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Volume 20 No. 42
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Wilcox weathers long to-do list as FSU’s new athletic director

By the time Florida State’s chartered flight touched down in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, Stan Wilcox had completed perhaps the most rigorous five months a new athletic director could ever expect.

At that point, Wilcox, who was named the Seminoles’ AD on Aug. 7, was just hours removed from holding aloft the BCS’ crystal football after FSU’s win over Auburn.

Coach Jimbo Fisher kisses the trophy as Wilcox (in necktie) pumps a fist.
The word that kept coming to mind as he hugged one after another on the Rose Bowl field was “surreal,” said Wilcox, a longtime No. 2 to AD Kevin White at Duke and Notre Dame before taking his first AD job at Florida State.

“I’ve probably experienced more in five months than most ADs experience in five years,” Wilcox said.

Winning a BCS national championship so early in his tenure generated both exhilaration and relief for Wilcox, whose political

challenges came in waves once he set foot on the Tallahassee campus last summer.

The Seminoles, who parted ways with former AD Randy Spetman last summer, needed a strong leader in athletics. Public comments from board members and boosters in 2012 fueled speculation that FSU might jump from the ACC to the Big 12. Those kinds of unhealthy outbursts gradually robbed Spetman of the influence an AD needs, say those close to the program.

Not only was Wilcox charged with corralling the stakeholders, he had FSU’s star athlete, Jameis Winston, embroiled in a well-publicized legal case while his coach, Jimbo Fisher, was being linked to the Texas job.

These travails were mixed with more prosperous times, like accompanying Winston to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, and winning the ACC championship game to stay unbeaten.

A less-prepared or perhaps less-equipped AD might have been overwhelmed with so many fragile issues on such a high-profile platform, Wilcox’s friends said. Instead, Wilcox, who played basketball at Notre Dame and got his law degree from Brooklyn Law School, presented a calm front during those stormy times.

One of the decisions Wilcox made, in concert with Winston’s parents, was to let the quarterback continue talking to the media while the investigation into allegations of sexual assault played out, even though many schools typically close off athletes during controversial periods.

“Stan has this very unique personality,” said White, who recommended him for the Seminoles job. “He’s got this almost mystical spirit about him that gives him an uncanny ability to assess situations and choose a course.”

Almost the minute word came down that Texas and its football coach, Mack Brown, were parting ways, Fisher’s name was linked to the job opening because of how he’d guided the Seminoles back to national prominence. Wilcox, however, had taken pre-emptive action weeks earlier by negotiating a new contract with Fisher’s agent, Jimmy Sexton. The rookie AD said he first went to Fisher after FSU’s blowout win at Clemson on Oct. 19 to discuss a contract extension, which eventually was announced on Dec. 31.

“I knew at some point during the season that I needed to go to Jimbo about his contract,” said Wilcox, who oversees a $96 million annual budget. “My approach was to tell him, ‘Listen, the season is going well and now is the time to talk about renegotiating the contract.’ But I also told him that I don’t need him focusing on his contract. I needed him focused on football day to day.

“I know a number of ADs don’t like talking to agents, but nowadays it’s a common practice and you’ve got to deal with it. So I told Jimbo that I would talk to his agent and then come to him when we had something. Until then, I didn’t want him thinking about it. That was a big load off Jimbo’s mind and it helped him understand that I had his best interests at heart.”

Fisher’s deal for $4.1 million a year through 2018 makes him one of the nation’s highest-paid coaches.

“Texas can pay whatever they want,” Wilcox said. “But it really came down to where Jimbo is more comfortable and the relationship we’ve created. That was really telling.”

Navigating the potential potholes, especially so early in his first AD job, has earned Wilcox “an extended honeymoon,” he said with a laugh. “If you said that I’ve done athletic administration from A to Z in five months, I probably have.”

ACC Commissioner John Swofford first met Wilcox years ago when Wilcox worked in the Big East office prior to becoming an administrator at Notre Dame. Swofford, like White, hoped that Wilcox would be the hire at FSU. But Wilcox had been reluctant to jump at previous AD jobs. White estimates that Wilcox had been approached by roughly a dozen schools in search of an AD over the years, but he had never felt compelled to leave.

“Any colleague would tell you how enormously selfless Stan is,” White said. “He has this unique quality of never putting himself first. It’s just how he is.”

When FSU President Eric Barron phoned Swofford to break the news of Wilcox’s hire, the ACC commissioner beamed and told Barron, “Outstanding.”

Swofford appeared to be equally exuberant on the field after FSU’s win over Auburn, finding Wilcox and planting a kiss on the new AD’s cheek.

Even though Wilcox grew up playing the drums in a family band, his style is understated and reserved these days. Swofford said he appreciates the strong leadership Wilcox generates with an efficiency of words, something FSU needed.

“Stan has great equilibrium,” Swofford said. “Through everything he’s seen in just five months — and he’s seen a lot — I’ve been really proud of the stability he’s provided and his no-panic approach. He’s off to an excellent start in every way. … I’d be surprised if Stan isn’t a leader around our table very quickly.”