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Sonja Stills spent years of preparation to become first female Division I HBCU commissioner

Her entire decadeslong career has been spent at Hampton University and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference

Sonja Stills doesn’t view herself as a trailblazer, even though she’s the first female commissioner for a historically Black college and university (HBCU) NCAA Division I conference.

Maybe one day she will.

For now, all she has is an opportunity to do great things for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC). If Stills accomplishes the litany of goals she has for the conference, then she won’t have to call herself a trailblazer.

Others will do it for her.

“It’s funny, you know, when people say trailblazer because it feels like I haven’t done anything yet,” she said, laughing. “Wait until I do something. Then, maybe, I’ll say I’m a trailblazer. Right now, the work hasn’t been done.

“When I look at women in the conference who have blazed some trails, like Brenda McCoy, who spent 30 years here, started out as an administrative assistant, ran the championships and was the interim commissioner twice. That’s a trailblazer to me.

“I don’t think I’m there yet. Yes, I’m the first female commissioner. Yes, I’m the first Division I HBCU commissioner, but I need some miles behind me first before I can settle into that particular trailblazer title.”

And that’s why she didn’t pop bottles or make a lavish purchase when she was named commissioner.

She did, however, treat herself to a papillon, which she named Cashmere Bob, Cash for short.

The 7-pound lapdog keeps her humble.

“It’s kind of like you’re the same old person,” she said with a smile. “You gotta walk me. You still gotta pick up my poop.”

While Stills doesn’t consider herself a big deal, others do. And those numbers will probably increase now that she has officially become the MEAC’s commissioner and her profile expands.

She’s replacing Dennis Thomas, who had the idea for the Celebration Bowl and has retired after 20 years as commissioner.

“We’ve been joined at the hip on many of the accomplishments we’ve been able to achieve,” he said. “She not only knows the MEAC. She is the MEAC.”

Stills, who has been with the MEAC for 19 years, has been the conference’s chief of staff/chief operating officer since January 2021.

Stills and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association commissioner Jacqie McWilliams (nine years) are the only African American women serving as commissioners over sports conferences.

Thomas has watched Stills handle every job he’s given her during the 23 years they’ve worked together.

Thomas hired Stills soon after she graduated from Old Dominion University for an entry-level academic support position at Hampton University.

While at Hampton, she created the university’s first athletic academic support program.

When Thomas left for the MEAC, he asked Stills to join him.

“I saw motivation. I saw the will to see a difficult challenge through. I saw the personality to relate with people,” he said. “I saw the discipline. I saw perseverance.

“I saw the aptitude. She could grasp things she might not have been comfortable with. She kept evolving to where she is today.”

Stacy Nelson, one of Stills’ best friends for nearly 30 years, said her approach makes her a successful leader.

“She is someone who cares deeply about people, so she’s the person who will approach everything from, ‘How do I make sure the people involved get the most out of those and feel valued?’ ” he said. “No matter what position you put her in, that’s who she is at her core.

“She’s going to make sure she hears everything from everybody before she has to make those tough decisions. As long as she has people she can trust around her, she’s going to be OK and make those hard decisions.”

Stills never wanted the commissioner’s job when she joined the MEAC, or when she kept getting promoted.

“If you had asked me about this job years ago, I would have said absolutely not, because at that time I think we had 11 bosses [school presidents] and I didn’t want 11 bosses,” she said. “I enjoy being in the background. I’m also an introvert.

“Knowing the commissioner is getting ready to retire and being on the inside, you see where the conference has come and where you want it to go. I already know the challenges, so it’s simple to just get in the seat and get to work.

“The commissioner has pulled the conference so far from where we started that he has a legacy. I want to see if I can take it even further.”

Since joining the MEAC, Stills has elevated the conference’s brand visibility by negotiating several corporate partnerships with companies such as iHeartRadio, The Home Depot and Harley-Davidson.

Those types of revenue-generating sponsorships are critical to helping the conference thrive.

She’s taking over at a critical juncture.

North Carolina A&T State, which was the MEAC’s largest institution and its flagship program, announced it was leaving for the Big South Conference in 2020.

Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M departed for the Southwestern Athletic Conference last year.

Eight schools remain.

Stills’ primary tasks are to stabilize the conference, attempt to expand and find more revenue streams.

Do that, and she’ll be a trailblazer.

“The MEAC is history. The MEAC is culture,” she said. “The MEAC is leaders in academics and athletics.

“The MEAC means so much to me, and I honestly don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for the MEAC.”

Jean-Jacques Taylor, a native of Dallas, is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL for 25 years and is president of JJT Media Group.