SHORTLY AFTER taking over as Virginia’s director of athletics last December, Carla Williams showed up for a men’s basketball game against an unranked nonconference opponent.

She was taken aback by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd at John Paul Jones Arena, even for a game of minimal consequence.

Williams played and coached basketball before becoming the first African-American female AD of a Power Five conference school, so she appreciates the program Tony Bennett took to the No. 1 national ranking before its historic NCAA tournament loss to UMBC.

Williams also knows, though, that football pays the bills and shapes attitudes at major schools. And she quickly discovered that the Cavaliers’ program needs some major construction.

“A successful football program usually means a successful athletic program,” Williams said at Wednesday’s visit to a Virginia Athletics Foundation fund-raising event in downtown Fredericksburg. “It’s important that football be healthy, because it has such huge revenue potential. It doesn’t have to be king; it just has to be healthy.”

In an otherwise robust athletic program, Virginia’s football program has been under the weather for more than a decade. Last fall’s 6–7 record (which ended with a humiliating 49–7 Military Bowl loss to Navy) was actually the Cavaliers’ best season since 2011. The average attendance at 61,500-seat Scott Stadium was 39,398 (ninth-best in the 14-team Atlantic Coast Conference). And U.Va. has lost 14 straight games to state rival Virginia Tech.

That’s why Williams’ top priority has been correcting what she has labeled a “structural problem” with Virginia football. She has seen how elite programs operate after spending 13 years at the University of Georgia, which fired coach Mark Richt in 2015 after a 10–3 season.

In Charlottesville, she inherited a program with much lower expectations (some would say apathy) and far fewer resources. According to the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, among ACC schools, only Wake Forest and N.C. State spent less on football in 2017 than Virginia’s $21.1 million.

So Williams started an immediate fund-raising campaign to add $500,000 to football’s annual budget, allowing an appreciative coach Bronco Mendenhall to hire more strength and conditioning staff and analysts.

“She’s saying things that I could not say when I came to Virginia,” Mendenhall said Wednesday. “She’s addressing things. I wasn’t going to come in and complain. I simply like challenges. I like to build, and I like to make a difference.”

Mendenhall admitted that he didn’t feel the Cavaliers were playing on a level field with Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech during his first two seasons in Charlottesville. That was reflected in his record (8–17) and his budget.

Said Williams: “When you look at the ACC and our competitors, it’s very difficult to be competitive when you don’t have the same resources. That’s a very basic challenge for our program. I think Bronco, his staff and his student–athletes have done a super job, working very hard to compete. ... If we just give them some help, the effort and attitude will pay off.”

It’s also not a coincidence that two of the state’s top rising seniors, North Stafford running back Devyn Hall and Louisa linebacker Brandon Smith, committed to Penn State in the past week without giving Virginia much of a look, even though Mendenhall claimed, “almost every player that chose another school we found first and we offered first, and others came in later. At some point, that will change.”

Cash alone won’t guarantee that Virginia can close the gap on the ACC’s elite programs; it will take hard work to changing perceptions among fans and the state’s elite prospects.

But Mendenhall is confident the Cavaliers will get there with Williams in charge. He said he speaks almost daily with hall of famer George Welsh, who led Virginia to a No. 1 ranking in 1990 and oversaw the most successful football era in school history from 1982–99.

“It’s not an accident that U.Va. football hasn’t had back-to-back bowl trips in 13 years,” Mendenhall said. “I’m a firm believer that organizations get the results they deserve. ... But this could be the tipping point for U.Va. football, where there’s no looking back.”

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Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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