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Column: Bringing clarity to common vision, view of FSU’s future

A number of Osceola subscribers have asked me what I thought about the ESPN story about Seminole football. First let me say the writers, David Hale and Andrea Adelson, did a commendable job of researching a complex, multi-variable story, a story they say is playing on campuses somewhere every year. 

On the macro level, the writers asked the question: Why does a team like Texas, Nebraska, Michigan, Miami, Florida State win a national championship one year and then find themselves struggling to win a football game? On a micro level, the writers identified elements that make FSU’s situation unique – age of alumni, distance from market, etc. – as they analyze how the football program plummeted from national champions in 2013 to 2-6 in 2020.

The writers interviewed many, including me, before offering their analysis. Rather than elevating a single villain, the ESPN story describes the dynamic that existed between head coach Jimbo Fisher, Athletic Director Stan Wilcox, President John Thrasher, Associate Athletic Director Monk Bonasorte, Seminole Booster President Andy Miller, football coaches, administrators and student-athletes. 

As I read their account of events, some of which I have knowledge of as a former Vice President of Seminole Boosters, I flashed back to marriage counseling when one spouse tells their perspective, which differs materially from the recollection of the other. The writers acknowledge relationships are complex. They chose not to assign more blame to one person than another.     

John F. Kennedy once said, “Victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.”

Every one passes out cigars when the team is doing good but don’t kid yourself, there are just as many people involved when things break bad and the writers acknowledged such. 

There are many points made in the story I am not qualified to weigh in on, especially about the player/coach issues. What I will do is weigh in on a couple of important points made in this story, which I can address from my perspective as a former VP of Seminole Boosters Inc. I think these subjects are useful to flesh out as FSU moves on and into the next chapter of its program. One is the notion, Seminole Boosters controlled “the purse strings” of athletics. Another is the assertion FSU lacks a common vision among the administration. The third important topic the ESPN article addressed is can FSU afford to fund comprehensive excellence? Or should the university put all its resources into football? 

Before I weigh in on those points, I want to address a single paragraph high in the story, which really exemplifies the challenge the writers faced when telling this story. When Fisher’s son was diagnosed with Fanconi anemia in 2011, the coach was eager to kickstart a fundraising program called Kidz First, but Miller worried the foundation would serve as competition for the already scarce amount of donations from the same market of fans. According to several of the coach’s close associates, Fisher viewed Miller’s pushback as personal, and the relationship became poisoned beyond repair.

This particular paragraph illustrates how perspectives can be different. According to the coach’s close associates, Fisher thought Miller was pushing back on the Kidz1st Fund and it poisoned the relationship.

Miller is a father of two sons, and one daughter, and remembers feeling nothing but empathy for Jimbo and Candi Fisher. In addition to writing a personal check to Kidz1st, he navigated university policies that discouraged/forbid a university auxiliary (Seminole Boosters) from promoting any charity (Kidz1st). In spite of the policy, Miller approved Kidz1st promotions in booster publications and on the spring coaches’ tour during my tenure.

Yes, we were all concerned about major gift donors receiving proposals from the two organizations, which was awkward, but happened on rare occasion.

“We had a professional business relationship where we didn’t always agree but when it comes to our children, his or mine, that is very personal,” Miller said. “I felt sorry for Jimbo and Candi when I heard about the diagnosis. It breaks your heart as a parent and I still have empathy for them today.”

While there were other paragraphs one person or the other could parse, the writers did a commendable job of trying to be fair in telling the story that addresses several important topics for the future. 

What causes a lack of common vision

The ESPN article says there was a lack of common vision between the president, athletics department, head football coach and Seminole Boosters during the span of time they covered (2013-2017). Fair enough.

I’ve been covering FSU or working for Seminole Boosters since 1982 and it is my observation that a common vision is essential, but fickle, affected more by presidential change than by any other factor. With a presidential change in the headlights, it is useful to describe how that vision is affected in the transfer of power.

Let me take you back in time, when longtime President Bernie Sliger, Bobby Bowden, Athletic Directors Hootie Ingram and Bob Goin, Andy Miller and the Seminole Boosters Board did share a similar if not common vision. The vision was simple: football was the bell cow for revenue generation and funded all the other sports. 

FSU won its first national championship in football in 1993 and was competitive in its other sports but was not enjoying as much success in its Olympic sports as it would come to enjoy in future years.

When did that vision change?

When Sliger retired and FSU President Sandy D’Alemberte became FSU’s President, he had a broader vision that included pursuing comprehensive excellence in men’s and women’s sports. 

D’Alemberte hired athletic director Dave Hart, who shared his vision. At the time, head football coach Bobby Bowden wanted Steve Sloan, a football-oriented AD, but D’Alemberte went with Hart and the broader vision. Only a few very close to Bowden knew he was upset with the hiring of a “basketball guy.”

The university’s vision was no longer in lock step with Bowden’s but the parties made it work.

You can argue that FSU should not have made a commitment to anything more than football – and many on the Booster Board and within FSU Athletics would have agreed with you – but they made it work and it made all of FSU’s sports better. 

How did that administration make it work?

Hart recognized FSU was woefully behind in all athletic facilities, including football, and did a masterful job of selling his vision to the Boosters. He met with Miller and the Seminole Booster Board in 1996 and convinced the executive committee of the Board to hop on a plane and visit ACC and SEC schools. Seeing was believing. The Booster Board bought into Hart and D’Alemberte’s vision, committed to the first ever capital campaign and built the facilities that would later attract top coaches and players in all sports.

Side note: Before embarking on the campaign to raise $60 million, Seminole Boosters hired a national consultant to determine the viability of a campaign and a realistic campaign goal. The consultant took FSU’s alumni database, which I believe was about 200,000 names back then, and our list of Seminole Booster donors and ran it through their tried-and-true wealth indicator to determine our alumni’s capacity to donate and their propensity to give to their alma mater.

The data said our alumni were very young and did not score highly on the wealth indicators but were more likely to give than other alumni bases. They estimated the campaign ceiling to be $25 million.

Rather than deter enthusiasm for a campaign, the dismal estimate fueled the campaign and by the time it was over, more than $70 million had been raised.

It’s important to note that when a donor pledges $100,000, they don’t usually pay it in cash. Typically, their pledge agreement is over five or even ten years and not all pledges are paid in full. The Boosters borrow the money to build the facility, using those pledge payments each month to pay the bond issue.

The gifts to that campaign were the tinder to what led to more than $300 million in campaigns over the coming decade. There were cranes building athletic facilities all over campus. They included the University Center Complex – which includes the Moore Athletic Center and football operations building – a remodeled baseball stadium, soccer-softball complex, track and field complex, tennis center, swimming facility and renovations to the basketball arena. 

While FSU added women’s soccer and raised money for a soccer-softball complex, football was also receiving a large share of the campaign booty. Doak went from an erector set, seating less than 70,000, to the iconic brick structure you see today, fulfilling Bowden’s desire to have an SEC-like, 80,000-seat stadium. The Moore Athletic Center was completed in the North end zone in 2004, which included expanded football coaches offices overlooking the playing field, a new and expanded locker room and weight room, state-of-the art training facility as well as academic offices. 

The complex opened just three years before Fisher arrived as offensive coordinator. 

If you build it they will come and no sooner had FSU completed these facilities than the Seminoles began winning national championships in track, soccer and softball.

And Bobby won his second national championship in football in 1999. 

I believe at that time, there was a common vision and trust among the president, athletic director, head football coach and Seminole Boosters. The new vision led to the 1999 and 2013 football championships and six national championships in track and field, soccer and softball. The Seminoles rose from a top 50 program in comprehensive excellence to the top 10 program today. 

My point is FSU won a national championship in football in 1993 under Sliger when it had a common vision that focused on football and FSU won a national championship in football in 1999 when it had a broader focus. The common words in that sentence is “common vision” and is the most important takeaway for the future.

So when did this common vision change?

Every time you change to a new president, especially one who feels compelled to replace the athletic director, there is the potential for a new vision to emerge. That is not a knock on anyone. That’s just the way it works on most campuses in this country and why the upcoming hire of a president, who will be chosen by the Board of Trustees, is so important.

University employees serve at the leisure of the president on most every campus. When you hire a new president, the vision typically changes along with the people. University presidents tenure is typically about four years, which is a key point to consider when analyzing “dysfunction” or changing visions within a university. 

As the athletic facilities were going up, and all the presidents, athletic directors and head coaches were coming and going, the debt was rising. Yes, the pledge payments on that debt were still coming in but the amount of debt was becoming worrisome. Each generation of president and athletic director brought new visions with new projects and the debt was growing and the need to raise more money increasing. The growing debt, as well as the widening vision, worried Miller and the Booster Board who were the one constant. 

What changed next?

FSU hired TK Wetherell in 2004, an FSU graduate and former football player who had a strong vision for athletics that did not align with Hart, who left in 2007 to become the athletic director at Alabama and later Tennessee. 

Hart had enjoyed an exemplary working relationship with D’Alemberte and the Seminole Booster Board and was respected as a national power broker, serving on all the right national committees but was not in alignment with Wetherell, who replaced him with Randy Spetman. 

When Fisher became head coach in 2010, the same year Eric Barron became President, Fisher made his vision very clear: he wanted more investment in facilities, coaching salaries and the football operations budgets. His vision was more akin to the vision FSU had in the 1980s when football was king and the other sports fed in its wake. 

FSU’s vision needed to change in Fisher’s mind. But the university was winning championships and the basketball program was starting to hit its stride on both the men’s and women’s side. And there were those who were digging it.

Barron was not as interested in the day to day operation of athletics and hired Stan Wilcox, who had been an assistant at Duke, to replace Spetman. Wilcox was also known to be a basketball guy when he arrived in August 2013, just as the indoor practice facility was opening and the 2013 football season was beginning.

Fisher had a large appetite and so did our Boosters, who yearned for more national championships. Expectations and ambition are natural stressors and a growing debt and burgeoning budget added to the stress.  

I viewed the stress and the raised emotions as natural, not personal or overly contentious. I thought it not much different than every family deals with. Mom struggles to balance the checkbook. Dad wants to buy a boat, which causes stress in the relationship. Mom and Dad raise their voices but in the end it all works out. The car will be paid off next year and we’ll finance the boat then.  

Or it doesn’t. To take this analogy to the absurd, sometimes Dad sees his dream boat being pulled by a blonde in a red Ferrari and bolts for greener pastures. 

I digress.

When Fisher became head coach, FSU had no reserve funds and was coming off back-to-back capital campaigns, with most of its best donors still making payments on previous pledges, including football facilities. The Booster Board worried about “donor fatigue” and wondered if a third campaign would be effective on the tail end of two others. The Booster Board offered responsible advice to the AD, the kind of advice no one wants to deliver to a ball coach, and then went about the business of launching a third capital campaign in 2012 to build an indoor practice facility. 

The facility was completed in August 2013, which gave FSU an indoor facility before Miami or Florida or many SEC school had built theirs. The money ($17 million) was pledged and the facility built in short order but the debt continued to rise, funded by campaign pledge payments. Meanwhile, a new and luxurious football apartment complex opened and became the best in the Southeast. Another $12 million was invested in refreshing football offices and the locker rooms, which were now 10 years old. A players’ lounge was built and the weight room received new equipment. 

The FSU football operating budget was among the top 10 in the nation as was the head coach’s salary.

Meanwhile the university bought the Tucker Center from the county and in 2014 invested $10 million in new seating and lighting, which has helped FSU basketball elevate recruiting and attendance but, you guessed it, added to the debt. 

In 2016, FSU officials learned Doak Campbell Stadium needed $20 million in structural repairs or would not be able to open for the 2017 football season. The facility reserve was depleted, so Athletics turned to the Boosters to fund the repairs. The Boosters did so by launching the Champions Club project, which generated enough to fund the stadium repairs as well as the premium seating section in time for the 2017 season. And the debt, funded by the club seats, rose.

Fisher saw the money going into the stadium and was frustrated that money wasn’t going into building a standalone football building or into the “ball” budget. The Moore Athletic Center, which was less than 10 years old, was not secure enough nor designed the way he would have it for football operations. 

Fair enough. I remember discussing these concerns with Monk Bonasorte and with Fisher. The simple answer was the stadium project generates ticket revenue, which can pay the loan, while the football building would not. To build the football only facility – a structure that does not generate earnings – the money had to be raised with pledges paid over five or more years. That fundraising process was already underway but it would take time to raise enough to break ground. 

Fisher also saw College Town being built by Seminole Boosters and again wondered why that money wasn’t going into football. The simple answer is the money going into College Town was an investment of the scholarship endowment and earning a high rate of interest, which was being paid by commercial and residential tenants. The football operations facility generates no revenue and therefore required donations, which take time to raise. 

In the meantime, FSU commissioned a design firm to study whether to build a new standalone building next to the practice fields or redesign the Moore Athletic Center to meet Fisher’s needs. Which would be more efficient to build in terms of time and money? 

While the design process was underway, FSU launched a fourth capital campaign to raise the money to build the football building once a design was agreed upon.  The wheels were grinding, just not fast enough.

In the meantime, Fisher signed a $75 million, 10-year contract with Texas A&M, which already has the best facilities in college athletics. 

The football design completed for Fisher was revisited by new head coach Willie Taggart, to be sure it was consistent with his vision. It is being reviewed yet again by Mike Norvell. In the meantime, the Boosters have been steadily generating pledges (more than $60 million) and cash payments approaching $10 million to take action.

Here’s my take: Fisher once told me he didn’t have a complaint with the resources FSU provided in terms of facilities and budget, but he did have an issue with how challenging it was to get it done. That’s a fair statement and one FSU needs to consider when hiring coaches. What’s their expectation and can the program meet those needs in a timely fashion?

Fisher’s background was at SEC schools, who have much larger budgets than ACC schools currently. They have the ability to fund projects quicker. 

I saw the process as a fact of life at FSU. SEC schools can fund projects quicker than most any college football program. At times I thought Fisher took it personally, that the Boosters, or the athletic director, was pushing back on his project. At the time I thought Jimbo isn’t going to be content until he can coach at an SEC school, where his projects can happen right now. And I don’t mean that as a knock on Jimbo.

Texas A&M was a great fit for Jimbo with 2019 annual revenues of $212,748,002, second only to Texas. By comparison, FSU’s 2019 annual revenues were $152,757,883, 12th best in the nation.

Seminole Boosters do not control purse strings 

It’s also useful for me to offer a different perspective on a technical thread throughout the story, which is the assertion that Seminole Boosters controls the purse strings for athletics. It’s understandable its in the ESPN story because there is a perception, even among athletics, that the Boosters control the money. The reality is the athletic director controls the budget and Seminole Boosters raises the money. 

Here’s how it works. Each year the athletic director creates a budget and then tells Seminole Boosters how much it needs to balance the budget. Seminole Boosters raises money in its annual, unrestricted fund – Golden Chiefs, Tomahawks, etc. – and then transfers the money to the AD, who allocates it to individual sports as he sees fit.  

The Boosters have no say in deciding how much money the athletic director allocates to each sport. 

In years past, Hart would come to the Seminole Booster executive committee in March with a detailed financial statement and what was called an “ask,” which was an amount Athletics needed the Boosters to transfer to balance the budget for the coming fiscal year (July 1 to June 30). The ask was never a surprise because there was communication throughout the budgeting process. 

Hart was good about presenting his previous year’s budget to the Booster Board and noting any changes in the upcoming year. He didn’t have to do it but as a good salesman, and communicator, he knew the Board was comprised of successful businessmen who wanted to know and would get behind him if they did. 

That’s truly how the process worked back then and is working with David Coburn in the Athletic Director’s office today.

What’s next with Thrasher, Norvell, Coburn and Alford

The covid virus has decimated collegiate athletic revenues and will affect the future of every program. Budgets have to be cut across the nation, projects are being curbed and sports eliminated. 

Meanwhile, FSU is searching for a new president, and soon thereafter a new athletic director. After 45 years, Miller has retired and Michael Alford brings an impressive resume to the role. Alford, who was an AD at Central Michigan, may well be a candidate as Athletic Director, too. The university created the FSU Athletic Association which formalizes the communication between the president, athletic director and boosters.

In other words, collegiate athletics and FSU in particular are hitting reset. 

All of these changes are happening at exactly the same time as we are asking ourselves the central question written about in the ESPN story and throughout FSU history: Should FSU persist in chasing a dream of comprehensive excellence or would it be better to double down on football? 

Clemson cut their sports teams to the NCAA minimum 16, eliminating several men’s sports in order to preserve football budgets. Is that the route FSU will take as Coburn wrestles with the budget?

If you want to know where FSU will go, look at who is hired. Will the new president have an appetite for athletics? If so, is he or she focused on football only or comprehensive excellence? Who the new president selects as FSU’s next athletic director will tell you even more.

In all transparency, I believe football is the cash cow and I believe you have to feed the beast. In a perfect world, I want to have my cake and eat it too. I love FSU basketball in the winter and our spring sports but this is not a perfect world and collegiate athletics is a broken business model.

Stay tuned. College athletics will be white boarded this coming year and a new, more-sustainable model will emerge, including here at FSU, where a new president and athletic director must find a critical common vision.

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