Shortly after David Williams arrived at Vanderbilt in 2000 to assume the duties of vice chancellor and general counsel, he took his family to their first football game on campus.
As the Commodores suffered one of their eight losses that season, Nicholas Williams, just 5 years old, turned to his father and made a very frank observation.
“He made a great assessment of what was wrong with our athletic performance then,” Williams recalls. “So I was like, ‘If he can figure it out, we need to figure it out.’ ... We have changed that, and I have all intentions of that never ever coming back to this university.”
Since 2003, Williams has served as vice chancellor of university affairs and athletics. On Thursday, he added a new title — athletics director. He is the first to hold the position since Todd Turner was fired nine years ago when former chancellor Gordon Gee dissolved the athletic department in hopes of integrating athletes with the rest of the student body.
Last fall, USA Today reported that Williams was the highest paid athletic director in the country, making $2.56 million. That included his other responsibilities, such as teaching classes at the law school, which he will continue to do. But he will step down as general counsel and university secretary. A national search for those vacancies will begin shortly.
“We’re an unusual institution,” chancellor Nicholas Zeppos said. “We compete at the highest level academically and we compete at the highest level athletically … David has been at my side for 12 years and he’s an incredible partner and an incredible leader.”
Despite the announcement, the athletics department will stay dissolved and continue to grapple with other colleges and departments at Vanderbilt for funding. But Williams will serve as the primary fundraiser for athletics.
“It never was disbanded,” Williams said. “We’ve always had a department over there. The structure of it was a little different than some of the other departments. The structure will morph over time. My view of it is that structure really has to fit what you’re trying to do. At the point in time we needed to be concerned about the culture was over there and the credibility we had internally as well as externally.”
Over the last five years, Vanderbilt has experienced unprecedented athletic success.
The women’s bowling program won the school’s first national championship in any sport. The baseball team reached its first College World Series in 2011. A dormant football program went to bowls twice in the last four years. Men’s basketball has reached the NCAA Tournament five of the last six years and last winter won its first Southeastern Conference Tournament championship in 61 years. The women’s basketball team has made the NCAA Tournament 13 straight years. In 2011-12, Vanderbilt was just one of two SEC schools that made the postseason in all four revenue sports.
As a result, facility changes have occurred, including the announcement of a multi-use facility with an indoor football practice field. Vanderbilt Stadium is receiving new artificial turf and the football stadium and Memorial Gymnasium will have new jumbotrons. In addition, the McGugin Center is in the process of numerous upgrades, including new locker rooms for all sports.
“I’ve listened to the comments about the number of hats you have to wear and it does get hard to change them quite often,” Williams said. “I’ve heard all the comments about what athletics needs is a full-time leader and we take that to heart … We really believed we’ve just scratched the surface.”