Column: Coburn was right man for right time for FSU athletics

David Coburn announced his retirement as Florida State’s Athletics Director, a sure sign the Athletic Department is healed and ready to move into the future.

It was a bitter-sweet announcement for me. 

Bitter in that I’ve known David since we were in our 20s and have always admired his character and accomplishments. Over the past four decades, his efficacy led to consequential staff assignments in the Florida Legislature and Florida Senate, became an informal sounding board for former FSU President TK Wetherell and Seminole Booster President Andy Miller as he imagined what would become the University Center complex. Years later, Coburn served as Chief of Staff to Presidents Eric Barron and John Thrasher. In each of those roles he amassed a plethora of vital institutional knowledge about his alma mater, an institution he loves dearly, and helped to shepherd into the top 20 public academic institutions in the nation. 

The release was sweet in that I’m happy for David and Mary, who retired from FSU as Vice President of Student Affairs in 2017, that they will finally be able to spend time with grandkids and quiet time in Montana. That plan was put on hold when in 2018 President Thrasher asked David, and thus Mary, to stick around to solve the financial Rubik’s cube left by prior athletic directors Randy Spetman and Stan Wilcox.

Sweet in that his announcement tells me FSU Athletics is finally back on solid footing.

“We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the myriad of COVID-related issues – not the least of which was the potentially crippling budget impact that virtually all schools have suffered through,” Coburn said. “Our athletic department is in excellent shape. We have coaches and staff who are recognized as being among the very best in the country and we have phenomenal student-athletes who compete at the very highest level of intercollegiate athletics.”

People have inaccurately labeled Coburn a “bean counter” because of the 34 years he spent in public administration in the Legislature, the Senate and managing the budget for the Governor’s office. But a true bean counter couldn’t have solved this budget crisis as deftly as Coburn. What the Athletics Department and Seminole Boosters needed was a reasoned individual who had the institutional knowledge of a David Coburn and the trust of President John Thrasher and his Vice Presidents as well as the trust of Seminole Boosters CEO Andy Miller and the Boosters’ Board of Directors.

In order to balance the budget, Coburn had to restore trust between Athletics, Seminole Boosters and Westcott and may have been the only man on the planet who could bring those frayed wires together.

He was the right man because he was considered trustworthy and competent by the afore-mentioned entities, which had been driven apart by prior administrations. Because of mutual respect, communications improved and, with Coburn’s unique knowledge of the three entities, he was able to deliver remedies to bridge what was a $10 million annual shortfall even during the Covid pandemic, when all collegiate athletic budgets took $30 million to $40 million reductions in revenue.

Athletic Achievements

In addition to uniting the leadership of Athletics, Seminole Boosters and the University Administration to balance the budget, Florida State’s sports teams were winning on the field and improving their APR score academically while the Seminole Boosters successfully completed a $100 million capital campaign ahead of time.

Here’s a thumbnail view of athletic accomplishments:

2018 – Coburn placed in the interim athletics director’s role by FSU President John Thrasher to lead the department through financial challenges. 

2019 – Together with President Thrasher and the Board of Trustees, hired football coach Mike Norvell

2018-19 Florida State placed seventh in the Learfield IMG College Director’s Cup, the highest finish for any ACC school and the highest-ranking for FSU athletics in a decade. FSU soccer won the NCAA National Championship, baseball reached the College World Series, men’s basketball advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, and 19 of FSU’s 20 sports participated in NCAA Championship play.

2019 – Together with President Thrasher and the Board of Trustees, hired Football Coach Mike Norvell

2019-20 All sports came to a halt in March. Women’s soccer was headed to the College Cup and men’s basketball was ranked No. 4 before the stoppage in play. 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 prior to the pandemic.

2020-21 The Seminoles played for national championships in both soccer and softball to finish 5th nationally in the Capital One rankings for women’s programs and 16th in the Director’s Cup overall.  

2021 – Promoted to Vice President and Director of Athletics

So what’s next?

Coburn let President Richard McCullough know of his intention to retire months ago and his tenure will end June 30 or when the university finds its next athletic director, whichever comes first. 

“It was just time,” Coburn told me Thursday morning of his decision. “We accomplished what we needed to do.”

Coburn said he is not involved in the search process and prefers it that way as several of the people with interest in the job work for the Athletics Department or Seminole Boosters, Inc. As a result, he said he is not aware of who the university has had contact. 

He is, however, serving on President McCullough’s search committee for FSU’s next Provost and has regular communication with the new President as he navigates his first year, a year in which he will need to hire several key positions in addition to the athletic director, provost and vice president of university advancement. 

The speculation is that Seminole Boosters President and CEO Michael Alford, who served three years as athletic director at Central Michigan before coming to Tallahassee, is a candidate. Other potential internal candidates could include Senior Associate Athletics Director and Senior Women’s Associate Vanessa Fuchs, who served as interim athletic director between Spetman and Wilcox, and Senior Associate Athletics Director Jim Curry.

External names with FSU ties mentioned in the media include FSU alums Jeff Purington, who is executive deputy athletics director at Alabama and Dr. Magdi El Shahawy, who is Deputy Athletic Director – Academics and Student Development at Georgia.  

Purington spent more than a decade in sports information (1995-2006), earned his undergraduate in sports management and a master’s in athletic administration at Florida State. Dr. El Shahawy, a four-year defensive lineman at FSU (1986-89),  received three degrees from Florida State: a BS in Economics and Political Science (1991), MS in Athletic Administration (1993) and PhD. In Athletic Administration (1999). 

It is likely there are other names in the hat or could be added in the coming weeks. 

While Coburn does not know who the candidates will be, he does believe the successful hire will bring more national and conference experience to his chair than he did when named Interim AD back in 2018.

“Because of the circumstances when I became Athletics Director, my focus had to be almost entirely internal to the department,” Coburn said. “We have made progress on virtually all of the internal issues that needed to be addressed, and I think that will allow the next AD to become more involved in conference and national issues than I have been. Experience in those areas will be important because the NCAA, in particular, needs to know and understand how FSU feels about the myriad issues facing college athletics today.”

Toward the end of his reign, King Solomon penned the poem, “There Is A Time For Everything,” which aptly describes where FSU Athletics and Seminole Boosters were in 2018 when Coburn took over and where they are heading.

“Earlier this year, David Coburn shared with me his intention to retire, and I appreciate his willingness to continue to serve until his successor can be named,” President McCullough said. “As an FSU alumnus, David has always cared deeply about this university, and we thank him for his loyalty and dedication.”