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Column: An exit interview with FSU’s David Coburn

The sports jacket, button down shirt and tie are retired, replaced by blue jeans and a windbreaker.  A relaxed David Coburn, on the back end of a respiratory cold that has engulfed campus, met with Tallahassee Democrat sports editor Jim Henry and I at the Red Eye coffeehouse to talk about his tenure as Florida State’s Athletic Director as well as his vision for the future of FSU Athletics.

“Normally over Christmas I have a lot of emails and zoom meetings,” Coburn said. “As I started counting down the days and I started doing that last week, Dr. Coburn (his wife, Mary) reminded me the break doesn’t end.”

Zoom calls have been replaced by “Honey-dos.” The list has been growing for 39 months, since the Coburns put their retirement plans on hold, after FSU president John Thrasher asked David to step in as interim athletic director replacing Stan Wilcox, who had accepted a job at the NCAA headquarters. 

Coburn would become FSU’s 12th full-time Athletics Director in May 2019 and Vice President and Director of Athletics in 2021.

It was a critical juncture in FSU athletics history. It was also a tumultuous time in our nation as we struggled with the Covid pandemic and passionate social issues on campus and in our nation. In addition, collegiate athletics was trying to figure out how to adapt to revolutionary new legislation involving Name, Image and Likeness, the transfer portal and other dynamic issues.

All of this was complicated by a budget deficit and a $17 million, five-year buyout of head football coach Willie Taggart.

“(The buyout) obviously exacerbated an already tough (budget) situation,” Coburn said. “And the impact just continues to ripple through our budget and our program. Navigating the period of intense social unrest after George Floyd was murdered was as challenging as any part of this. There were some very, very difficult listening sessions. We marched with them, a lot of the staff and administration. We listened to them. And we worked with them. That was intense. That was a challenge…”

It has often been said that Florida State has been blessed to find the right man at the right time in its history. This was Coburn’s time. The experience he gained over 40 professional years aligned just right for the challenge. Coburn spent 34 years in the Florida legislative process, including Staff Director of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, Chief of Staff of the House of Representatives under two Speakers, Chief of Staff of the Senate, and as Director of Planning and Budgeting for Governor Lawton Chiles. Coburn was hired by FSU president Eric Barron in 2012 as Chief of Staff and retained by president John Thrasher, providing a campus frame of reference that would also serve him well in the unprecedented challenges he would face as athletic director.

Most people believe Coburn’s greatest talent matched his greatest challenge, repairing an athletic deficit further shredded by lost revenues and increased medical costs during the Covid pandemic.

Were the budget cuts – some $30 million – his major challenge?

“I would say it was one of them,” Coburn replied. “I would say managing personalities is as big a challenge as anything.”

“People ask me about this, vis a vie working in the legislature, and there are a lot of similarities: intense pressure to perform, intense pressure to prevail, demanding personalities are all similar,” Coburn said. “Again, to go back to the Legislature, there are a lot of similarities, but they (the personalities) are all different, very unique. It takes a little bit of time to sort them out, and Covid, those were huge (challenges).”

A three-time FSU graduate and longtime Seminole fan, David and Mary – who was FSU’s Vice President for Student Affairs – have been avid Seminole season ticket holders, Seminole Booster members and fans over the years. David served on the search committee in 1986 when Pat Kennedy was hired as head basketball coach and has been a trusted sounding board for former President TK Wetherell and former Seminole Booster CEO and President Andy Miller. But in spite of those years of experience, he entered the AD job without preconceived ideas about what laid ahead.

“I can tell you I had no idea of how challenging this job is. I really didn’t,” he said. “I was naïve about that. I think people just in general don’t realize how complicated that job is. There are so many layers: the school layer, the booster donor layer, the conference layer, the national, the student-athletes — who are the absolute joy of the business and constantly remind you of why you do what you do.”

The challenges, he said, never seemed to end. Covid, replacing a head football coach, the transfer portal all came during Coburn’s tenure. Name, Image and License legislation, which allows players the right to earn compensation on their brand, went into effect on July 1, 2021 which inspired the state of Florida to write a law to help manage its implementation, looked to athletic directors in the state, including Coburn.

“There are things coming at you every day,” he said with a laugh. “You can plan your brains out and there are things coming at you every day and you just think: Where did that come from?

“Mike Norvell gets Covid and you think, ‘Man, where did that come from?’ Everything is going great academically; except the one big-time player you can’t afford to lose. All of a sudden you get this call two-thirds of the way through the semester that says, ‘You better watch this one.’ What?! It’s just astonishing.”

Former FSU linebackers coach Gene McDowell used to keep the football staff on their toes with this expression: “Whenever everything looks to be going well, it means we’ve obviously overlooked something.”

“Things are never as good as they seem or as bad as they seem,” Coburn replied.

FSU succeeded in spite of challenges

While we tended to focus the interview on challenges overcome, Florida State athletics enjoyed great success during Coburn’s tenure.

The Seminoles finished No. 7 finish in the 2018-19 Learfield IMG College Director’s Cup. It was the highest finish for any ACC school and the best for FSU in a decade. FSU soccer captured the NCAA National Championship, baseball reached the College World Series, men’s basketball advanced to the Sweet 16, and 19 of FSU’s sports participated in NCAA Championship play.

In 2019-20, Covid shut down sports everywhere and what would have been another top finish in the Director’s Cup. Men’s basketball was ranked No. 4 before the stoppage in March. FSU had five teams ranked in the Top 10 nationally, and a total of 10 of its 13 spring sports ranked among the Top 25.

And in 2020-21 FSU finished 16th in the Director’s Cup and fifth nationally in the Capital One rankings of women’s programs, including playing for National Championships in both soccer and softball.

A big surprise

Of all the lessons learned, the most important was this: The staff needed stability. 

“One thing you find out, coaches, for all the foibles, the faults, the impatience, the demands, what they want is stability more than anything else,” Coburn said. “It is really interesting. That was very revealing. And they deserve that, and Michael (Alford, the new athletic director) will give them that because he’s a pro.”

Another fundamental cornerstone of understanding he came to know better was the relationship between the coaches and the student-athletes.

“You realize that’s the most important thing to those coaches, the intensity and the passion for their student-athletes,” he said. “It’s hard to pick that up when you are not in (athletics) day to day. They really have intense feelings about their kids, how they want them treated, the resources they need them to have. They fight for them, which is what you expect from top-line coaches, and we have really good coaches.”

Knowing that sensitivity helped when it came time to talk to coaches about budget cuts.

Budget cuts came down to trust

“(Budget cuts were) tough particularly because you were trying to do it in a way that you don’t impact the student-athlete, if at all possible,” Coburn said, “which meant the impact really fell heavily on the staff and to a certain extent the coaches.”

“Everybody said, ‘We will just trust you to get us through this.’ ” Coburn said. “And I said, ‘If it’s going to affect your kids, you’ve got to talk to me. You are free to do that. There are exceptions to every rule and not all of these sports are created the same.’”

Several coaches took him up on the offer.

Coburn made it a priority to get out of his office to go see the coaches in their offices, of course that was tougher with those sports farther from the Moore Center. 

“I found over the years if you go to them, it works better,” Coburn said. While Coburn had regularly scheduled meetings with football, he had quarterly meetings with all the head coaches.

Coburn said those quarterly meetings entailed: “Briefing on some things going on at the conference or NCAA level, talk about mental health issues, health issues, budgets. They really appreciated direct talk about where we were with the budget. I think they found it a lot easier to believe in the budget measures we were taking if we talked to them about it up front and explained to them what we were doing and why we were doing it and how long we thought it would continue. When you get to where we need to be, (the budget cuts) will be over. Because that’s always their fear, ‘Once you take this, I’ll never get it back.’ They have to trust you when you say it’s temporary, we are going to take this short-term pain for the long-term gain and they did. They were willing to do that with a minimum of moaning and groaning. 

“It’s like Mark Krikorian said in a coaches’ meeting, ‘You are in here with a bunch of team players. That’s what we are.’ I was telling them how much I appreciated … just laid it on the line,” Coburn said. “Nobody appreciates that more than I do. They were troopers all the way through.” 

Building relationships across campus

We asked Coburn about establishing relationships across campus, with Seminole Boosters, the Seminole fans, with the conference and the NCAA.

“I think that was one of the things I had to address immediately, the relationships across campus,” Coburn said. “You are working every day with the general counsel’s office. You are working every day with the office of the vice president of finance. You have to have those relationships.”

When Coburn took over, Dr. Greg Beaumont was in charge of academics for athletics. 

“He was very well regarded,” Coburn said. “He had stabilized that situation for a while. Some of the other relationships needed work, which I think we got where we needed to be with those relationships. And the Booster relationship as well.”

Coburn believes the relationship with Seminole Boosters is in good shape and will only get better with Michael Alford taking over as athletic director. Alford, who was hired 18 months ago as CEO and President of Seminole Boosters when Andy Miller retired, has used his time at the helm to learn about the Booster needs, operation, staff and donors as well as establish the culture he values. Alford will continue to lead the Boosters until a replacement is found and has vowed to remain active as a fundraising athletic director.

“He will be way ahead of anyone else they could have hired,” Coburn said.

AD’s relationship with the ACC

“It is a good relationship,” Coburn said. “Commissioner (Jim) Phillips has come in and he’s worked really hard to build relationships on every campus. He’s been here several times. He’s met with student-athletes. He’s met with coaches. He’s met with administration. He’s been to every campus in the country.”

Phillips went out of his way to go out to California for the women’s soccer championships. 

“He dropped some things to be there,” Coburn said. “I think that impressed Coach (Krikorian), it impressed the student-athletes, and it certainly impressed the fans who were out there. The one clear signal you get from him is that he cares profoundly about the student-athletes.”

Coburn described the AD’s interaction with the conference as a daily relationship where the campus is asking the conference office for help and advise, and vice versa, all the time. 

“It’s a robust relationship and right now a very healthy one,” Coburn said.

When asked if the ACC is well-positioned for the evolution of college athletics, including potential conference expansion, Coburn reframed the question with his answer.

“I think we are in good hands,” he said tactfully. “Everyone is very aware of the situation. The commissioner is very open about what we need and how he is trying to address that. It’s been pleasant to hear him be so transparent about what the issues are and how he feels.

“It’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be challenge for everyone. One thing that is clear, our football has to get better. He knows that and has made it a priority.”

That last sentence is important and bears re-reading. To make ACC football better means ACC football officiating has to get better too. 

FSU Football must get better … and will

Coburn, who was involved in the hiring of Norvell, feels very good about FSU’s 40-year-old head coach, who just completed his second year. 

“I think we have the right guy and I think he will get it done. There’s not any doubt in my mind,” Coburn said. “He’ll get it done on the recruiting side. He’ll get it done on the coaching side. He needs the resources to be competitive and we’ve given them to him. I think he can make it work. I firmly believe that.”

In the short time Norvell has been on campus, Coburn has had regular contact with him and says he’s everything FSU thought he was.

“All the things you saw when you hired him collectively, the attention to detail, the intelligence, skill at managing the student-athletes and coaches, the ability to hire, to evaluate talent, they are all there,” Coburn said.

The media, which attends practice on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, frequently saw Coburn at practice, shirt and tie as he made time between meetings.

“I tried to get out to practice two or three times a week and he and I met every week,” Coburn noted. “I’d wander down there when I needed to see him other than that and he was always comfortable coming up if he needed to get to me. I thought the relationship was about as comfortable as an AD could have and I thought it went both ways.”

Budget is dependent on football success

While Coburn did a lot of the heavy lifting on balancing the budget, there’s much still to be done by Alford to generate more revenue and manage expenses.

Coburn believes football is the “locomotive of this train.” Pigskin success is essential to generating additional revenue for the athletics budget and FSU football must be in the hunt to drive ACC television revenue.

Coburn said there’s no projections on how much the ACC television revenues will increase now that Comcast has been added. “It’s going to narrow (the gap between the SEC and ACC) some but not that much in the overall scheme of things. It’s helpful, don’t get me wrong.”

The revenue focus needs to begin at home.

“I think (football) ticket sales clearly and the booster annual fund, which is obviously tied to ticket sales, are huge challenges,” Coburn said. “We have to win at football. And we have to sell tickets. And we have to raise money for the annual fund.”  

Coburn also added raising money to build the football operations building as a major challenge facing Alford, Athletics and Seminole Boosters. 

“We’ve got to get football done in order to get to those (other facilities),” Coburn said. “Obviously, football is the locomotive of this train and the coaches understand it. But we’ve got to get to other issues.” 

Points of satisfaction

We asked Coburn to reflect back on the bridges built, the people met and the games won during his three-plus years at the helm.

“I think we got the budget in a manageable situation. Not great, but a manageable situation. We got the right guy in football and we have extended the contracts of virtually all of our veteran coaches. That’s a good feeling,” he said contemplatively. “The academics are in the best place they’ve been in in a long, long time. That’s a good feeling. A lot of that is on the coaches and the academic staff being committed. The student-athletes being accountable. And they’ve done a really, really good job. To finish where we finished in the Learfield Director’s Cup, our academic standing the way we finished given COVID and the budget situation, I am damn proud.” 

Coburn gained greater appreciation for FSU

FSU has always been a special place to the Coburns, but the feeling grew stronger during his tenure as athletics director. 

I tell recruits, “Everywhere you go people will tell you (they are) a family. Well, we don’t just say it, we live it. It’s palpable. You can feel it. And it’s not just athletics. It’s the whole university.”

Coburn saw firsthand the effect the university has on recruits on official visits, many of whom had no intention of signing with FSU. “But they can feel it. And you talk to faculty, veteran faculty, and they say, ‘I was just coming here for three or four years, get some publications and go get tenure somewhere else.’ Thirty years later, they’re still here,” Coburn said. 

What specifically makes FSU special?

“It’s the coaches, and the staff, and the entire atmosphere that surrounds that athletics (department),” he replied. “You have world-class athletes all over the place. They pull for each other. That’s another thing I certainly didn’t understand, and I don’t think the average fan understands, is how they root for each other. They show up at each other’s matches and games and support each other. You look at the relationship between Mike Norvell and Mark Krikorian. Unlikely relationship and yet they feed off each other. They support each other, they root for each other. It’s hard to replicate the kind of atmosphere … there’s just no doubt in my mind it’s the quality of the people and the strength of the relationships … and I am very, very proud having had the opportunity to be part of it. I really am.”

Emotions bubbling up

The first question we asked Coburn when the interview began was if he considered himself an emotional person, to which he said he was. We then asked him if he was feeling emotional now that his job as AD was done, to which he replied: “I was not particularly emotional about this. Now I haven’t really gotten together with my staff and celebrated it yet. I might get emotional there.”

As this interview wound to a conclusion, Coburn’s emotions were on his sleeve.  

Did this job enrich you as a person?

“No question, no question,” he replied excitedly. “It has been a challenging experience, it has been a learning experience, and it has been an absolutely (wonderful) experience. The interactions with the student-athletes are just priceless memories. Being on that field in California after we won that national championship, that was special. That was really special.”

When he retired from the state of Florida, it took 30 boxes to pack his office. When he closed the door to his office on the fourth floor of the Moore Athletic Center last week, he was surprised by how little stuff he had to pack. While it didn’t take him long to pack, David and Mary Coburn will spend the remainder of their lives unpacking memories of the student-athletes, the coaches, the staff and the donors whose lives they touched and who touched theirs.