About a week ago, around the same time the Big Sky Conference tabbed Andrea Williams as its sixth commissioner, Williams was at a meeting when she heard a quote that has stuck in her mind.
"With change you hope that individuals don’t look at it as a challenge, but really as an opportunity," Williams said, reciting the quote from memory.
How fitting a time it was for those words to find the current Big Ten associate commissioner as she prepares to take over the Big Sky's reins on July 1 from Doug Fullerton, who will end a 20-year tenure that will be remembered among other improvements for the conference's growth from a group of eight schools to a mass of 14 that spreads three time zones.
Even as the conference dramatically changed under Fullerton's direction, it could be on the precipice of more monumental adjustments as Williams prepares to begin her tenure as the 53-year-old conference's first female commissioner.
Speaking in a teleconference Tuesday morning in her first official media appearance as commissioner, Williams discussed where some of the transitions could take place. In a wide-ranging interview, she was pointed about taking advantage of technological advancements that would allow the conference to become more innovative in the way it broadcasts sporting events. And she was rather vague in other areas including the possibility of swallowing up more schools, adopting cost of attendance legislation and what the Big Sky can do to raise its profile on the basketball court.
"It’s my goal over the next couple of months to really lean on the staff," Williams said, "and those who have laid the groundwork and the foundation for the Big Sky over the years to continue to build on the great work that already exists."
While she was at times imprecise with her strategic plan, Scott L. Wyatt, the president at Southern Utah and the chair of the Big Sky's Presidents Council, was precise about the reasons that persuaded the Big Sky to name Williams commissioner.
"We were hoping to get somebody who had experience at all levels," Wyatt said. "(Someone) who had great experience as a student-athlete, who could bring in new vision and new ideas from other parts of the country and other levels of conferences and somebody who could frankly inspire us."
Williams checked off all the Big Sky's requirements. At one point near the end of the nearly 45-minute interview, Wyatt said that her entire resume, every line, every paragraph, was another reason why she was the "perfect person" for the job.
Williams began her introduction to collegiate sports as a basketball and volleyball player at Texas A&M. She studied communications and flirted with the idea of becoming a television commentator. She eventually became the associate commissioner of the Big Ten Conference in charge of football and basketball operations. Williams was once president of the Collegiate Event and Facility Managers Association and volunteered at the College Football Playoff National Championship Game and at the Super Bowl.
"Her experience is all the way from being a championship student-athlete to being a very successful associate commissioner," Wyatt said. "We are just thrilled to have her leading the Big Sky."
Despite her wealth of experience working for one of the nation's most resourceful conferences, Williams said she doesn't expect that she will come in and recreate the Big Sky, the employer of the smallest staff in Division I athletics, in her image. She spoke often about her intentions to collaborate with the current staff and "elevate" the Big Sky onto a level where it can complete its strategic mission.
It was, however, at times unclear what that mission could entail.
Williams was hired as commissioner one day after Idaho announced its plans to drop down from the Football Bowl Subdivision and rejoin the Big Sky Conference as a full-time member. The inclusion of the Vandals increased the amount of football teams in the Big Sky to 14, and there have been reports that it would invite New Mexico State.
An unbalanced 15-team conference invited questions about the Big Sky's intentions to expand further, signing other teams – or "low-hanging fruit," as Williams identified them – looking for a stable home. Though she broached the subject, she left it without articulating an answer.
"Coming from the outside in it’s really hard to pinpoint what that might be," Williams said. "One thing at the top of my mind and when you start having that conversation is if the Big Sky is at the right amount of schools. ... In terms of the membership, are we at the right number? Do we need to grow? Are we at the right number? What implications does that have on the league in general? I think that’s interesting."
Where Williams was most precise was on the subject of how the conference should explore broadcasting its games to alumni, fans and those who may not be familiar with the Big Sky. At a time when the Missouri Valley Conference has signed deals with CBS Sports and ESPN, giving it two national platforms, the Big Sky is nearing the end of its deal with Root Sports, which expires at the end of the 2016-17 season.
Williams' current employer, the Big Ten, was the first conference to partner with a major provider to begin its own television station. The move was followed by similar ventures by the Pac-12, the SEC and the University of Texas, which have opened up major revenue streams for each.
Though the Big Sky isn't in position to do anything of that nature, Williams – when considering revenue sources the conference could explore – discussed the possibility of a deal with a national provider. She also mentioned looking into new media to deliver content.
"I think where people have to be strategic and smart when they are developing or negotiating their new contracts is taking into account how technology is changing and how people are watching sports and absorbing getting content," Williams said.
"Ten years ago we never thought we’d be watching events on a small device in our hands as opposed to a big screen in our home or the restaurant. (With) how things are changing from a television landscape from a technology perspective, I think it’s important to have options to leave it open to whether it be a television partner or a media partner to be able to take advantage of those changes when it comes about."