(Photo courtesy of University of Virginia)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On her first full day as Virginia athletic director five months ago, Carla Williams met with Coach Bronco Mendenhall for roughly two hours to discuss the state of the football program.
Having been an athlete and administrator at Georgia, she arrived at her new post keenly aware of the how much football matters not only to the financial profile of a Power Five institution but also the ways in which its success — or, in the Cavaliers’ case in recent seasons, a lack thereof — can affect an entire athletic department.
So during a nearly one-hour sit-down with members of the media on Friday afternoon, Williams spoke almost exclusively about her efforts to return football to prominence via several avenues, most notably fundraising, facilities and ticket sales.
“It didn’t take me very long to start to realize that we’ve got a structural problem in football,” Williams said. “We’re understaffed in some areas. Obviously we’ve got some facilities issues in some areas. Our budget isn’t where it needs to be, so all of those things need to change to have a consistently competitive football program.”
Adding a football facility on par with the marquee programs in the ACC remains a top priority, although Williams, the first female African American athletic director at a Power Five school, did not provide specifics regarding a timetable.
In June 2017, the Virginia Board of Visitors authorized fundraising and planning for a football operations center at an estimated cost of $55 to $60 million. The building would house all the necessities and amenities to attract top recruits, an area in which the Cavaliers have been lagging behind their ACC counterparts, most notably in-state rival Virginia Tech.
The football staff operates largely out of the McCue Center, located across the street from John Paul Jones Arena, the Cavaliers’ state-of-the-art home court for men’s and women’s basketball. But McCue, which opened in 1991, has grown outdated compared to those at the likes of Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Miami and other conference powers.
“If there is a four- or five-star recruit from the Tidewater area or Norfolk, let’s just say, and they’ve narrowed their choices to Virginia, to Notre Dame, to Stanford, to Michigan and they take visits to those places, they’re going to choose the schools that they think are making an investment in their future,” Williams said.
“Because if you’re a four-star recruit, you probably have aspirations of playing the NFL, and your college experience is your opportunity to do that. If we don’t show recruits that we’ve committed and invested in our football program, then the messaging is that, and so we’ve got some work to do in that area.”
Also unpalatable for recruits is the abundance of elbow room during games at Scott Stadium, where attendance has been sagging for years.
Scott Stadium holds 61,500, but the Cavaliers have announced a home crowd of more than 40,000 only three times during Mendenhall’s two seasons: 49,270 for his first game at the school; 48,609 for last season’s regular season finale against Virginia Tech; and 40,882 for a Week 7 matchup against North Carolina in 2016.
Virginia won six games this past season and went to a bowl game for the first time since 2007. But seasons such as those have become the exception over the last decade, during which time Virginia has endured six years with four wins or fewer. The Cavaliers have had one winning season since 2008 and twice have finished with two victories, including going 2-10 in 2017, a jarring reality check for Mendenhall after he spoke about directing Virginia to a bowl game in his first year in Charlottesville.
Among her first goals after meeting with Mendenhall, Williams said, was to raise an additional $500,000 per year for the football budget over the next five years. Following meetings with donors, the figure quickly grew to $1 million because of their belief in Mendenhall’s vision to rebuild the program.
It’s a start, Williams indicated, but far from enough to bring football back to the level it enjoyed under George Welsh and Al Groh, who directed Virginia to a total of 17 bowl games from 1984 through 2007.
“People don’t come to see a bad product, and so it all works together,” Williams said. “Bronco has done an excellent job going from two wins to six wins. We’ve got to continue to improve on that, and it can’t all be on the coach because there’s fundraising, there’s facilities, there’s marketing, there’s promotions.
“We’ve had conversations from top to bottom, because in order to get this on track, it’s not one person, it’s not one unit. It’s the entire department, and that’s what I’ve seen, and that’s what it takes.”
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