New Virginia AD Williams taking football-first approach

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Carla Williams wasted no time getting to work as Virginia’s athletic director.

She wanted a tour of all of the school’s athletic facilities, she told her staff on the first day. But first, there was a two-hour meeting with football coach Bronco Mendenhall that made it clear the task ahead was bigger than Williams knew.

”It didn’t take very long for me to start to realize that we’ve got a structural problem in football,” Williams said of the Dec. 11 meeting, during which she and Mendenhall talked about the program ”from top to bottom.”

Action, Williams determined, was needed immediately.

In the weeks that followed, Williams worked with the Virginia Athletics Foundation, the fundraising arm for athletics, on putting together a ”short-term emergency fund” that allowed Mendenhall to expand his football training staff from three to five athletic trainers and to hire three more analysts whose study of practice and recruit video allows the coaches to do more coaching.

”I knew that before any shovel went in the ground for facilities that we had serious deficiencies that we had to address now,” Williams said, and that need was going to cost about $500,000 annually for the next five years.

Dirk Katstra, now in his 22nd year as executive director of the VAF, said the fund has already raised nearly $2 million of the $2.5 million necessary to cover the five years.

The additional football staff is already in place, and ”puts us on a level playing field with our competitors,” Williams said, listing not only ACC schools but Stanford, Michigan and Notre Dame as schools with similar athletic and academic profiles.

Williams, who came from Georgia and has also worked at Florida State, brings ”a new set of eyes, fresh look at things,” Katstra said. ”She sees things differently,” he said, because of her ”big football” background.

”Obviously her focus is trying to help football first and keep everything else on a top level,” he said.

Football. Williams reasoned, is the most important piece for an athletic program.

”A healthy football program is a win for an entire athletic department. It just is,” she said, but a struggling one can have an adverse effect on other programs. ”I think we’re there.”

In her tour, Williams discovered everything else was going to cost millions going forward, too.

Right behind the football practice facility stands University Hall, where past greats like Ralph Sampson toiled for the men’s basketball program and where, Williams found, 10 teams and 400 student-athletes still work.

The building, however, has an asbestos problem, and while its demolition has been approved, ”It became clear to me that that was something that was an urgent need, to change those conditions for those sports,” she said.

Planning is underway to relocate all the athletic programs housed in U-Hall, Williams and Katstra said, after which the asbestos removal process is expected to take 9-12 months, followed by demolition and rebuilding.

This summer, the school is already working with architects on a master plan for how the land will be utilized once cleared, and football is likely to figure prominently in those plans as well, Williams said. Virginia already was planning on building a new football operations center, and now seeks space for a grass practice surface. Utilizing only its artificial turf fields, Williams said

The plans and cost estimates will be presented to the university in early June, Katstra said. It will be the VAF’s biggest fundraising undertaking since the school opened John Paul Jones Arena for basketball in 2006.

Williams played basketball at Georgia and began her post playing career as an assistant coach for the Bulldogs. The job involved a lot of recruiting, and recruiting will always be a part of her role, even as an athletic director, Williams said. She routinely meets with prospective student-athletes and their families, and having been on the other side helps her understand the needs of the coaches beyond their grasp of strategy.

In the competition to lure the best players, she said, the school needs to not only provide convincing coaches with winning backgrounds, but facilities that are on par, or better, than what the competition has to offer.

”The optics matter,” Williams said. ”We just have some ground to make up.”