by Ben Swenson
William & Mary has a well-earned reputation for academic excellence. It recruits driven students and produces alumni who lead professional lives of distinction. But there’s one credential that has long warmed the bench for the university – sports.
Samantha Huge wants to change that. Three years into her tenure as the school’s athletic director, Huge is generating buzz for her unbridled ambition and unapologetic assertiveness. The goal, she says, is an athletic program with a reputation matching the university’s academic prestige.
To this point, William & Mary’s brushes with athletic renown have been incidental, at best. But Huge says she wants Tribe athletics to be universally recognized, and she believes the way to accomplish that is by enhancing the entire athletic experience – for student-athletes, the coaching staff and the community that supports them.
When Huge (pronounced HYOO-ghee) took the helm in 2017, she let it be known that William & Mary was her ultimate destination, a lifelong ambition that nicely merged position and place.
She grew up in Northern Virginia, the only girl of five children, most of whom were athletes. Huge’s father played college basketball at Florida State University and an older brother played football at William & Mary in the early 1980s. Watching her brother from the stands in Williamsburg was the first time she saw intercollegiate sports in person, and remains a potent memory.
Although Huge rode horses competitively early in her life, she was a relative latecomer to athletics, only joining the high school basketball team in her sophomore year. She says the transformative potential of sports, made possible through team effort, changed her perspective. The power of people working toward a common goal led her to major in sociology and public policy at Gordon College in Massachusetts, where she also played varsity hoops.
A career in law was the plan, and why not? It was the family business. Her grandfather, father and uncle were all attorneys. But she never lost faith in the good athletics could accomplish, so after earning her law degree, she went to work for universities, overseeing athletic compliance.
As her career progressed, so did her responsibilities. At Georgetown University, she not only oversaw compliance, but managed sports, too. And at the University of Delaware and Texas A&M University, she held senior-level posts directing department-wide operations. While at Texas A&M, Huge chaired the athletic department’s committee on equity and inclusion, among her responsibilities.
When the chance arose to lead William & Mary’s athletic department, she saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime, a school not only close to her family, but one that essentially brought her life “full circle.”
Huge wasted little time getting to work. A little more than a year in, the school updated its athletic logo and later announced significant changes to coaching staff. Huge replaced retiring football coach Jimmye Laycock with Mike London and fired men’s basketball coach Tony Shaver after 16 seasons.
Those structural changes were a precursor to Tribe 2025, the major strategic initiative announced late last year. The plan sets achievement goals for William & Mary athletics on and off the field, aiming for financial stability, upgrades to infrastructure and procedures and a better overall experience for student athletes. And it sets some specific – if ambitious – goals. Among them, the plan stipulates that the university’s 23 varsity teams will win 35 Colonial Athletic Association championships, with a combined five coming from football and men’s and women’s basketball.
One of the objectives is renovating Kaplan Arena, the epicenter of William & Mary athletics. During halftime of a February basketball game, Huge and university president Katherine Rowe announced a $57 million revitalization of the 49-year-old venue. The plan also calls for construction of a 36,000-square foot sports-performance center with areas for practice, strength training and sports medicine. Every sport will have some sort of interaction with the new space, Huge says.
This vision of a bigger, better department is welcome among student-athletes. “Many of our programs are on the way to being top-level teams and with the new facilities coming, that will help achieve our goals,” says women’s basketball player Eva Hodgson.
Starting quarterback Hollis Mathis says the changes are a morale booster for current Tribe athletes and make a good impression on top-tier recruits considering the school. “This keeps the entire program moving forward athletically,” he says.
Tribe 2025 is not without its critics, who see some of the priorities as out of line with the spirit of unity that has defined Tribe athletics for decades. The plan calls for significantly increasing annual funding of football, and men’s and women’s basketball as a means of raising the amount of capital the athletic department has to work with. Critics say this would support athletes who participate in the most popular sports at the expense of the others.
Not so, says Tim Doyle, head coach of the women’s volleyball team. “We don’t feel marginalized,” Doyle says. “There’s a finite amount of resources. What [Huge] is talking about is spending what we do have to generate the most revenue and have the most impact. That will help everyone out.”
As for those who say that a university cannot be both an academic and athletic powerhouse, Huge says it’s not an either-or proposition. William & Mary classes are difficult, and students must be able to rise to the challenge. “You can’t hide a kid here,” she says.
But Huge also says sports can teach important lessons – about teamwork and leadership, goal-setting and grit. And if winning teams make fans and alumni more passionate about the school, all the better.
A university shouldn’t be content to rest on its academic laurels alone when there are so many students hungry for success in multiple arenas, Huge says. “Our goal is to raise athletes who are killers in the classroom, champions on the field, and productive members of the community,” Huge says.