With its 1960s-era clamshell dome, and its history as the home to Final Four teams headlined by Ralph Sampson (Col ’83) and Dawn Staley (Col ’92), University Hall was once something of an icon.
Now it’s more of an eyesore.
Since the Cavaliers’ basketball programs moved next door to John Paul Jones Arena in 2006, the old barn has fallen into disrepair. You don’t have to pull up too closely in the parking lot to see it needs more than fresh paint. And if you think the building’s exterior looks grim, well, you’d be aghast at the interior. Peeling paint, token lighting, zero amenities. The inner bowl is padlocked to quarantine asbestos.
And it’s still in use. Along U-Hall’s street-level concourse and lower ring, as well as inside connected Onesty Hall, are the headquarters for UVA’s Olympic sports, essentially anything other than football and basketball.
When Carla Williams inspected U-Hall in December during her first week as Virginia’s athletic director, no office, hallway, locker room, shower, restroom or storage area escaped her eye. Months later, the mental images still fresh, Williams pauses when asked her reaction.
Then she answers: “Virginia’s better than that.”
She’s talking about more than the building. One of Williams’ first acts in office was to get Board of Visitors approval to tear down U-Hall to make way for top-contending facilities. It’s a metaphor for the larger overhaul and the grander ambition Williams has in mind for Virginia athletics.
Williams believes upgrading facilities and reviving a long-flagging football program can elevate Virginia to new competitive heights, and she’s confident she can accomplish it all without compromising the academic values of an institution that U.S. News & World Report ranks as the nation’s No. 3 public university.
“If we ever get [football] going on a consistent basis,” Williams says, “then I contend that we’re the best in the country—by far. And that’s what I see. I see us getting the cream of the crop, the most elite prospective student-athletes here. It’s no different than what the University aspires to.”
She’s not starting from scratch. Virginia has been competitively well-rounded for more than a decade. Virginia’s 67 ACC team championships are the most of any school since the conference expanded in 2004–05. UVA and North Carolina are the only ACC schools to finish among the top 30 in the Directors’ Cup all-sports standings every year since the Cup’s 1993 inception, and the Cavaliers won 13 NCAA team titles during Craig Littlepage’s 16 years as athletic director—he retired in December.
Even so, Virginia’s 21st-place Directors’ Cup finish in 2017–18 was its worst in 12 years. Baseball missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in Brian O’Connor’s 15-year coaching tenure, and men’s tennis exited the NCAAs before the fourth round for the first time since 2004. (See our program-by-program rundown below.)
She’s seen it done
Like her most recent Virginia predecessors, Littlepage and Terry Holland, Williams played and coached college basketball. Unlike Littlepage and Holland, she has witnessed the power of elite college football since her youth.
Williams grew up in LaGrange, Georgia, on Bulldogs football. She saw Herschel Walker win the Heisman Trophy and lead the University of Georgia to the 1980 national championship. She saw Vince Dooley close his Hall of Fame coaching career with 11 consecutive winning seasons, the revenue from which fueled success throughout the athletic department. She later became a Georgia Bulldog herself, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology (1989) and a master’s degree in public administration (1991).
As a fledgling administrator at Florida State University, where in 2000 she earned a Ph.D. in sports management, Williams watched Bobby Bowden coach the Seminoles to the 1999 national title and FSU quarterback Chris Weinke collect the 2000 Heisman.
Later, as a senior staffer at Georgia, after her return from a stint in Vanderbilt University’s athletics department, Williams supervised top-shelf football programs guided by head coaches Mark Richt and Kirby Smart.
“A healthy football program is a win for an entire athletic department,” Williams says. “It just is. There’s so much more potential for increased revenue because of football.”
The converse is also true, she says: “When the program isn’t as healthy as it needs to be or should be, then over time you’ll see that … start to affect the entire department.”
Hoops and lows
Two programs in major college athletics pay for everything else: football and men’s basketball. At Virginia, the two are polar opposites.
Preparing for his 10th season, Tony Bennett has steered Cavaliers basketball to three ACC regular-season titles, two ACC tournament championships and five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. He is a three-time national Coach of the Year, once at Washington State and twice at UVA, and raucous sellouts have turned John Paul Jones Arena into one of the sport’s most formidable home courts.
Moreover, basketball headliners such as Joe Harris (Col ’14), Malcolm Brogdon (Col ’15, Batten ’16), Devon Hall (Col ’16, Educ ’18) and Isaiah Wilkins (Col ’18) distinguished themselves in the classroom and the community.
The Cavaliers absorbed an unimaginable defeat to University of Maryland-Baltimore County in March, becoming the first No. 1 NCAA seed to lose to a No. 16. But they also won an ACC-record 20 conference games, 17 in the regular season and three in the tournament, and a school-best 31 games overall.
“Men’s basketball is doing everything that men’s basketball can do,” Williams says. “Revenue, graduation rates, community engagement, competitiveness. You cannot ask for more. … It’s awesome to see. I just think about it and get chills. It was just so much fun to watch.”
Then there’s football. Nine losing seasons in the past 10 years make this the Cavaliers’ worst stretch since the 1970s. Compounding the malaise: an unprecedented 14 consecutive defeats to in-state rival Virginia Tech.
The decline cost Al Groh (Com ’66) and Mike London, accomplished coaches with extensive ties to the state and the University, their jobs. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has no such connections, but his sterling record at Brigham Young University impressed Virginia enough to hire him in late 2015.
Postseason eligibility in 2017 signaled progress, but six setbacks in the final seven games, compounded by a Military Bowl beat-down from Navy, made for a sobering close.
Mendenhall offered an equally stark assessment to the Board of Visitors in June, estimating that only half the Cavaliers’ 85 scholarship players in 2018 will be ACC-caliber. He projected a full-strength roster by 2020.
Meanwhile, skeptical fans await consistent improvement before investing their time and money.
Scott Stadium’s official capacity is 61,500. Virginia’s average home attendance has dipped below 40,000 three times in the past four seasons. The Cavaliers haven’t averaged more than 50,000 since 2008, or more than 60,000 since 2005.
That’s millions of dollars annually in lost ticket revenue, not to mention a drag on fundraising and a cloud over the entire department.
“Again,” Williams says, “we go back to how valuable a commodity a successful football program is.”
So how to address the macro (facilities) and micro (football)?
Swayed by a two-hour meeting with Mendenhall on her first day as AD, Williams’ first step was to expand football’s strength and player personnel staffs, a relatively quick fix that Williams says will cost about $2.5 million over five years. Thank Virginia Athletics Foundation donors for financing that upgrade through what was essentially a rainy day fund.
The new staffers are not an extravagance. The Cavaliers were spending less on football than all but two of their ACC rivals.
For the 2016–17 fiscal year, Virginia reported $21.1 million in football expenses to the U.S. Department of Education, ahead of only Wake Forest University ($18.9 million) and North Carolina State University ($20.9 million).
“It was amazing,” Mendenhall says of Williams’ approach. “This was a leader asking a football coach, ‘How can I help?’”
“We needed immediate help,” Williams says. “We’re going to have to sustain that at some point through our operating budget, and so, we’ve got to win. We’ve got to win to create the excitement and following and have the revenue come in.”
Far more comprehensive and transformational is Williams’ master plan to enhance the department’s facilities.
First, U-Hall’s asbestos will be removed, and those housed in U-Hall and Onesty Hall will move temporarily to modular quarters. U-Hall, Onesty and the adjacent Cage practice site will be demolished, followed by construction of an Olympic sports building, a football operations center and additional multi-purpose practice fields.
Asbestos removal and demolition will cost $12 million to $14 million and be completed in 2020. Williams hopes to have construction cost estimates and final blueprints by December, but a year ago Littlepage ballparked a football complex at $50 million to $60 million.
“My hope is, if I do my job correctly and effectively and with everything I have, that with new [staff] resources we can build new momentum into this launch for … a new facility,” Mendenhall says. “And if all that comes together, then possibly that is the tipping point where UVA football doesn’t ever look back.”
Mendenhall and Williams insist that Virginia football can prosper without sacrificing academic standards. They cite the Cavaliers’ success under George Welsh during the 1980s and ’90s and, more currently, flourishing programs at the likes of Stanford, Northwestern and Michigan.
“When I talk to parents and prospects,” Williams says, “I talk about the opportunity for a great education here. A lot of people talk about the fact that they can offer a great education, but not many people can actually say it’s the No. 3 public institution in America.
“The prospects we’re recruiting in our football program can thrive academically here, and there are many players at other schools that we want to get here at Virginia that can thrive academically,” she says. “Whereas some people may think that’s a hurdle that’s too high for Virginia, the academics. I don’t believe that.”
Williams joined University architect Alice Raucher in June to unveil the facilities plan for the Board of Visitors Building and Grounds Committee. She was encouraged then, as she was in April when the board’s executive committee so quickly greenlighted the U-Hall demolition project. Williams says it “speaks to the fact that the University would like to see excellence in all areas.”
“The thing that I’ve noticed—it makes me smile—is that the alums, the supporters, the donors, the board members, they love the University of Virginia,” she says. “It’s easy at some places to have large segments of your fan base that may love only a particular team, but what I’ve found here at Virginia is that everyone I talk to, even if they didn’t graduate from the University of Virginia, they love the University. They love the whole place, and we want to make sure they’re part of this overall excellence.”
Which is precisely why Williams included the Olympic sports complex, complete with spaces for academic support, community service and top-shelf nutrition, in her plan.
Women’s lacrosse coach Julie Myers (Col ’90) understands those needs more than most. She has won national championships at UVA as a player (1991), assistant coach (1993) and head coach (2004), and in 23 seasons of leading the program she’s seen rivals bypass the Cavaliers.
Myers considers her team’s locker room adequate, but since it’s in U-Hall’s dank lower ring, she ushers prospects in and out as quickly as possible.
“I think people at Virginia have always done a good job making what we have seem like it’s just enough, like it’s perfect. So we didn’t waste much time complaining about U-Hall,” she says. “If it’s not shiny and new, you can always talk your way around it and say, ‘Look, it’s not about shiny and new; it’s about the core and what we’re trying to do here.’ But clearly if you keep the core consistent to where it should be, and you have shiny and new, and you have a little swag[ger] to go with it, I think it goes a long way.”
Williams inherited a roster of renowned coaches that includes Myers, Bennett, Mendenhall, Brian O’Connor (baseball), Steve Swanson (women’s soccer), George Gelnovatch (Col ’87) (men’s soccer) and Kevin Sauer (women’s rowing). And she believes they can accomplish even more with greater resources.
That will require competitive football and relentless fundraising. “I think it’s all doable,” Williams says, “because of the passion of the people that love this place. … We’ve identified the challenges here, and they are real, and so we’re just going to attack them.”