Sonja Stills spent years of preparation to change into first feminine Division I HBCU commissioner — •

Sonja Stills doesn’t view herself as a trailblazer, despite the fact that she’s the primary feminine commissioner for a traditionally Black faculty and college (HBCU) NCAA Division I convention.

Perhaps at some point she’s going to.

For now, all she has is a chance to do nice issues for the Mid-Japanese Athletic Convention (MEAC). If Stills accomplishes the litany of objectives she has for the convention, then she received’t should name herself a trailblazer.

Others will do it for her.

“It’s humorous, you realize, when folks say trailblazer as a result of it looks like I haven’t completed something but,” she mentioned, laughing. “Wait till I do one thing. Then, perhaps, I’ll say I’m a trailblazer. Proper now, the work hasn’t been completed.

“Once I have a look at girls within the convention who’ve blazed some trails, like Brenda McCoy, who spent 30 years right here, began out as an administrative assistant, ran the championships and was the interim commissioner twice. That’s a trailblazer to me.

“I don’t assume I’m there but. Sure, I’m the primary feminine commissioner. Sure, I’m the primary Division I HBCU commissioner, however I would like some miles behind me first earlier than I can settle into that exact trailblazer title.”

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

She did, nonetheless, deal with herself to a papillon, which she named Cashmere Bob, Money for brief.

The 7-pound lapdog retains her humble.

“It’s sort of such as you’re the identical previous particular person,” she mentioned with a smile. “You gotta stroll me. You continue to gotta choose up my poop.”

Whereas Stills doesn’t think about herself a giant deal, others do. And people numbers will in all probability improve now that she has formally change into the MEAC’s commissioner and her profile expands.

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

“We’ve been joined on the hip on most of the accomplishments we’ve been in a position to obtain,” he mentioned. “She not solely is aware of the MEAC. She is the MEAC.”

Stills, who has been with the MEAC for 19 years, has been the convention’s chief of workers/chief working officer since January 2021.

Stills and Central Intercollegiate Athletic Affiliation commissioner Jacqie McWilliams (9 years) are the one African American girls serving as commissioners over sports activities conferences.

Thomas has watched Stills deal with each job he’s given her in the course of the 23 years they’ve labored collectively.

Thomas employed Stills quickly after she graduated from Outdated Dominion College for an entry-level tutorial assist place at Hampton College.

Whereas at Hampton, she created the college’s first athletic tutorial assist program.

When Thomas left for the MEAC, he requested Stills to affix him.

“I noticed motivation. I noticed the need to see a troublesome problem by way of. I noticed the persona to narrate with folks,” he mentioned. “I noticed the self-discipline. I noticed perseverance.

“I noticed the aptitude. She may grasp issues she may not have been comfy with. She stored evolving to the place she is immediately.”

Stacy Nelson, one among Stills’ finest buddies for practically 30 years, mentioned her method makes her a profitable chief.

“She is somebody who cares deeply about folks, so she’s the one who will method the whole lot from, ‘How do I ensure that the folks concerned get probably the most out of these and really feel valued?’ ” he mentioned. “It doesn’t matter what place you set her in, that’s who she is at her core.

“She’s going to ensure she hears the whole lot from all people earlier than she has to make these powerful choices. So long as she has folks she will belief round her, she’s going to be OK and make these laborious choices.”

Stills by no means needed the commissioner’s job when she joined the MEAC, or when she stored getting promoted.

“For those who had requested me about this job years in the past, I’d have mentioned completely not, as a result of at the moment I believe we had 11 bosses [school presidents] and I didn’t need 11 bosses,” she mentioned. “I get pleasure from being within the background. I’m additionally an introvert.

“Figuring out the commissioner is on the point of retire and being on the within, you see the place the convention has come and the place you need it to go. I already know the challenges, so it’s easy to only get within the seat and get to work.

“The commissioner has pulled the convention so removed from the place we began that he has a legacy. I need to see if I can take it even additional.”

Since becoming a member of the MEAC, Stills has elevated the convention’s model visibility by negotiating a number of company partnerships with corporations reminiscent of iHeartRadio, The House Depot and Harley-Davidson.

These forms of revenue-generating sponsorships are important to serving to the convention thrive.

She’s taking up at a important juncture.

North Carolina A&T State, which was the MEAC’s largest establishment and its flagship program, introduced it was leaving for the Large South Convention in 2020.

Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M departed for the Southwestern Athletic Convention final yr.

Eight colleges stay.

Stills’ major duties are to stabilize the convention, try and broaden and discover extra income streams.

Try this, and he or she’ll be a trailblazer.

“The MEAC is historical past. The MEAC is tradition,” she mentioned. “The MEAC is leaders in teachers and athletics.

“The MEAC means a lot to me, and I actually don’t know the place I’d be if it weren’t for the MEAC.”

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

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