As I was sitting in the Florida State University Athletics Committee meeting, it occurred to me there has never been as many important projects underway, issues that will shape the future of FSU Athletics, than there are right now. At least in my tenure, which dates back to 1982. It’s a nerve-wracking time for Athletics Director David Coburn and the Athletics Committee but an interesting and, therefore, fun time if you are a columnist.
Here’s my perspective on a number of topics you may find interesting:
- Booster Athletic alignment
- Ticket sales
- 2019 football team
Balancing the athletics budget
It all begins with money. The athletic committee approved a balanced budget recommendation to the President this week for a $108 million athletics budget.
The key word in that sentence is balanced.
Coburn was able to balance the budget with careful expense cutting, including university-related expenses and an additional $6 million transfer from Seminole Boosters.
Coburn is the only guy who could have maneuvered the pieces to do this as he has the trust of everyone in Westcott and everyone on the Seminole Booster Board. As you know, trust is paramount to cooperative problem solving.
You may wonder where the Boosters are coming up with six large in a year where their annual contributions are also down. Good question. The Boosters will liquidate several parcels of real estate they have been holding as a “rainy day” reserve fund for just such an occasion.
Athletic – Booster relationship
You’ve heard about a move afoot to improve the relationship between the Boosters and Athletics, which we’ll address in the future but this $6 million transfer might offer you an example of the type of communication a new structure, to be presented to the Board of Trustees this month, hopes to achieve.
Before Coburn asked the Boosters to transfer an additional $6 million, he took the time, months ago, to meet with the Booster Board and go line by line through the Athletics budget, explaining every detail, answering every probing question, offering his solutions and entertaining theirs.
The board had an opportunity to ask questions about how he could cut budgets deeper, eliminate sports or raise additional revenue. At the end of the discussion, it was obvious the AD and the Board were on the same page as far as the direction of the program and the solution to sell some real estate to bridge the gap this year.
It wasn’t good news but it was well received and appreciated.
In the current structure, the AD does not have to do that.
Any structure that will foster transparency and communication and engage the AD in fundraising will enhance efficiency and trust and hopefully continuity as presidents, ADs and Booster executives come and go.
What’s causing the budget strain?
You don’t have to be Ernst or Young to know the prior athletics administration’s projections of revenues fell woefully short and the projections of costs weren’t much better. In other words, athletics spent more than it generated. To be fair, there were unbudgeted football transition costs, ACC Network startup costs and a bigger decline in football ticket sales than anyone would have expected.
They say the only way to get out of a hole is to quit digging, which is what our current AD is doing on the expense side. It is surgical cutting of fat not flesh and bone. Where FSU can’t seem to quit digging is on the revenue side where the cash cow’s production of milk – football ticket sales – has been drying up since 2014.
How far off is it? Athletics is budgeting 25,000 season tickets this year and is just slightly above 24,000 currently, not counting Dunlap Champions Club seats. That’s 40 percent off the “previous norm” of 40,000 stadium seats.
Yes, the national trend for live sporting events, college and pro, has been in decline for years but that doesn’t make FSU’s task of generating revenue any less a concern. The drop in ticket sales was unexpected in 2018 and is precipitous in 2019 as the athletic budget forecasts a decline of more than $8 million in ticket sales. Add a $4 million drop in Seminole Boosters contributions tied to those tickets and it’s very hard to absorb a $12 million decline in revenue.
So the university had tough decisions to make.
Rather than slash budgets and sports, which bean counters are want to do, Coburn chose to invest in the football product in an effort to create a winning team that would attract fans back to the stadium and hopefully renew the lost $12 million.
Everyone loves a winner.
The administration did what it had to do in the offseason to help coach Willie Taggart improve the quality of his offensive coaching staff and special teams. Tough decisions needed to be made on the staff and Taggart and the administration made them.
But you don’t fix a problem by firing people. You fix problems by hiring the right people for the situation.
Coburn funded Taggart’s hiring of a new offensive coordinator, Kendal Briles, offensive line coach Randy Clements and wide receivers coach Ron Dugans along with a very-important change at special teams coordinator.
Nothing sells tickets faster than an offense and Briles comes with a very good reputation. I’ll get into what I have learned about Briles a little later in this column.
Another big move was upgrading the home schedule with a muti-year home-and-home contract with Georgia and Notre Dame appearing in Doak more often.
Give Taggart and Coburn credit for this. I can’t emphasize enough how important this was to ticket sales and Booster donations to get done. Home schedule is a major factor, the most important factor, in many of our customers’ ticket buying decisions and something the previous staff wouldn’t or couldn’t accomplish.
Athletics has also responded to fan requests for a more flexible ticket package than the standard season ticket. Stadium owners around the country are responding to ticket buyers who prefer not to have to plan their weekends six months in advance. The new flex-plans allow you to buy 6 or 12 vouchers and use them at any game you choose (with a limit of 4 for Miami). The three-game pick a plan where you get to choose which three games is also a smart move.
Not if, but when FSU beats Boise State in the season opener, these packages are going to make coming back to Doak a lot easier decision. Falling Tallahassee hotel rates will help as well. Last week we reported more than 70 percent of Tallahassee hotels have lowered rates to $199 or less and many are no longer requiring a two-night minimum. We’ve also found that hotels in towns 50-100 miles your side of Tallahassee have many options for $99 or less. It has always been about supply and demand and, with a higher supply of hotel rooms in Tallahassee and lower demand for tickets, prices have fallen.
So, at least two of the hurdles between Seminole fans and the ticket office have been lowered considerably should FSU look good and there be a mad dash to buy.
FSU has every reason to expect an improved football team when they open against Boise State in September.
What I liked first about the Briles hire was that he was bringing his longtime offensive line coach with him. That’s huge. One of the things we learned in the Bowden era is the importance of continuity of a staff. The fact Briles and Clements have 10 years together and the rest of Taggart’s staff now has a year of experience should pay dividends this fall.
The plan was for Taggart to bring his offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator to Florida State but that fell through when Oregon hired Mario Cristobal as head coach. As a result, Taggart had to hire an offensive coordinator and line coach who had never met. Only five of Taggart’s assistants had ever worked together.
Contrast that with Florida, who missed on its first two choices, Chip Kelly and Scott Frost, but wound up with what might be the perfect guy for instant success when they signed Dan Mullen.
Why did Mullen have such quick success at Florida? Because he was able to bring eight of his assistants with him from Mississippi State. Not only had those guys met, they had served together a combined 97 years, including when Mullen was an assistant to Urban Meyer at UF. Five of them had coached together all the way back to Utah. They have met. They speak a common language. They have discussed and argued and agreed on every aspect of the game. There are no mysteries.
And when your coaching staff is all singing from the same hymnal it makes it a lot easier for the players to sing, or at least hum, along.
That’s not an excuse for Taggart. That’s an explanation of football in general.
The hiring of Briles, Clements and Dugans accelerates the staff learning curve, which will make it easier for the players to execute on Saturday.
We’ll see, right?
If I’m right, you’ll see fewer mistakes and offensive penalties. You’ll see a smoother-running offense, one that will run at an increasingly faster tempo.
We have reason to be optimistic about Briles after an extended conversation with former FSU linebackers coach Wally Burnham, who faced Baylor five times as defensive coordinator at Iowa State. What Burnham told us was very candid and very encouraging. We’ll take a deep dive into what he told us about that offense later this summer but let me tease you with a few high notes.
Burnham has high regard for Clements as an offensive line coach. He said FSU fans can expect a well-coached unit that will become increasingly physical. He said those Baylor offenses were much more than flash. He said they were very happy to pound the football inside when he chose to spread his defense to contain the perimeter threat.
What Briles does with his receivers is unorthodox and created challenges for his defense as well. By lining four receivers on the extreme perimeter, two on each sideline, Briles forces a defensive coordinator to move four defensive backs out there with them, leaving a lot of space in between. When Briles had success against those man-to-man matchups on the perimeter, Burnham was tempted to flex other defenders out there to help. When he did, he became vulnerable to the run inside and they like to run.
We got excited listening to him because he was excited talking about it.
So how do you stop it?
You’ll have to read this summer to find out.
In the meantime, enjoy these exciting times.