its donors to finance a new football support complex that would cost $55 million-to-$60 million. Williams has limited fundraising experience, but McGarity took over at Georgia with a similar void in his credentials.

The key, McGarity said, is people skills, building relationships. And by all accounts, that’s right in Williams’ wheelhouse.

Besides, there’s a reason McGarity didn’t ask Williams to raise money: He needed her elsewhere.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that once Carla is able to focus on (fundraising),” McGarity said, “that she’ll be a slam dunk.”

Among six candidates Virginia interviewed — that nugget courtesy of rowing coach Kevin Sauer, a member of the search committee — Williams inherits from Littlepage a department that excels in the classroom and on the playing field.

That’s certainly what Williams did. She was an All-SEC guard and earned a master’s at Georgia and doctorate at Florida State. She and her husband, Brian, an associate professor of public administration and policy at Georgia, are raising three academically inclined children.

In short, lack of Virginia ties notwithstanding, the Williams family seems an ideal fit here.

Like Littlepage, the first African-American athletic director in ACC history, Williams is a pioneer. She is the first black female to lead a Power Five athletic department, and she appreciates the “historic nature” of her hiring.

“I have served as a role model throughout my career as a student-athlete, as a coach and as an administrator,” Williams 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.”

Teel can be reached by phone at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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