MISSOULA — Andrea Williams was expecting to be the commissioner leading the Big Sky Conference into 2019 and who knows how far beyond.
But when she was asked to apply for the position of Chief Operating Officer for the College Football Playoff, she submitted her application and was hired to work for the organization she had been following since its inception. She had been a member of the CFP's advisory committee and stadium operations teams.
Williams spent just over two years with the Big Sky Conference when she left in July. Under her tenure, the league extended the TV contract with Root Sports and added streaming deals with Pluto TV and Eleven Sports, although there were occasional issues with streaming.
She also oversaw Idaho’s transition back into the conference and the move of the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments to Boise. Williams also helped with the implementation of the Serious Misconduct Rule, which bans Big Sky Conference student-athletes from playing or receiving athletic-related financial aid if they’ve committed violent offenses including sexual violence and domestic violence, among other offenses.
With the College Football Playoff semifinals starting this week, 406mtsports.com caught up with Williams to discuss her new position, why she decided to leave the Big Sky Conference, how she views her legacy in the league and what she thinks of the future outlook for the league.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Q: When did this opportunity with the College Football Playoff come about, and what attracted you to the position?
A: I have been attracted to the College Football Playoff and the organization ever since it came online when we made the transition from BCS to College Football Playoff. I had absolute interest in being part of the enterprise. Between the leadership under Bill Hancock to the staff that he had put together and what a phenomenal event I knew it would be with the bracket of four teams, it was something I knew back then that I wanted to be a part of.
When Michael Kelly had accepted the athletic director position at South Florida, the position opened. For me, I was at the Big Sky for just two years and I certainly was heartbroken because it would be what I had believed to be my dream job. I understood that and was committed to staying with the Big Sky Conference, so I did not inquire at all about the position because I figured timing is everything.
Lo and behold, CFP reached out to me and said, ‘Would you be interested?’ I figured that was the universe intervening on my behalf. That’s what started the conversation. Had a wonderful exchange with Bill, some other senior staff members. Was invited to come join the team here. I could not be more humble or more proud to be a part of this staff and work with people that I genuinely care about and have worked with or watched work for so many years.
Q: I read your job is managing the national championship game and process for selecting sites for future title games. What’s a typical day like for you?
A: I would say that every day is a little bit different. Typically, our days are filled from morning to night with a lot of meetings, whether they are internal or with our planning partners or with ESPN. There’s a lot of sessions going on with planning and preparation for all things CFP. We also spend a lot of time speaking to future hosts and their host committees or their bowl staff, and so there’s a lot of energy we put towards future sites.
Next year, we’re in New Orleans, we’ve already spent considerable time with our colleagues in New Orleans for next year’s championship game. In the winter, we’ve already spent time in Miami. Certainly, we were covering their semifinal, which they are hosting this year, but also in two years they host the national championship game. So, a lot has to do with the planning that we’re going through currently with the Bay Area and the national championship game happening in Levi’s Stadium. But at the same time, we are already out to 2024 and going to Houston.
Q: Do you actually get to watch the game, or are you working during it?
A: Depending on what your role is, not many people actually get to see the game because you’re so focused on making sure that all the things you planned are falling into place. One of the unique things that we do is once we come back to the office, we actually will have a watch party with the staff and get a chance to actually watch the entire game because for the most part, we’re not even going to see it.
Q: Who do you like to win this year’s title?
A: I think a team playing in the College Football Playoff is going to win. (laughs) I know that’s a cop out, but I appreciate you asking.
Q: Having been at the FCS level and seeing their playoff, do you think the College Football Playoff should expand?
A: Honestly, that’s not something that I can comment on, but thank you for asking.
Q: In your position, what role do you have in potential playoff expansion?
A: That is not part of my scope.
Q: How long do you see yourself staying at the CFP if it is your ‘dream job’ as you called it?
A: When it comes to life and change and adapting, you never know what’s going to come your way. I certainly did not anticipate leaving the Big Sky only after two years. That was not in the cards for me, but sometimes life happens to you, and so I will tell you I’m ecstatic to be here. After four months, there are moments of just absolute joy because I feel like I’ve learned something or I’ve contributed something. Then there are absolute moments of feeling inadequate because you don’t know what you feel you should know at this point.
I’m here to learn, I’m here to understand so that I can be a meaningful contributor to this team and want to stay as long as Bill has me and it makes sense because it’s the right fit. So being here after just a little bit, it just reaffirms why from a distance for so long that I knew in my heart that I wanted to be here.
Q: Looking back on your tenure leading the Big Sky Conference, what things are you most proud to have accomplished leading the conference?
A: There were a few things, whether it was renegotiating the Root television contract to moving the basketball championship to Boise. But I think the one that I’m most proud of and probably speaks to the legacy of the Big Sky, and I give credit to the Big Sky student-athletes as well as the leadership of the president’s council to support and implement the Serious Misconduct Rule. That took a lot of work, it a lot of time, but it just illustrates the commitment of the Big Sky to provide not only an equitable opportunity for the student-athletes to play but also a safe one. They sent a message that if you are Big Sky caliber, if you are going to be part of the Big Sky family and align with their values, we’re going to make sure we’re recruiting the right people to our campuses. To me, that is the biggest expression of taking care of young people who are left in the charge of conference administrators and coaches. The Serious Misconduct Rule is the one I look back on the most that is the most meaningful.
Q: What do you look back on as things you would have done differently or wished you would have gotten accomplished?
A: One of the things that we had worked on for probably a year and a half when I was there was a new headquarters office for the Big Sky. The conference has been in the same space for over 20 years. It’s dated and it’s old and it’s time to be in a place that is professional and conducive to the work that that great staff deserves to have in order to support their ability to be successful. To me, that was one that we certainly spent a lot of time on, and I think towards the end we had a couple different options, but with my departure, I know that slowed down the ability to make some decisions. But I’m hoping that under the new leadership with Tom Wistrcill and his support staff that they can find a way to update the current space that they’re in or find a new location so that they can continue to be successful because they deserve it because they’re a first-class organization and they deserve to be in a first-class office.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Tom Wistrcill?
A: I think that there are a couple. This would apply across the board with the FCS conferences is the financial piece. FCS member institutions and conferences don’t have a lot of access to funding. So, it’s finding creative ways to support your different initiatives. I think that’s a pretty big one. The other challenges that you face in the Big Sky is just the size of the footprint. So when you go from Washington to Montana to Colorado to Arizona to California – I’m from Texas, so I’m of the mindset ‘Bigger is better’ – but when you talk about student-athlete welfare and having to travel, the cost associated with that, the time on the road, that’s difficult. I think all of the institutions in the Big Sky are a great fit and it makes a lot of sense, but it does put it a burden when it comes to travel within that footprint because it’s just so large.
Q: When you left, were you asked for any recommendations for your replacement, or did you give an endorsement for anybody?
A: No and no. But I stayed in contact with my colleagues there, the presidents. I truly adore them and want them to be successful. I let them know that I was going to be as available as much as they wanted or as much as they would not need me. I can tell you Tom and I have connected. I’m excited to see where he takes the conference from here. He has my support. He knows that I’m here as a resource, and if he doesn’t need me, that’s no problem, too. The Big Sky just holds a special place in my heart. Every Saturday, I’m checking the volleyball scores and the football scores to see how they’re faring across the country and know that Eastern Washington is going to be playing in Frisco. I’m excited for what they’ve been able to do in the postseason. I’ll continue to be a supporter of the Big Sky from here on out.
Q: Speaking of Eastern, do you think they can pull the upset against NDSU?
A: I think that’s why we play the game. We get every opportunity to sell it on the field. I’m certainly going to be paying attention and cheering them on. My relationship with Lynn Hickey, who’s the athletic director there, she was my basketball coach at (Texas) A&M, so I would certainly love to see, in her first year, for them to win a national championship. I think that would be phenomenal for her. Their president, Mary Cullinan, she’s just first class, and I’d like to continue to see her enjoy the success. And (football) coach (Aaron) Best, just very respectful, understands the game, great teacher, and I’m pleased that I had the opportunity to work with him briefly. He deserves to get the win. We’ll see what happens, but I hope that they know they still have me as a fan.