David Williams can’t even board a plane without being approached by enthusiastic Vandy fans.
“I’ll be at the airport, getting on the plane or off the plane, and people will wanna talk about the last game or the next game,” Williams said. “So it’s one of the things you just kind of get used to.”
Whether they’re coming up to him during a game to remember old Commodore players or sending him impassioned emails after a big basketball win, fans are eager to talk with Williams. Not only is he vice chancellor for athletics, but he’s also a law professor, chair of the NCAA Infractions Appeals committee, former university general counsel and one of the most visible faces of Vanderbilt athletics.
The public’s opinion of Williams is based on very few of the factors that feed into his overall life and portfolio. The public sees Williams at press conferences and maybe from a distance at a game. They also see his widely-reported high compensation, $3.2 million dollars, according to a USA Today report from 2013. But what the public doesn’t see is the respect that his colleagues here at Vanderbilt and in the SEC have for him — and the respect he has for his student-athletes.
How Williams works
Years ago, when SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey entered his first meeting while working for the conference, he was given one piece of advice about David Williams.
“David’s not one to say much, but when he talks, he’s someone to whom everyone will listen.”
Even now, Sankey finds that to be a valid characterization — Williams is known for being quiet and thoughtful. In the SEC meeting room with the fellow conference athletic directors, Williams’ colleagues find him to be a prolific thinker who always puts the student first. While many ADs come from inside athletics, the diverse set of skills and experiences that Williams brings to the table add a perspective to the room that others don’t have, even if he doesn’t say much.
“He’s quiet. There are those of us who probably speak out a lot in meetings. He’s not as vocal as some others,” said Scott Stricklin, Athletic Director at Mississippi State. “When he does speak, he has a really unique perspective, and I think we all value it.”
Rod Williamson, associate athletic director who has been with Vanderbilt since 1983, finds that the same unique way of thinking informs Williams and his work here at Vanderbilt.
“I remember one case where he said, ‘This person is eligible by NCAA standards, but if this was your son or daughter, would you want them playing, or would you want them trying to get their academic life in order?’ And when he phrased it like that, it made a sort of sense. I wonder how many people that we compete against in this conference would have that kind of discussion.”
Williams is a process-driven person. Possibly due to his legal background, he approaches all decisions the same way. Whether it’s a small decision or a big one — like hiring a new men’s basketball coach — he keeps an even keel and a thoughtful focus on what’s best for Vanderbilt. Sometimes, that means sitting back and listening.
“David is a very thoughtful, considerate person. And he asks thoughtful, provocative questions,” said John Ingram, chair of Vanderbilt Board of Trust’s Athletics Committee. “He’s not somebody that dominates the room.”
Where Williams keeps his focus
David Williams’ office in the back of the second floor of the McGugin Center is full of, well, lots of things. Stacks of loose papers with various memos and signatures litter his desk. Binders from the NCAA Infractions Appeals committee sit on a chair. On a shelf is a commemorative football from the 2014 Compass Bowl, still in the wrapper. In the corner beside his desk is a guitar with the logo of the 2013 Music City Bowl, and sitting on a table is a basketball, back in its box, which was used in the photos welcoming new basketball coach Bryce Drew. But Williams’ most prized possession is his music collection.
“I have four times as much music as is up there,” Williams said of the stacks of CDs above his desk. Williams used to play the saxophone and even used to have a music radio show on campus. Though he doesn’t have the radio show anymore, sometimes he’ll close his office door and play music for himself, creating his own mock radio show.
Senior track runner Faith Washington, who often stops by Williams’ office to talk, appreciates seeing all the music when she walks in. She finds that the second you walk in, Williams’ personality jumps out. But Washington doesn’t just appreciate his taste in music, which leans towards throwback Motown. She finds Williams to be a great sounding board and source of advice.
“It’s very easy to talk to him,” Washington said. “I told him [last time we talked], “‘When I’m talking to you I feel like I’m talking to my father.’”
Washington finds that even when her own focus is on her athletics, Williams, who ran track himself in college, keeps the bigger picture in mind. At Senior Day for track and field, Williams got to the meet early, walked around the indoor arena, and cheered on the team. During the Senior Day ceremony, Williams was sure to find Washington, and not just to congratulate her on her track career. He wanted to know how her job search was going.
“In that moment I’m thinking about track and field,” Washington said, “and here he is trying to make sure I’m prepared for life.”
But being prepared for life doesn’t only mean being ready for a career. Simone Charley hadn’t really thought about trying to qualify for the Olympics for triple jump until she ran into Williams in early November. The junior track star and soccer player thought it was a small possibility, but never gave it in-depth consideration until Williams pressed her on it.
“He drove me back to my dorm in the golf cart [after a campus event], and he brought it up,” Charley said. “He said, ‘If you’re taking that into consideration, come talk to me, and we can figure it out.’”
Williams took care of everything for Charley. He spoke to her soccer coaches and set her up to be able to take the spring off from soccer. Now, Charley is trying out to triple jump for the U.S. Olympic track team in July, thanks to the efforts of Williams.
“I think [Williams] is unique in all the administrators I’ve worked with in my 23 years in collegiate athletics, of exposing kids to things outside of collegiate athletics,” Vanderbilt head soccer coach Darren Ambrose said. “And I think he does a great job of finding ways to promote those opportunities. That’s one of his strengths. Seeing opportunities for kids and finding ways for them to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Candice Lee, deputy director for athletics, used to play basketball at Vanderbilt herself 20 years ago and has watched the opportunities for student athletes on campus grow exponentially.
“I had a great experience 20 years ago, but it’s clear to me that under Mr. Williams’ leadership we’ve done a lot for our students,” Lee said.
That includes one of Williams’ favorite initiatives. When he realized that only one team — the women’s swimming team — had time in their season to go on Alternative Spring Break, a service trip over spring break, he found a way to supplement the student-athlete experience with a service trip. That initiative brought student-athletes to Tanzania, Costa Rica and most recently Cuba this past July.
“That to me was one of the most important things that we could do because those kids could never have gotten that chance to do it,” Williams said.
Fittingly enough, with his focus so squarely on the student-athlete experience, Williams’ favorite moment in his job isn’t winning a championship, or a big victory. Williams finds himself most proud when he sees the successes of Vanderbilt student-athletes as people.
“To this day, after being in this business … the best day on a college campus is graduation,” Williams said. “When I see kids I had a relationship with … graduating, you feel like you had a part in that.”
The history of David Williams at Vanderbilt
Before coming to Vanderbilt, Williams worked at Ohio State with Gordon Gee, who currently serves as president of West Virginia University. When Gee was hired as Vanderbilt’s chancellor from Ohio State in 2000, he brought Williams along with him two years later.
“He had a wide-ranging portfolio there, and I wanted someone with that portfolio at Vanderbilt,” Gee said. Initially, Williams was the university secretary and general counsel at Vanderbilt. As general counsel, Williams kept the same student-first mentality.
Kevin Davis, who used to work in Vanderbilt’s general counsel office, most remembered the moments when Williams would work to benefit the student.
“He was there during 9/11 in 2001 and helped to put together some transportation for students who were from the New York area to return home for a short time,” Davis said.
Under Gee’s term as Vanderbilt’s chancellor, Williams was also given the role of vice chancellor for student life. Vanderbilt began to make drastic changes to the structure of the athletic department. Gee thought he could create a structure that would allow the university’s academic success to feed into athletic success. To Gee, that meant eliminating the athletic department as a separate entity, bringing it under the larger umbrella of student life operations.
“That meant … treating it like chemistry or physics or any other [department], so it wasn’t separated or isolated from the rest of the institution but fully integrated.”
Other schools, as well as the media, were shocked. Gee remembers claims that the school was treating “athletics like intramurals.” In the face of this, when Gee needed someone to take over the responsibilities of an athletic director, he turned to Williams.
“When I was the president of Ohio State, which has the largest athletic department in the country, David was my liaison with athletics there. So he developed a very strong understanding of athletics,” Gee said.
Even as Williams served in multiple roles, he was able to shoulder his responsibilities. Serving as vice chancellor for student life, de-facto athletic director and general counsel, Williams had his hands in many areas of the university.
“Officers at the university, like officers at any corporation, have broad responsibilities, and David had broad responsibilities for those … offices,” said John Callison, senior deputy general counsel.
Williams has since winnowed down his roles at Vanderbilt, dropping the general counsel role in August of 2012. Currently, Williams serves solely as the vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs in addition to teaching a class in the law school on sports law.
“In hindsight, I think we dropped it at absolutely the right time,” Williams said. “I think it was a matter of it being very hard to devote the amount of time needed in each of those positions when you had the other position.”
Williams and the fans
Since Williams took over the athletic department, Vanderbilt has won all of its national championships in women’s bowling, baseball and women’s tennis. Vanderbilt also made three straight bowl games in football in the 2011-13 seasons, the only time in school history that’s happened.
“When we’re not winning, there’s dissatisfaction out there,” Williams said. “And that’s exactly what we want. When people want excellence, and they should want excellence with everything the university does, the product has to be a little better.”
Usually, Williams doesn’t mind, and understands the passion that Vanderbilt fans have. What continues to mystify him, though, is when he tries to shop at the grocery store and finds fans with opinions to share.
“I got like five things to get, and I’m out. I guess I think everybody does that, so when someone stops you to talk to you, I’m kind of like, ‘I know we didn’t plan this, but I thought we were purposeful shoppers. I’m trying to go somewhere, you’re trying to go somewhere.’”
But Williams doesn’t shirk his duties as a very visible ambassador for Vanderbilt athletics. If a fan calls or sends him an email, he’ll be sure to respond. That’s no easy feat. After a big win or loss, his inbox will be full of thoughts from fans on the recent game.
“When people take the time to reach out to him, I think he finds it pretty important to respond to that,” said deputy director Lee.
Even when sitting with him at a game, it’s evident that Williams is a major point of interest. At the Vanderbilt-Tennessee men’s basketball game on March 2, fans walked up to Williams to share opinions on various subjects. One fan even thought Williams would be the perfect audience for grievances about SEC men’s basketball referees.
“I can’t even watch these games anymore! I mean, it’s awful!”
Williams simply responded with a shrug and a chuckle. “What can you do?”
Usually, he doesn’t mind the fan interactions.
“Actually, I kind of enjoy it. If I want to be left alone, and I don’t want anyone to bother me, I’d go home.” But sometimes, even going home doesn’t work.
“We did have someone who came and rang the doorbell and told my wife, ‘Is Dave here? I just want to talk to him about athletics.’ I didn’t talk to him.”
The issues Vanderbilt’s athletic department faces
While Williams enjoys fan interaction, he finds that the fans miss a lot about the major challenges he faces while running Vanderbilt’s athletic department.
“The [issue] that’s not a challenge — that people will tell you it is — is the academics,” Williams said.
This clashes with recent comments from former men’s basketball coach Kevin Stallings, who said on Pittsburgh sports radio station that “If there was a pool of 100 kids, [Vanderbilt] could only [recruit] 25 or 30 of them.” Regardless, Williams doesn’t find that to be a problem.
“We’re finding more kids and their parents that really want to seek out the academics,” he said.
Another things fans miss is how much money goes into successfully running the department.
“We have to go out and raise the money,” he said. “But they think that because they hear ‘Vanderbilt’ and the endowment, that I’m the recipient of all that money off the endowment. And I’m not.”
Williams acknowledged that Vanderbilt receives money from the SEC’s TV revenue, but not nearly as much as people think. With college athletics becoming more opulent and expensive, that financial challenge continues to grow.
“College athletics has gone down a path a lot of people call ‘the arms race,’ where we are sort of pricing ourselves out of business,” Williams said. “And I think [smaller, private] schools like Vanderbilt will feel it the hardest.”
Williams is thought by many to be the highest-paid athletic director in the country. A 2013 USA Today report claimed that Williams was the highest-paid athletic director in the country, reporting that Williams made $3,239,679 in the 2010 fiscal year, almost $2 million than any other AD during that year. While this number drives the conversation on Williams’ salary, some miss the intricacies of what that figure means.
Vanderbilt, as a private institution, does not have to report compensation like other public universities in the SEC. So to estimate Williams’ compensation, people have used a Form 990, a form that Vanderbilt files with the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit organization.
The USA Today report uses a Form 990 from the 2010 fiscal year. In that year, Williams received $2,009,952 from a supplemental executive retirement plan. Williams cannot access that money until retirement, so to refer to that as his “total pay,” as USA Today does, is misrepresentative. This is the main flaw in trying to find out what Williams’ true compensation is — Vanderbilt does not report strictly cash payments.
“This is a mistake that [some outlets make] consistently,” said Ray Cotton, a nonprofit compensation expert and lawyer from the Mintz Levin Agency in Washington, D.C. “They just take the number from the 990, and they don’t go behind it. They report it as if the person made it in one year, and that’s false.” Cotton suggests using base salary as a metric to judge pay.
Looking at his base salary shows that though on the high end, Williams’ salary is comparable to ADs at peer institutions. In the Form 990 from the 2013 fiscal year (which ends in June 2014), the most recent available, Williams made $812,424 in base salary, and another $184,616 in bonuses. That makes $997,040 for that year. A sum of base salary and bonus for that year for Duke’s AD Kevin White is $863,504. Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick makes $1,008,909. In the SEC, Florida’s Jeremy Foley makes $698,428. This analysis also does not include the fact that Williams serves as a professor of law at the university, and has had other roles in the past, which would add to his compensation package.
Regardless of the perception of his compensation, Williams isn’t bothered. In fact, he doesn’t even try to clarify it in most cases.
“It took more than a sentence to explain that,” Williams pointed out. “And I learned a long time ago, if it takes more than a sentence, people ain’t listening. … You just understand it. You can only work on the things that you can control.”
Williams knows what he can control. He can’t control what the fans think of him. He can’t control perceptions about his salary. But he can control his department, and he can do everything in his power to help his student-athletes on and off the field. And he does.
“I tell the student-athletes all the time, as I tell my [own] kids — athletics is something you do, it’s not who you are. When they get that experience, then they’re successful.”