Good Sport: A Conversation with FSU Athletic Director Stan Wilcox ’88
For those who don’t spend weekends glued to the games, Florida State University is among the Goliaths of college sports. Its Seminoles teams finished among the Top 15 in each of the last seven years in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, which measures overall program excellence. It won six ACC regular season or tournament championships in 2012–2013, including football, and all but one sport advanced to NCAA postseason competition. In total, 31 FSU student-athletes were named All-Americans last year, and five Seminoles were named ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year in their sports. It is also the only school with more than one starting quarterback in the 2013 NFL season (Christian Ponder of the Minnesota Vikings and EJ Manuel of the Buffalo Bills are both FSU grads). The man just hired to propel the Seminoles to the next chapter of greatness? Brooklyn Law School’s Stan Wilcox ’88.
Wilcox started out a student-athlete himself. At Notre Dame, he played basketball for the Fighting Irish, leading them to the 1978 Final Four against Duke, and a four-year ledger of 92–26 with four NCAA Tournament berths. After Notre Dame, Wilcox made his way to Brooklyn Law School. After graduating, he took a series of powerful positions, first with the NCAA (as a legislative assistant) and then with the Big East (as their representative to the NCAA Management Council). During his 11 years with the Big East, he served on the NCAA recruiting task force, received the National Association of Athletics Compliance Coordinators Outstanding Achievement Award, helped create the Minority Opportunity Athletics Association, and served as president of the Black Coaches Association. He returned to his alma mater in 2005 as deputy director of athletics at Notre Dame and became senior deputy director of athletics at Duke in 2008.
This New York native is now at the helm of one of the country’s most impressive college athletics departments, where he’s responsible for planning and directing the overall administrative and operational activities of the university’s 20 athletics programs.
Just days after the Seminoles crushed the Nevada Wolf Pack 62-7 in their football home opener, LawNotes’ Managing Editor Andrea Strong ’94 spoke to Wilcox from his Tallahassee offices about his dream of playing pro ball, the challenges of being FSU’s Athletic Director, and the responsibility he feels for the welfare of his student-athletes.
You started out playing basketball at Notre Dame. Do you still play?
Unfortunately, I don’t. When I was at Duke, I agreed to participate in Coach K’s Basketball Academy, a fantasy camp for individuals 35 years and older. We played two games a day, and by the second game of the last day, my knees were so swollen I had to stop. My coach was Grant Hill, and I told him, I love you, but I can’t go on. It took me three months to walk regularly again. That put me into permanent retirement. These days, I golf and walk for exercise.
Was it a dream of yours to play professional sports?
It was. You don’t realize how good you are in a sport until you get an opportunity to participate against others on a national level in your age range. Between junior and senior year at North Babylon High School, I went to Five-Star Basketball Camp and played against some of the best players in the country. I played pretty well, and in my senior year I was recruited by the top schools and ended up going to Notre Dame. My aspirations were to play professionally, but I didn’t play as much my junior and senior years, and I was not a highly touted professional prospect. Although I did get offers to play in Europe, I was married and had a baby, and I didn’t want to keep chasing a dream that might not happen, especially since I had a family.
What led you to law school?
I actually never planned on going to law school. After Notre Dame, I became an assistant coach at CW Post for one year, but I felt like I needed a career. I took a job as an account executive for Serres, Visone & Rice Insurance in Manhattan. It was owned by Joe Monticello, whose father was a Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice, and Gerald Esposito, who was the Brooklyn Borough President for many years. They encouraged me to work for the courts and to go to law school. Through them, I took a position in Brooklyn Supreme Court as a senior court analyst with Judge Yoswine. I worked there for eight years and for four of them, I attended BLS in the evening program.
You went to law school to find a “regular career” and yet it led you back to the world of sports.
True. But I knew I wanted to get back into athletics. I was thinking of maybe being a sports agent or of working for the front office of a professional team. I happened to go back to a Notre Dame football game and ran into an old friend who was an attorney with the NCAA in enforcement. She told me that they were interested in hiring people with legal backgrounds.
I worked at the NCAA for five years, helping membership understand the rules and regulations and helping them craft and change legislation. I got a bird’s-eye view of how that organization operates. From there I was recruited to work for the Big East Conference as an associate commissioner. I grew the regulatory side of the services they provide to their member schools. After 11 terrific years, I went to work for my alma mater, Notre Dame, as deputy athletics director, and worked with Dr. Kevin White who became my longtime mentor.
What did you learn from your mentor, White?
White has a total understanding of what it means to be an effective athletic director. From him, I learned how to navigate the politics that go along with running an athletics department. That’s not just the politics on your campus with professors, deans, presidents, and all the various constituents and stakeholders. He taught me the “big picture” politics of your position within the conference. You have to be selfless enough to make decisions that may not be best for your institution, but that are in the best interests of your conference and the NCAA as a whole.
He also taught me that an AD needs to be a good steward of the budget and has to look to the future to add to the fan experience and create amenities that add new streams of revenue. I also learned the need to have a master facilities plan. Student-athletes are savvy consumers. They want the best facilities to play and practice in, and want the best training and medical attention. If you are falling behind in those areas, you will lose prospects that you need to create winning programs.
You’ve been at FSU since September 1st. What’s it been like?
It’s a big job with a lot of public relations components. Last week, which was only my third week on the job, there was an athletic Board of Trustees meeting, a Gathering of the Chiefs Appreciation Party (a mix and mingle with boosters, donors, coaches, and student-athletes), dinner at the President’s House, and a Hall of Fame banquet in which we inducted seven former student-athletes. Before the home opener, I attended a dedication of our new indoor practice facility for our football program and did a radio show. Then I was on the field to shake the hands of the Hall of Fame inductees. In between all of that I’ve been trying to get to all our athletic events: soccer, football, tennis, golf, and cross-country. It’s busy, but I love it down here.
Being an AD means dealing with serious issues too. Sports Illustrated recently published an in-depth series about players who received under-the-table income from boosters. How do you deal with this at FSU?
We are all in glass houses when it comes to that, but one of the areas that is a strength for me is compliance. FSU puts a lot of resources into compliance, which for me, in considering the job, was very important. There are three challenges in being an AD: student-athlete balance, economics, and compliance, which is a shared responsibility of everyone who has anything to do with athletics, from top down. I have to set the tone for the entire department and we have to be vigilant in communicating this to the entire community.
We also have to self-police so if there is a violation, it is reported to the NCAA or conference office. You can get into big problems when you don’t do regular maintenance. I stress that to all my student-athletes, coaches, staff, and everyone when I give a talk to benefactors and boosters. They have to hear that message. You might think you can help out a student-athlete, but you may be jeopardizing the entire program, and you don’t want to be that person.
You mentioned student-athlete balance and economics as the other challenges you face?
I tell student-athletes all the time, just as you compete for MVP on the field, you have to take that same mentality and energy and apply it to academics, because when your playing days are over, the education piece will always be with you. That’s what will get you a job.
The economics challenge is what we call “the arms race.” Athletics is about people having opportunities to flourish in a sport that they love and providing the necessary tools and funding that each coach and program needs to be successful. That is what I have to provide. But we don’t want to be in a position where the faculty can’t get funding because it’s being siphoned off for athletics programs. We want to be an auxiliary unit where we can turn money back to university. The constant challenge is to figure out ways to capture new resources.
Do you have any advice for current students who might want to have a career in sports law?
It would be helpful, while in law school, to seek paid or volunteer internships at law firms with entertainment/sports departments, or with professional sports teams, leagues, the NCAA, NAIA, collegiate conferences, or institutions’ athletics departments, specifically in the area of compliance. It’s also helpful to join an entertainment or sports lawyers association. At the end of the day, my advice is to follow your passion. Then, it doesn’t matter how many hours you put in the day because your passion for doing the job takes over.