Ed. Note: Torchbearers is a College AD series profiling female leaders in college athletics. Torchbearers is presented by SM2. SM2 is committed to positively impacting the culture of social networking users in athletics, SM2 provides the only foundational education programs customized for global sports brands.
Andrea Williams is in the midst of her first year running the Big Sky Conference. The former Texas A&M dual sport star came to the Big Sky after spending time at the Big Ten, NCAA, Southern Conference and several other stops. Williams’ reminded College AD of the importance of staying focused but not being rushed to get that next job.
On Her Journey
“I’m a military brat. My dad is retired Air Force. We moved around a lot and claim San Antonio, Texas as my home. It’s where I graduated from high school and where my parents ended up retiring. I played both basketball and volleyball at Texas A&M University; that was a tremendous experience. My parents made it very clear that we were going to have our education paid for either by academics or athletics. The writing was on the wall for me in terms of getting that athletic scholarship. They were great supporters and role models, and obviously seeing my brother and sister be so successful really illustrated what was possible for me as I grew up after them.
“That introduced me to college athletics, and at the time I certainly didn’t realize and understand what the roles were. Whether it was to become an athletic director, a senior woman administrator, an academic advisor, you just knew that those people worked there and were a part of your experience. They definitely worked very hard for all of us who can through the institution to ensure that we had the resources to be successful and to graduate. Around my junior year we had someone come talk to my team and they said that we needed to start thinking about life after graduation, start getting experience, and not just work summer camps for cash.
“So that’s where I got started. I thought I wanted to go into television, and I wanted to be the next big news anchor in San Antonio, Texas. I started working at a local Warner Brothers affiliate in Bryan, Texas right next to College Station. I also worked in the Sports Information Department as a student at A&M. My favorite experience was working for CBS sports in New York for a summer. When I graduated, I went to the Southern Conference as an intern in communications as well as television, so I actually worked for Fox Sports South and some other local affiliates doing volleyball and sideline football, so that was really great.
“I fell into the administrative role. From the Southern Conference, I went to the Big 10 where I stayed for about six years in a number of roles like communications, marketing, and sport management. From there I went to the NCAA where I was with the women’s basketball championship for two years, so all things relative to the preliminary round to the Final Four. That was a great experience, and the Big Ten thought they would start their own network which has been awesome to see the success of the Big 10 and the Big 10 Network. After that, they did some restructuring and I was invited to come back to the Big 10, so at no point in time did I think that I was going to move back to Chicago or have another shot of working for the Big 10 conference, but I did. Jim Delaney really gave me another opportunity to come back, so that’s where I’ve been the last 10 years. With that I started branding, managed events like the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, football kickoff luncheon and festivities. Then with the addition of Nebraska, I took over the inaugural Big 10 championship game which was tremendous to be a part of; it was humbling to be with the Big 10 which had been around for over 100 years, and to be part of history where we had our divisions where we created our post conference season football championship game. I was honored to be able to lead that effort.
“For anyone in administration identifying where you want to be and what you want to do, for some that’ll be on campus, others that’s the national office, and then there’s conference work. I’ve really enjoyed working with coaches, administrators, and external constituents, to create great opportunities for student athletes. With that, there’s only so much you can do with college athletics, and I certainly the conference work.
“There are only 32 Division I conference commissioner positions in the country, and they don’t come up very often, so when the Big Sky leadership position became available, I was absolutely interested. Going through the selection committee search in that process is pretty daunting. In some cases it can be intimidating, but I can tell you that when I walked through the door, the selection committee was made up of presidents, athletic directors, senior women administrators, and even a student athlete, I felt right at home. I immediately felt that these were not only just peers, but friends as well. I knew that this was an opportunity that I could not pass up and definitely wanted as soon as I had the opportunity to meet the people.”
On Career Challenges
“In terms of resources, coming from an ‘Autonomy 5’ conference to an FCS, there’s certainly a lot more resources and support at that level. I left a staff of 43 full time employees to come to an office now of 9 full time employees. We’re all responsible for doing the same things that relate to television, scheduling, compliance, governing, branding, and sponsorship. We all have to do the same thing whether it;s a power 5 or not, and just don’t have the same number of bodies to do that. We have to find unique ways to be resourceful without all of the resources. FCS conferences have thrived and done well without the same amount of funding as the bigger conferences. That was the biggest change in my transition.
“The Big Sky has been around for over 50 years, and the reason for that is our member institutions, our stability, and our overall commitment to the student athletes. That really is paramount for all Division I conferences, the NCAA, and everyone who works in collegiate athletics. It’s all about making sure that we recruit great students, and while they’re in our care we’re taking the time to develop them and ensure that we’re giving them the support and resources to be successful academically. And at the end of the day, make sure that they’re prepared for life after graduation or life after sport. That never changes; that’s always our focus. If we can find new ways to do that, that’s certainly a priority to us.”
On The Mentors Who’ve Guided Her
“I was very fortunate where along the way, everyone has sort of lent a hand and has been a great mentor which certainly started with my family. Going to the Southern Conference, Wright Waters, the commissioner at the time, he and I are still connected. He was one of the first people to call me to congratulate me for this position. Jim Delany has just been outstanding with direct mentorship and also just being a great leader. During my internship at CBS sports, there was a gentleman there who was the VP of programming named Arthur Harris; he took me under his wing when I was in New York. He taught me what it’s like to be professional, how to carry and present yourself, and how to prepare for meetings. Certainly Lynn Hickey, the athletic director at UTSA; she was my basketball coach at A&M. We stay connected, and she’s still a mentor to me. What’s nice and unique now are the times when she asks me for my thoughts and advice, and I certainly humbled by that as well. It’s also important to have peer mentors who understand your work and hold each other accountable. Peer mentorship is just as important as having that leader mentorship.”
On Advice For Aspiring Professionals
“The first is to work really hard and be willing to sacrifice. Sometimes we’re in such a rush to get a job, title, or promotion that we’re not actually focusing on the work at hand and growing or developing as an administrator. I had five or six internships when I was coming up, so my mom would always ask me when I would get a real job, but those internships really prepared me for that first opportunity because I needed to learn and grow and be in the weeds. Everyone should have to go through that in order to learn and appreciate where they came from and where they are today. Have the right attitude, work ethic, drive, and be patient in pursuing a great career.”