SPIA alumna Carla Williams (MPA ’91) is breaking down barriers and opening doors as the first African American female athletic director at a Power Five institution. Her story is powerful and inspiring. She was recently interviewed on Good Morning America for her achievements:
In 2017, Carla and her student-athletes were featured on the cover of our magazine We The People. Here is her story:
Play Hard. Work Harder: Achieving Greatness on and off the field
Waiting in the lobby of Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall for the photo shoot to begin, Carla Green Williams and five SPIA student-athletes exchanged pleasantries and introductions. Within minutes, we hear Carla exclaim “Go Grangers!” after finding out that distance runner Jonathan Pelham is also a native of LaGrange, Georgia. In fact, both are graduates of LaGrange High School where Carla led the women’s basketball team to two Georgia Class AAAA state titles. To say she has achieved quite a lot since her days at LaGrange High would be an understatement.
Being a student-athlete is hard work. It is early mornings and late nights. It is high standards and higher expectations. It is excelling in your sport and achieving in the classroom. It is sacrifice and dedication. It is a commitment beyond that of the average UGA student. To be a student-athlete takes strength, pride, ambition, and most of all, support.
Who better to understand what it takes to be a student-athlete than a former athlete herself? From athlete to administrator, Deputy Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator Dr. Carla Williams understands what it takes to “commit to the G.” In her position, Carla serves as the administrator for Georgia football and women’s basketball programs. In addition, she has supervisory responsibility for academic support services, compliance, sports medicine, human resources, event management, facility operations, student development, strength and conditioning, sports communications, business operations, external operations, and ticket operations.
After graduating from LaGrange High School in 1985, Carla Williams continued her basketball career at UGA where she played for the Georgia Lady Bulldogs while earning her Bachelor’s degree in sociology. She was a four-year letterwinner, three-year starter, and finished her career with 1,115 points. Carla says the most memorable part of her time as an athlete was not her own accomplishments on the court, but rather the success of her teammates.
“I was able to play with some of the greatest players in Georgia history,” said Williams. “Being a part of a team with so many great players that are known nationally and internationally … was a special, special treat for me.”
It was during her collegiate basketball career that she started planning for her future in athletic administration.
“I didn’t realize that there was a profession of athletic administration until I got here and saw administrators, and I knew then that’s what I wanted to do,” expresses Williams. “I wanted to stay in sports, and athletic administration gives me a chance to do that and work with all sports.”
While she was a student-athlete, Carla paid close attention to the things that she liked, the things that she didn’t like, the things that she felt worked, and the things she felt didn’t work. She says these observations have since guided her leadership style as a coach and now as a senior administrator.
After graduating from UGA in 1989, Williams did a short stint playing professional basketball overseas, but it wasn’t long before she made her way back to the States and back to UGA to start the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program.
“I was recruited to go to graduate school by Jerry Legge. He recruited me when I was a player before I left to go to Spain,” Williams explained. “But I decided to give professional basketball a shot. He told me that whenever I finished playing I’d have the opportunity to go through the MPA program. He was such an inspiration because he believed in me, and so that was one of the reasons I went into the program.”
After completing her MPA, Williams became an assistant coach for the Lady Bulldogs until 1996. From 1997 to 2000, Williams completed her PhD in Sport Administration at Florida State University before moving to Vanderbilt University to serve as Assistant and Associate Athletic Director from 2000-2004. Since returning to Athens in 2004, Williams has held various administrative positions at UGA including, Associate Athletic Director, Sr. Associate Athletic Director, Executive Associate Athletic Director, and her current position as Deputy Director of Athletics.
As a former student-athlete herself, Carla can remember the days when she was the one running from practice to class to dinner to study hall. Now, she is able to help support the students who have the tough job of balancing their sport with their schoolwork. One of her main objectives in her current role is to develop the student-athletes both on and off the field.
“We want to be able to compete and win championships, do it the right way, in accordance with the rules, and help our student-athletes maximize their academic experience here,” says Williams. “So we all work towards that goal, and that’s something that’s very important to President Morehead and (Athletic Director) Greg McGarity, and it’s very important to our coaches as well.”
To help achieve that goal, the Athletic Department has initiated a new program called “The Georgia Way”. The Georgia Way (thegeorgiaway.com) provides comprehensive resources to former and current student-athletes ranging from leadership and career development to job and internship placement to community outreach opportunities.
“Student-athletes are so busy with their sport during their career, it’s very hard for them to get work experience like their peers,” said Williams. “And so that’s what this new program, The Georgia Way, is designed to do.”
The goal of the initiative is to prepare and connect students to shadowing, internship, and leadership opportunities that will make them competitive on the job market after graduation.
“I think our student-athletes that excel in their sport and in the classroom are so internally motivated to do so. We just have to foster that and find opportunities so that they can stretch and maximize.”
For Williams, investing in the students as a total person is one of the most important parts of her job. On her desk she keeps a reminder that says: “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
“It’s very hard when you’re putting in so many hours a week with your sport and then you’re expected to keep up in the classroom, and you’re expected to perform well in your sport, you’re expected to be a leader, you’re expected to do community outreach. It’s a lot. And so we really try to make sure they have the support to be the very best they can be.”
Part of the experience, and Williams’ favorite part in fact, is community outreach; she says being a part of the community gives the athletes a chance to show how much they appreciate the support of the various community stakeholders. The students get a chance to get out and work with children and talk about issues that are important to them like education, anti-bullying, and teamwork. With a network of 583 current student-athletes, their impact is large, and the Athens community is better because of their service.
As Williams sits in her office overlooking the UGA track and field, she recalls the lessons she learned while in the MPA program that have helped her in her career.
“College athletics can sometimes be very complicated. Going through the MPA program, I had to stretch to become a critical thinker and to analyze situations thoroughly and look at all viewpoints,” she said. “I think being able to understand the small parts and also seeing the big picture and figuring out how to get from a problem to a solution is something the MPA really helped me do.”
As she continues to reflect on her journey through the MPA program, it is apparent that her selfless nature and true understanding of being a public servant has steered her career.
“Public administration and public service shows us there is something greater than ourselves. It teaches you to see the world doesn’t revolve around me. As a small example, the road I use to get to work every day didn’t just happen. I think the program does such a great job of forcing students to think globally beyond themselves, and that’s what we have to do in athletics too.”
Wrapping up the interview, we asked Carla if there was anything else she wanted to talk about with us. Thoughtfully, yet quickly, she said, “I’m really appreciative of the student-athletes that took the time to come and do the photo shoot today. They’ve got a lot going on, and I’m really appreciative of that.”
This is not about her, and it never has been. Whether she is connecting with students in the lobby over her alma mater or working diligently in her office reviewing policies, she is completely dedicated to helping each student-athlete achieve greatness on and off the field. That is her commitment.
Carla credits her success to her family. Her husband Brian is an Associate professor in SPIA. Brian and Carla have three children: daughter Carmen is a junior at UGA – double major in Finance and Political Science; daughter Camryn is a senior at North Oconee High School; and son Joshua is a 12 year old 7th grader at Malcom Bridge Middle School.