The following article was written by UGA Athletic Association staff writer, John Frierson. To view the original article, click here.
It has been a few decades now since Andy Landers went into the LaGrange, Ga., home of a high school recruit named Carla Green and made a very candid, important pitch. It was an honest and effective approach, one that has made such a big difference for so many people.
Landers’ Georgia women’s basketball team was fresh off Final Four appearances in 1983 and 1985, led by two future Hall of Famers in guard Teresa Edwards and forward Katrina McClain, and Green, a smart and savvy guard, was one of the best players in the state as a senior at LaGrange High School.
In Landers’ estimation, Green — whom we now all know as Dr. Carla Green Williams, the former great Georgia player and administrator and since 2017 the director of athletics at the University of Virginia — was the second-best player in the state that year. Williams, as we’ll call her from now on, agreed with that assessment.
A self-described “gym rat from the time I was 8 years old,” Williams said that she wasn’t as naturally talented as some other players. “I probably had to work extra hard to compete.” And that’s what she did, without hesitation.
The best player in the state that year wanted to come to Georgia, Landers said, the memories as fresh during a recent interview as they were back in 1985, but Landers wanted Williams. She was a really good player and still had a ton of room for improvement, he said.
His pitch, as he recalls it, started something like this:
“I remember this just as plain as yesterday. Her mom, dad, me, and one of the first things I said to her was, ‘I want you to come to Georgia but you need to understand something.’ She said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘If you come you’re not going to play your first two years.'”
Georgia already had Edwards, Susie Gardner and other quality guards, Landers explained, so playing time early in her Lady Bulldog career could be hard to come by. But …
“I said, ‘I believe in you and I believe in the player that you can become. I also believe that coming to Georgia and working to be the kind of player that I think you can be, means that you’re going to be, ultimately, as a junior, exactly where you want to be from a development standpoint.'”
It was the “intangibles,” Williams said, that made her stand out and made Landers want to use his one scholarship available on her.
Where would she be without those intangibles — the smarts, the passionate love for the game and competition, the iron will hidden behind a composed and calm demeanor? Would she have had the great career she did, still top 10 all-time at Georgia — a program that has had a lot of great guards — in both assists and steals?
“She was a subdued, quiet kind of player,” said Edwards, a senior when Williams was a freshman. “She just did it, she went and did it.”
She went and did it, that’s the Carla Green Williams story.
Without those intangibles, would she have been a great assistant coach for Landers for five years, before moving into administration at Florida State, Vanderbilt and then back at Georgia? Would she have risen to the No. 2 spot in the Georgia athletic department after years of superb work? Would Williams in October 2017 have left for the top job at Virginia, becoming the first African-American woman to lead a Power 5 conference school?
“I often think about that,” Williams said of those intangibles, “… because he very easily could have offered the scholarship to the best player in the state, and then who knows what would have been different.”
Throughout her career, Williams said, the lesson she learned from her recruitment, from Landers, has stuck with her.
“There are intangibles, whether it’s a student-athlete or a coach or an administrator, that can make the difference in whether or not a person or the organization or the institution is successful,” she said. “I don’t always just look at raw talent, I try to look at the intangibles: Does a person fit, work ethic, attitude, do they have a sense of appreciation for the opportunity? All those things are important to me.”
It’s Black History Month and Williams did in fact make history when she was hired as Virginia’s athletic director. Being the first African-American woman to lead a major college program meant a lot to her then, more than two years ago, and still does to this day.
“It meant a lot for a lot of different reasons,” she said. “Obviously it was a goal of mine to have the opportunity to be an athletic director at a place like Virginia, so when that happened that was special just because of my career aspirations.
“To be the first African-American female athletic director at a Power 5 school, I understood at the time and I understand now the significance of that because I know what my success means for other people of color, other women who aspire to advance in this profession. I also know what my failure would mean, and that’s great motivation for me.”
Failure. That’s not a word anyone would ever associate with Williams, who last weekend was back in Athens to receive the Bill Hartman Award at Georgia’s Circle of Honor ceremony. It’s an annual award given to a former student-athlete that has gone on to do exceptional work in their profession or community.
Failure. That’s something Williams had to observe, experience and manage just a few months into her time at Virginia. The Cavaliers’ 2017-18 men’s basketball team had been among the best in the country all season, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Of course, no No. 1 seed had ever lost to a 16-seed before the 2018 tournament.
In the first round, UMBC (University of Maryland-Baltimore County), of the America East Conference, not only upset Virginia, the Retrievers ran the ACC-champion Wahoos, who were 31-1 entering that game, off the floor. The final score: 74-54. Virginia, which had an exceptional season, would forever be known as the team that was the first to ever lose as a No. 1 seed, getting drilled as history was made.
“When the clock started to wind down in that game and the realization set in that we were going to be upset by a 16-seed — I’ve had many difficult moments as a player, as a coach, and so I had a unique bond with the coaches and the team,” Williams said. “I went to the locker room to let the coaches and players know that they weren’t alone, because it was a really, really difficult loss.”
That incredibly difficult, embarrassing-to-some loss, how do you turn that on its ear? By making it the first half of a fairy tale.
A year later, that infamous team that endured more than its share of ridicule after the UMBC loss, those guys fought through one tough NCAA tournament game after another and won the whole darn thing, outscoring Texas Tech in 17-9 in overtime to win the national championship.
“It’s hard for me to talk about the championship in 2019 without going back to the UMBC game,” Williams said, adding, “Seeing young people bounce back through adversity is a big part of why I do what I do.”
And what Williams is doing is what she’s meant to do. She’s a natural, with gifts tangible and intangible.
“Here are the things,” Landers said, “that I always sensed with Carla: Who wouldn’t want to be around a really, really good person? Who wouldn’t want to play with her? Who wouldn’t want to coach with her? If you’re a high-school player being recruited by her, who wouldn’t trust her? Everybody would.
“You fast-forward that into any profession and she’s got a real shot at being successful.”
And she is, making history in the process.