Big Sky commissioner reveals what got her where no Black woman has gone before
Andrea Williams is the first Black female commissioner of a major collegiate conference. It’s been almost a year since she was named head of the Big Sky Conference last April, and she has been on the job since July 1, 2016.
The Big Sky Conference’s 12 full-time member institutions, and two football and two men’s golf affiliate members, are located along the entire U.S. west coast — Washington, Oregon and California — and stretches eastward and northward to Arizona, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and North Dakota, a total of nine women’s and seven men’s teams.
Williams became the first Black woman to “break the glass ceiling” and lead a Division I conference. She also is the league’s first female commissioner. “I wanted to work here as much as I hoped they wanted me to work at the Big Sky. I have been happy since day one. Everything about this opportunity has been outstanding,” she said by phone at her office in Ogden, Utah.
A 1997 Texas A&M graduate, where she played women’s basketball and volleyball, Williams began her collegiate athletic administration career in the communications department at the Southern Conference before first joining the Big Ten (1998-2004) in different capacities from communications and marketing. After three years as NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship director (2004-07), Williams returned to the Big Ten and was associate commissioner for 10 years. There, her duties included managing the operations of the Big Ten post-season football, men’s and women’s basketball championship tournaments.
SportsBusiness Daily in 2014 named Williams among “a group of women making their mark in sports and shaping the future of the industry” as one of the magazine’s Game Changers of 2014. She is the past president of the Collegiate Event and Facility Managers Association, having worked at such major events as the National Football Championship Game and the Super Bowl.
Williams recalled, “When the Big Sky position was presented to me, I was immediately interested because these positions don’t open up that often. I knew right away it was intriguing.
“I was fortunate enough to be asked to come in for an in-person interview. I sat in a room with 20 other people — presidents, athletic directors, women administrators, faculty reps and student athletes — on the search committee. I felt right at home. That was the deciding factor,” she said.
However, she quickly added that despite her years as an associate commissioner and a ringing endorsement from Big Ten Commissioner James Delany, “I don’t think anything can really prepare you for sitting in the commissioner’s seat. However, you hope that your education, your different work [experience] along the way, have prepared you the best way you possibly can.
“My early days of being on campus as a student assistant, to going to conferences…and many years at the Big Ten [helped prepare me],” continued Williams. “Along the way I picked up a lot of characteristics that are necessary for any person in leadership. I think first and foremost is the ability to have oversight of a staff. You want to coach and develop and provide opportunities, tools and resources for staff to be successful, and that is very important to me.”
Delany said of Williams, “Andrea has made a substantial impact during her time at the Big Ten Conference.” He was impressed with Williams’ “seamless” ability to work with school officials and build meaningful relationships with “countless external partners” such as television people and host cities officials.
“First and foremost, the Big Ten conference and all its member institutions, alumni and fans are simply amazing,” said Williams. “Every part of that made my personal experience in the conference absolutely outstanding. I’m grateful for that every single day. Had it not been for my experience there, I don’t think I would be sitting in the chair I’m in today.”
On Delany as one of her mentors, she said, “I don’t know anyone out there who is better. Sometimes his mentorship was direct and personal, and sometimes it was just watching how he managed the conference, how he worked with our member institutions and how to engage with our coaches, and his thoughts on the student-athlete experience. Just by watching him, he served as a dynamic mentor for me.”
In today’s college sport landscape, with conference expansion and inner-league television networks, the Big Sky isn’t the Big Ten, one of the “Power 5” conferences, Williams admitted. Nevertheless, “I bring in a perspective to a conference that is not in that [large conference] group. I think we are in a good place and the right place. We would love to have more financial resources in order to support our student-athletes in every possible way, especially health, safety and welfare.
“There also are some similarities” between the Big Ten and the Big Sky, said Williams. “I think the passion that our alumni and fans have for their alma maters, for their [teams] they are rooting for, I think is very similar to the Big Ten. I think what else is unique about the Big Sky is the people. These individuals in the Big Sky are working as hard, if not harder…to create these experiences for the student athletes. [They are] also taking the time and effort to develop these students to prepare them for life after sport.
“I am inspired by our presidents and our leadership within the Big Sky,” continued Williams. “I think our administrators are second to none. And our coaches and our players are outstanding individuals. I feel humble to be able to represent the Big Sky on their behalf.
“The world of athletics is a unique community, a small community serving to provide great experiences and opportunities for students to be able to compete at the collegiate level, but also [provide] an education. I think being around tremendous people and tremendous leaders and those who served as mentors for me really did help pave my way to…a job like this.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.