Column: Alford’s appointment is fruition of a transition

There was celebration when Michael Alford was chosen to become the 17th Athletics Director in Florida State history.

“We absolutely have the right man leading this program,” football coach Mike Norvell said. “His passion. His care for the student-athletes, for the coaches. Not only in being tough about it but he is willing to roll up his sleeves and go implement and execute the things that are necessary to get us to where we have to go.

“I think we made a phenomenal choice. I’m grateful to the leadership of President (Richard) McCullough and Chairman (Peter) Collins and all that were involved throughout this process because it is a great, great day for Florida State Athletics.”

Let me take you back to when former Seminole Booster President and CEO Andy Miller announced he would retire in July 2020. It occurred to me that Florida State would be wise not to look for a guy to run Seminole Boosters but to look a little further out, to look for a person who had the chops to run Seminole Boosters in the near term but who also had the qualifications to take over when athletic director David Coburn’s chose to retire.

This is my view and maybe mine alone but it was opinion that it would have been smart for then President John Thrasher and then FSU Board of Trustee Chairman Ed Burr to think transition planning when they began that search. 

Iti is also my view that Michael Alford, who was then athletic director at Central Michigan with an extensive fundraising resume, had the foresight to see the opportunity brewing at Florida State. Alford was willing to take a strategic move in his career, where other athletic directors wouldn’t think of taking what they consider a step back.

When Alford was selected to replace Miller in 2020, I thought he was a very strong candidate to replace athletic director David Coburn, who made it clear his desire was to retire once the athletics budget was stable and communications between Athletics, the Boosters and the FSU Administration was normalized.

While Coburn has been restoring stability, Alford had the opportunity to spend 16 months meeting donors, learning the culture of the fan base, gaining an intimate knowledge of the Booster operations, budgets and staff. Over those months he has served on Coburn’s senior athletic staff, where he has been able to familiarize himself with the Athletics Department culture, operations, staff, coaches, student-athletes and importantly the interaction with the university community.

If you were to design a transition plan, which this worked out to be, this is what it would have looked like.

Taking the job at Florida State was risky business for Alford as Florida State was well into a transition of leadership. The guys who hired him, Thrasher and Burr, would not be in decision-making capacities when the time came to hire the next AD. Thrasher was retiring and Burr was rolling of the Board of Trustees. It was unknown who the new president would be when Alford took the Booster post. There is an expression among university senior staff that you work at the leisure of the president. Whenever a new president and a new chairman of the board take over, all bets are off. The incoming president will often have a new vision and bring in his staff to implement that vision during his tenure. 

I wrote a column about this collegiate phenomenon last year and noted the changes I’ve seen in athletics dating to 1982 that accompanied a presidential change.

Coburn told McCullough of his intention to retire in September. McCullough and Collins did the right thing by starting a national search. The search firm selected was DHR and Glenn Sugiyama, who led the hiring of Norvell. Over the course of the months-long search, we know of at least three candidates who were interviewed — including Alford, Alabama’s Jeff Purrinton, an FSU grad, and Louisville Athletic Director Vince Tyra.

Everyone was taken by surprise when it was reported FSU had mutual interest in Tyra. Several sources confirmed with the Osceola that the decision to hire Tyra had been made and the other candidates had been notified. 

There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened with Tyra who sources told us was offered the job but what we do know is that McCullough ultimately and wisely turned to Alford. 

As expected, McCullough refrained from providing any details about anyone other than Alford at the press conference, which was appropriate.

The week was a roller-coaster ride for Alford and everyone within the FSU Athletics Department and Seminole Booster offices, whose professional lives hung in the balance.

Perhaps it was because of the emotional highs, and the gut-wrenching lows but Alford was very emotional during the press conference, getting choked up several times while his family and friends, who had flown in from Alabama and Dallas, smiled proudly.

“I’m a crier,” he confided afterwards.

“Florida State is such a special place,” he continued. “This is the top tier of our industry. To have this opportunity presented to my family and myself is just something that you work really hard your whole life in preparing yourself. All the things and people you have met, the people who have shaped you and shaped your philosophies have prepared you to this point. It doesn’t get any more special than Florida State and Tallahassee.”

Alford appreciated the process in which he was able to spend a great deal of time with McCullough and Collins, who were the ultimate decision makers. 

“Constantly talking vision, talking leadership qualities with President McCullough and Chairman Collins,” Alford said. “The communication between the three of us was constant throughout the process of what they were thinking of (and) how do I enhance it? I can’t thank them enough for all the information they shared and for them giving me an opportunity to express my vision with them about where I think I can take the department. Really embracing the student-athletes and what our plans are to do that, which is something I’m really excited about.”

Alford checks all the boxes and then some

When Coburn announced his retirement, he recused himself from the search process as Alford and others on his staff were applying. What Coburn did tell us was he had been brought in to solve internal problems and thought the university should make it a priority to hire an athletic director with external experience and relationships at the conference and national level that he did not have when he took the post. 

While FSU was searching for an athletic director, I called former FSU athletic director Dave Hart to get his thoughts. Hart served as athletic director at Alabama and at Tennessee after his tenure at FSU and is now a consultant for athletic directors and coaches. While on that call, former Seminole Booster President and CEO Andy Miller happened to call me and I patched him into a three-way call with his good friend Hart. 

It was an interesting 30 minutes.

Hart thought FSU needed what he termed a “professional athletic director” and what he meant by that was a person who has national knowledge and relationships with others in the athletics community, someone who has served on NCAA committees and who can represent FSU interests at the conference and national level.

As you might imagine, Miller believes the right candidate would have a strong business background, someone who has managed an athletic budget comparable to FSU’s and someone who knows how to generate revenue to fund it. 

Alford checks all the boxes we discussed. 

Like Hart, Alford was born into athletics, played high school football and college baseball, is married to a former Division I volleyball player and former head coach and has two daughters who have played Division I sports with one aspiring to do so.

“I understand the lifestyle,” Alford said. “I understand what the individual coaches go through and the pressures that are put on them but also how much they care about the student-athletes who are playing for them and how they put them first,” Alford said. “That really shaped my values being a servant leader and putting the student-athletes first. Being a Division I athlete myself, I got to learn and understand what a student-athlete goes through. My wife being a Division I athlete. I have two daughters who were Division I athletes and a third on the way. It’s really understanding the process of what they go through on a daily basis but more importantly what (the student-athletes) get out of it, how it shapes your values, shapes your philosophies. The impact these coaches have.”

Alford has spent decades working his way up to the athletic director’s chair toiling in sports oversight, promotions and marketing, fundraising and project management. As an associate athletic director at Alabama, he was involved in the construction of a major end zone project and a $30 million coliseum project. At Oklahoma, he was in charge of fundraising, design and construction of a $160 million stadium improvement project. He was also hired by the Jones family to play a very significant role in the design and construction of AT&T’s Stadium and fan experience. 

“Construction hats and dust make me smile,” Alford said, “because construction is a sign we are getting better.”

As an athletics director at Central Michigan for three years, he was able to execute his vision for a department, establish values and culture. hired and fired coaches, managed a challenging budget and was able to raise the money to build a football operations building and numerous other facilities including new locker rooms for gymnastics and soccer “because they deserved it.”

Alford has nationwide relationships

All along the way, Alford built relationships on a national level whether as an employee at Alabama, Oklahoma, Southern California, with the Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals, or with IMG/Learfield and ESPN. 

At every stop, Alford leaned on previous relationships for advice, including current ACC commissioner Jim Phillips who is a person he frequently called upon and considers a mentor and friend.

When the NCAA put together a group of athletic directors to study Name, Image and Likeness, Alford was one of the athletic directors they chose. Alford now serves as the Chairman of the NIL Committee, selected by the ADs on that committee.

While credential are critical, common values are what makes a candidate the right “fit” for a specific program.

Because FSU had the foresight to bring Alford in when they did, everyone had the unique opportunity to take a long walk with each other to see if the shoes fit one another.

“Michael has had a diverse background both within collegiate athletics and professional sports, so he understands the need to generate revenue in order to build programs,” Miller said. “He’s done a very good job of getting out to meet our donors, coaches and student-athletes. He understands their values, articulates his vision and what it will take from each of them in order to execute that vision. I think he was the right choice to replace David Coburn, who has done an outstanding job of restoring stability at Florida State.” 

He understands a proforma and how to fund it

“In today’s world of athletics, which is ever changing, the plusses I bring is having worked in pro sports and understanding proformas and different business models and how we are going to address issues and as you say, ‘How we are going pay for it?’ ”

Alford prides himself in finding solutions. 

“Don’t just say no,” Alford said. “Let’s find a solution on how we get this done. It may not be next week. It may be three weeks from now that we are going to figure this thing out and come up with a great proforma funding model that works and everyone can agree on.”

Alford agrees that today’s athletic directors need to have a business mindset.

“You have to find different revenue streams on how you are going to fund and provide the very best experiences for those student athletes,” the 52-year-old Alford said. “I am going to be a fundraising AD. It was part of the discussion with President McCullough and Chairman Collins. I am not going to stop what I am doing right now. I am just going to enhance what I am doing now by adding in the special relationships I will be able to develop with our student-athletes and our coaches because that is something that is very important to me.”

Each of the head coaches The Osceola spoke with — Norvell, Leonard Hamilton and Lonni Alameda — said they’re excited about the fit.

“Working with Michael has been incredible,” said Alameda, who has been involved with Alford on fundraising for a stadium roof, premium seating and scoreboard projects. “He understands the line of transactional/transformational. As coaches, we love the transformational side with the student-athlete relationship but there obviously is a line of fundraising and winning that has to happen and with Michael’s past, being a ballplayer, he really can relate to us as coaches and with the ballplayers to0 and also can relate that story to the Boosters. I think there’s a good connection piece there for the standard he has to hold to run the organization, the athletic department, but also still connect with the student-athletes and the coaches. We are grateful for that opportunity to keep that. This is a special place. It is a family atmosphere. It is what drives us here. He is going to keep that connection and stay true to the ground.”

Alameda has worked with coaches and athletic directors across the country and believes honesty is the most important quality in leadership, something she has found in Alford. 

“Sometimes as a player or as a coach, if you aren’t told the truth and the honesty isn’t there, the vision isn’t there, it is really hard to be all in and that’s what you want, an all-in coaching staff and an all-in support staff,” Alameda said. “Michael has been really good at having honest conversations about what we can get to and what we are going to have to work to get at.”

Alford said he lives by three values: Integrity, transparency and treating everyone with the respect you would your family.

“You work with so many great people in your life, so many great coaches and people who’ve talked to you about values and the really simple one is integrity,” he said. “Do everything in your life with integrity and you can’t go wrong. People are going to respect where you stand and what you stand for. Another value is transparency. I don’t like elephants in the room. When I leave a conversation, we all know where everyone stands. Be transparent with everyone about your vision and how we are going to get there. And then family. Try to treat everyone like family.”

No need to hit reset on projects or fundraising

With Alford the department can immediately move forward. The coaches and staff don’t have to hit reset on vision. Fundraising can go forward. Donors who made commitments to projects know the projects are on go. 

Let’s be honest. FSU’s Athletics Department, Seminole Boosters and its fan base have suffered a series of interruptions over the past dozen years. Not since Hart was athletic director has there been a consistent and sustained, long-term vision for the department, Seminole Boosters and its donors and fans. There was dramatic change when Randy Spetman took over, dramatic change when Stan Wilcox took over, change under Coburn, the retirement of Andy Miller, and then of course with Covid.

Over the past year and almost a half, Alford and Coburn have established a clear shared vision that the coaches, staff and donors have embraced. 

We know of several donors who made calls of support for Alford and coaches who did so when offered the opportunity.

As President McCullough said, “People screamed their approval” when he called to tell them of his decision. Those reactions echoed throughout the halls of Seminole Boosters, where mid-level managers and staff were relieved to hear that the progress they’ve made towards one vision wouldn’t be set back by yet another vision. 

While Norvell wouldn’t go into details, he did have the opportunity to express his desire to work with Alford. 

“I’m very excited about where we are with the leader of our athletic department,” Norvell said. “We talked about the alignment, President McCullough and Chairman Collins. The leadership is in place. That is something that has need and makes Florida State so special. The people. AD Coburn came in during a very difficult situation and provided the stability. President Thrasher past Chairman Burr … To see the transition and the men that we have in place to continue to push the program forward. All our Seminoles … I’m excited to be a part of that journey.”

On Thursday morning, a transition plan I thought would have been a good idea three years ago came to fruition.