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Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams’ drive to transform CIAA shows no signs of slowing

‘We’re gonna celebrate the highs and the lows and continue to grow,’ says the leader of the oldest HBCU athletic conference after 11 years at the helm

During her tenure as commissioner of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Jacqie McWilliams has moved the CIAA basketball tournament from longtime host city Charlotte, North Carolina, to Baltimore, eliminated a conference deficit, expanded membership, approved an apparel deal with Under Armour and increased the number of corporate sponsorships.

Now entering her 11th year in charge, McWilliams has accomplished many of her goals for the conference by prioritizing its success as a whole over that of individual member institutions. Founded in 1912, the CIAA is the oldest historically Black college and university athletic conference in the country.

“I can look at everything I’ve done, and we are not the same conference,” McWilliams told Andscape. “We’re the same conference, but we’re not the same conference that’s delivering the same thing. We are almost all digital, [and] it’s a blessing to see what we’ve done.”

McWilliams believes her longevity in the role has aided her in transforming the conference.

“I’ve never been anywhere [for] 10 years. That’s an accomplishment,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t need to change the positions, I needed to change the mindset and the culture to stay in the position. So for the next 10 years, I’m gonna stand on the shoulders of some of these giants and those folks who established this conference, and we’re gonna celebrate the highs and the lows and continue to grow.”

After taking over in September 2012, McWilliams solved a deficit by shrinking the conference budget for several years and persuading schools to invest more money. After experiencing the coronavirus pandemic, the conference also set aside money in case of emergencies so it wouldn’t have to shut down operations.

“I feel like we’re in the best position ever. … We finally have a reserve. That’s been a big deal and it’s gonna grow,” McWilliams said. “It’s hard to mess up finances right now because you got people who really understand the importance of what resources are needed for this conference to thrive.”

Winston-Salem State University athletic director Etienne Thomas has spent more than a decade collectively in administrative roles in the CIAA, including nine years at North Carolina Central when the Eagles were a Division II program and three years in her current role. She noticed an immediate change when she returned to the CIAA as Winston-Salem State’s athletic director in 2019.

“McWilliams has very much transformed us into that business entity, and you like that, but it’s with the student-athlete focus,” Thomas said. “She’s focused on our student-athletes having a great experience but making sure that we are fiscally solvent and sound.”

McWilliams’ formula for transformation relies heavily on increasing the economic power of the conference and revenue for member institutions. In 2018, the CIAA signed a multiyear apparel and equipment deal with Under Armour, which helped lower equipment costs for schools. By moving the basketball tournament to Baltimore, the city also raised additional funds for the conference that were paid out to the schools, and in June 2022, the city agreed to extend the current contract for the tournament through 2025.

The addition and renewal of corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Food Lion and Wells Fargo increased the CIAA’s revenue distribution to schools, which most member institutions use to fund scholarships and renovate facilities, Thomas said. The conference, which currently has 12 full members, announced in December that Bluefield State is expected to join as a full-time member for the 2023-24 season. It’s the second school added under McWilliams since Claflin in 2018.

Thomas, who is one of three female athletic directors in the CIAA besides Peggy Davis (Virginia State University) and Felicia Johnson (Virginia Union University), remembers a time in the early 2000s when female leadership was rare in the conference and cites athletic directors Anne Little at Winston-Salem State and Dianthia Ford-Kee at Lincoln University as the trailblazers during that time period.

“It was a different dynamic [before McWilliams]. … You didn’t have a lot of female presence at the table. You had [women] in a lot of those supporting roles, the No. 2 roles sometimes, but not where you had a commissioner or a lot of presidents and chancellors and a lot of ADs,” Thomas said. “While you had a few, we weren’t the norm. It wasn’t what you saw as commonplace. It’s been great to see women ascend to those positions. … [McWilliams] has stood on the shoulders of many, and now she’s able to pay that forward by providing opportunities.”

McWilliams is the first Black woman to hold a commissioner position in the NCAA. She wanted to lead the conference she had played in as a student-athlete at Hampton.

“[CIAA] was my conference. I wanted to make an impact, give these student-athletes an opportunity like I had,” McWilliams said.

When Sonja Stills was considering applying for the position of Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner, she sought out McWilliams for advice. After Stills secured the role, becoming the first Black woman to serve as commissioner of a Division I conference, McWilliams welcomed her to the exclusive club.

“I know I’m the first, but I don’t want to be the last and whatever I can do to make sure that I’m planting seeds and ensuring that women can see themselves in this position,” McWilliams said. 

Joining Stills and McWilliams is Kiki Baker Barnes, commissioner of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference and the first Black woman to lead a conference in the National Intercollegiate Athletic Association. McWilliams has been instrumental in bringing all of the Black female commissioners together.

“She has been my cheerleader, my adviser, my friend. She checks on me. It’s a great feeling when you have a resource of somebody who is there to help you succeed,” Stills said. “We’re all succeeding together [and] we want to be able to lift each other up in other ways, and so I am so appreciative of our friendship, our relationship and our support.”

Lincoln interim athletic director Joshua Dean praised McWilliams for opening the channels of communication between athletic directors, university presidents and the conference offices. 

“She’s done a lot for the women in our sports and in our conference, seeing how she is on those [leadership] boards and trying to elevate all those around her. So she’s very well respected. She’s firm but fair, always a smile on her face,” Dean said. 

“She believes in problem-solving. … Not let’s just talk about it, let’s put plan to paper and then let’s make it a reality. When you have someone like that, and you can see the growth over the 10 years, you know that the future’s bright because someone has a plan and [is] open to make things happen.”

Despite the changes she has made, the transformational spirit hasn’t stopped for McWilliams. The CIAA is currently working on a media rights deal for its 14 varsity sports and building collaborations with other HBCU conferences.

“Sometimes people have challenges with transformation because that takes change. It takes calculated risks [and] courage to transform and change things when people are used to the regular,” McWilliams said. 

“I don’t want to be a regular conference. I want us to be the first to do this and that. I want to be a lead in making sure our student-athletes have just the greatest experience and [are] not looking at Division I, II or III. … There’s some things that we won’t be able to do, because we don’t have all the resources like some of our major conferences do, but we’re not far behind.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."