Editor’s note: William & Mary Director of Athletics Samantha K. Huge began at William & Mary in May of 2017. W&M News caught up with Huge after two years at the helm of William & Mary Athletics to discuss the experience, forward momentum in intercollegiate sports and what’s on the horizon. Huge will host a town hall forum at 6:30 p.m. on June 18 in the hospitality suites of Zable Stadium. Registration is required to attend the free event, which will also be livestreamed at TribeAthleticsTV and the W&M Athletics Facebook page. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First, congratulations on your biennium with William & Mary. Overall, how has the experience been? What are you most proud of in the first two years?
Huge: Being at William & Mary has been fantastic. It’s been incredible to meet so many wonderful members of the W&M community — students, faculty, alumni, donors and fans — all around the country. It’s a phenomenally strong community.
In terms of pride, I’m really proud that we continue to graduate student-athletes at such a high rate. William & Mary has the highest graduation rate for public institutions in the country, and we’re not backing away from that.
I’m also really proud of our improvements in how we serve student-athletes from a physical, mental and emotional well-being standpoint. We’ve had those pieces in place, but adding Erik Korem as associate athletics director for student-athlete high performance really helped integrate all of the facets of wellness into “pods” that bring together a head coach, high-performance coach, academic counselor and sports medicine personnel that meet weekly. With daily contact with our student-athletes, they can quickly address even the slightest changes in our athletes. And there are other aspects: like Coach London (football) walking all recruits through the new McLeod Tyler Wellness Center. It’s a holistic approach that serves William & Mary well.
What do you most appreciate about William & Mary? What is special about this university?
Huge: Well, you look at the things I’m most proud of, and you can see the top two reflected. First, William & Mary is a place where the student comes first, in all that we do. They are absolutely the top priority, whether in Athletics or any other department on campus.
Second, William & Mary Athletics is really characterized by the ampersand in the university’s name. Here, Athletics is core to the academic mission, and the academic mission is core to Athletics. They aren’t separate, they aren’t in opposition. Our student-athletes are constantly learning, on and off of the courts and the field, in and outside of the classroom. It’s evidenced in our results, that stellar graduation rate in particular. And it makes William & Mary a really special, unique place. In my interview during the hiring process, I talked about how William & Mary just feels right. It’s that concept of the whole student, the whole institution, the ampersand, that makes William & Mary feel magical to people.
You came in at an interesting time, with an opportunity to welcome President Katherine A. Rowe. How do you see the university moving forward under new leadership and what is Athletics’ role in that progress?
Huge: It’s fortunate that both (former W&M President) Taylor Reveley and President Rowe support Athletics and recognize the value of sports education to young people. President Rowe is 100 percent committed to excellence through the entire institution – no holds barred – which to me includes Athletics as well as the professional and graduate schools integrated with the Arts & Sciences. To see how all of these elements can come together and create interdisciplinary opportunities is incredible. Athletics plays a fundamental role in developing young women and men to be effective citizens. But also, done well, Athletics can generate community and excitement around the university and unite us across generations in an intentional and dynamic way. So our guiding principle of “boldly pursuing excellence” is borne out of and supports William & Mary’s future.
What are your top priorities moving forward?
Huge: We have to make our house a proper home. Kaplan (Arena) is the heartbeat of William & Mary Athletics and serves every student-athlete. It’s where they come to meet with coaches, academic support personnel and administrators. It’s where they come to get stronger. It’s where they come to get treated. Every recruit walks through it. Kaplan is a place that touches every student-athlete, plus hosts events like the Charter Day celebration for every William & Mary student. So Kaplan is a priority as we review facilities needs. We want to ensure that, through Kaplan renovations, we are providing student-athletes optimal, state-of-the-art conditions for success and providing fans a stellar rewarding game-day experience.
Program sustainability is a priority; it has been for years. I’m excited about the level of community support we’ re seeing and we’re working hard to increase that support for the future of Athletics. It’s an exciting time; boldly pursuing excellence is generating a lot of energy.
Achieving gender equity by 2025 is another priority. We’re currently undertaking an external review of our Title IX status; we have a plan and, like many other institutions, are implementing it to achieve a more equitable program.
An early challenge during your time was finding a successor to the iconic Jimmye Laycock to lead the football program. Can you talk about the process you go through in selecting a new coach?
Huge: Absolutely. You know, when I’m interviewing someone to come be a part of our Athletics department, the first thing I ask is why they coach or why they’re in college athletics. And if they can’t articulate to me that it’s because they understand what a privilege it is to be part of this enterprise that develops young women and men for greater impact, there’s no need to talk further. If it’s about them winning or that they’re the greatest X’s and O’s person, they lose me. Our coaches and the people they bring in, they really love their kids first. I’ve seen it.
And I have to say, Coach London’s students, they’ve weathered one of the hardest things I think a young person can weather, this spring when we lost Nate Evans. The way they bonded through that, it was amazing. The first practice back after Nate’s funeral, it was unreal. They were on the practice field, and there was music and – I love it – there wasn’t a pass dropped. Those kids practiced so hard, and so well, and they’re committed to each other and they’re having fun. That’s the joy for me, seeing these young men who have a purpose beyond themselves.
It seems that we are also enjoying some wonderful new opportunities, in terms of evaluating our programs, outreach and branding, and in generating new excitement for William & Mary Athletics?
Huge: We have. In the For the Bold campaign and in philanthropy as well. I can’t say too much just yet, but let me say that there’s a whole new level of pride and engagement in Athletics. Taylor (Reveley) said all the time that William & Mary needed to “get our light out from under the bushel,” and I think students, alumni, faculty, staff and the public are going to see a lot more of William & Mary Athletics shining brightly in the future. This is good, because while we’re generating enthusiasm throughout the entire community, we’re also letting everyone know we’re on the map, and we’re more boldly reaching those 16- and 17-year-olds that will be William & Mary’s next excellent entering class.
Switching gears for a second, I’ve heard President Rowe emphasize that “we change in order to advance what we value most.” Does that resonate within Athletics?
Huge: So, so much. We’ve had a number of studies of William & Mary Athletics over the years. Really, going back to the 1970s. And we have a firm foundation, a common understanding, of what Athletics means to this university and what we value in sports – academic standing, wellness, integrity, fair play, citizenship, teamwork, contribution to the institution as a whole and success — we call it “the William & Mary Way.” That’s been consistent for decades. There are always changes to be made to better our ability to achieve those goals, to embody those values. That’s part of what we mean when President Rowe talks about the “long play” and I talk about the “long game.”
The fact is that athletics is such a source of pride for many schools. At a place like Harvard, they are one of the best academic institutions in the country, they’re proud of their athletics, and they’re pretty good at it, too. They aren’t giving up academics, but they went to four consecutive men’s basketball NCAA tournaments and won games in back-to-back years. So it’s a source of pride, and we want that for William & Mary, for our community, alumni and also, the surrounding area and the Commonwealth.
You talk a lot about winning and I’ve heard people express concern that this means that we’re going to change the way we approach athletics — that W&M is going to compromise its academic standards or commitment to integrity in order to win. How do you define success — and winning?
Huge: We are talking about winning. Let me be clear: The ampersand is in front of that. We’re talking about academic excellence and competitive excellence. They are both part of embodying the William & Mary Way, and we shouldn’t be willing to settle for anything less at an institution of this caliber — and we don’t need to! We don’t need to set up a false dichotomy that says either we’re excellent in this area or we’re excellent in this other area; we can do both. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not easy. Like every institution, we have challenges to developing a focused competitive culture. But we owe it to our students to provide them the best experience of intercollegiate athletics that we can, whether as fans, as student-athletes, as proud alumni. That’s what we mean when we talk about “boldly pursuing excellence.”
At the two latest NCAA championship events we hosted, in field hockey and men’s soccer, we had full stadiums. And you wouldn’t believe the level of community, of joy, of excitement and of pride. We are working to make sure that those are consistent experiences, because that passion is an important part of this community and of the college experience.
Another thing about the ampersand. I was talking with a recruit and his parents a couple of weeks ago, and I asked him, “What do you want to study?” And he said he’d like to study marine science, and art. Where else do you get to do something like that? Only at William & Mary. And then he says, “Oh, and I want to play in the NBA.” And I said, “Great. This is just perfect.”
Tying into that, the university is preparing for a strategic planning effort this fall. How will the ongoing W&M Athletics strategic planning effort feed into the university-wide planning? What are next steps?
Huge: I mentioned that Athletics is continuously evaluating itself, with a history of strategic review dating to the 1970s. We had a good plan when I started at William & Mary, but we also needed a data-driven approach to planning, which we undertook starting in 2018 with an extensive listening phase that included dozens of staff and administrators, alumni, coaches all down the line, more than 500 student-athletes and over 1,000 stakeholders. That also gave a sense for the first time of where William & Mary stands on the national landscape of intercollegiate athletics, which is constantly and rapidly changing. From that, a working group developed new vision, mission and core values statements and developed major goals for the program: academic excellence, a holistic student-athlete experience, competitive success, financial stability, gaining entry into the top 100 in the Director’s Cup and winning conference championships in the next five years — by 2025 — in football and women’s and men’s basketball.
From that work, we’ve started drafting the strategic plan for Athletics. This all lines up with President Rowe’s and the university’s strategic planning and call for excellence through the entire institution.
Can you talk about the values and goals that came out of that planning effort?
Huge: Absolutely. First, the mission statement acknowledges that Athletics is integral to the academic experience at William & Mary and contributes to W&M’s core mission of “fostering intellectual growth, social responsibility and leadership in a complex and changing world.” And I’m really proud that our priorities are straight in that, that we’re serving students first and valuing their futures.
College athletics is truly committed to seeing young women and men come in as 17- to 18-year-olds and spend four years with us, really having the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to go out and impact the world, and it’s a privilege for us. Student-athletes learn so much about resilience, about teamwork, about diversity and inclusion. Athletics brings together individuals from different races, religions and backgrounds, and they learn how to work together toward a common goal. To be able to do that as young students, think about how great they’re going to be when they get out in the world, on Wall Street and Main Street. Our core values are integrity, accountability and respect; values that will benefit students and the world around them for the rest of their lives.
Shifting a little bit, I wanted to congratulate you on being named to the NCAA’s Division I Council and its Football Oversight Committee. Can you discuss this role and the importance of having someone from W&M as part of this group?
Huge: It’s huge that William & Mary is at the table, and is representing the Colonial Athletics Association. Plus service on the Football Oversight Committee, sitting at a table with the likes of Penn State and Alabama. Serving gives W&M the ability to understand and respond more quickly to what’s happening on the national level. That was valuable last year, too, representing us on the Men’s Basketball Competition Committee and looking at the game and how to make it safer and more fan-friendly, something people want to watch. So now it’s the same thing with football. There’s a real sense of how quickly things are changing within athletics right now.
Just this morning, I was reading how University of Kansas just made a huge shift, aligning all of their high-performance people — strength and conditioning — with medical personnel. It’s a seismic shift for them, but William & Mary was way ahead of the curve in having a holistic approach in high performance. But I expect there will be other things that will come up where we’ll benefit from being able to quickly and nimbly adapt and respond to changes in the national landscape.
I know you have an upcoming town hall scheduled. What do you most hope to communicate to the W&M community at that event?
Huge: Really, it’s an opportunity to just touch base with the community. Both President Rowe and I share a commitment to transparency and making sure that we are accessible to the community and that we all understand where William & Mary is and what the university is doing. It’s related to the three characteristics of a leader. First, confidence and competence — you’ve got to know what you’re doing. Second, humility: You’ve got to recognize what you don’t know. And third: Empathy. It’s critically important to understand and respect the context of the community, keeping the students at the very front of my mind and of the minds of everyone working in Athletics.And there’s a lot of excitement around Athletics. I’d love it if five years from now, people were asking, “How did William & Mary do that? And how do we do it? Look at William & Mary! Yes, they’ve got the highest graduation rate in the country. Yes, they are putting more people on Wall Street and their students are wildly successful. And oh, by the way, they are taking it to the competition in Athletics, and their community loves it.”