A Trustee Calls the Plays

Florida State board chairman says it's time for the university's longtime football coach to go, arguably ignoring state and national guidelines about interference in sports programs.
October 7, 2009

Most trustees who want to meddle inappropriately in their university's intercollegiate athletics programs do so subtly, behind the scenes, because they know it's generally frowned upon. Not Jim Smith, chairman of the Board of Trustees at Florida State University, who straightforwardly told a reporter for The Tallahassee Democrat last weekend that it was time for the university to get rid of its longtime football coach, Bobby Bowden, because the team was not winning enough.

"Frankly, it was personally very painful for me because I have the utmost respect for Coach Bowden and what he's done," Smith said Monday in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times in which he discussed his comments the day before. "I told somebody ... it's sort of like you have to put your favorite dog down; you know it's the right thing to do but you sure feel bad about it."

Smith's comments clearly violate the principles laid out by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities for trustees' involvement in athletics programs, which state plainly that "Boards should not be directly involved in the process of hiring and firing coaches or other athletics department personnel." The Florida State chairman's activities also, arguably, run afoul of the university's own guidelines for trustees (which, like most institutions' policies, limit the board's role to "govern[ing] and set[ting] policy for The Florida State University" and otherwise delegating "the operation and administration of the university" to the president) and of the policies of Florida's Board of Governors, which says: "The university president is responsible for the administration of all aspects of the intercollegiate athletics program."

A Florida State spokesman said it would not be appropriate for university administrators to speak on behalf of Smith, a lawyer who has been secretary of state, attorney general and the governor's chief of staff in Florida. And Smith himself did not return a telephone call and e-mail message seeking additional comment about his statements about Bowden.

Bobby Bowden

Bowden has been Florida State's head football coach for 34 years, and he is among the winningest coaches in the history of college football (his quest to become the winningest coach is now threatened by penalties that the National Collegiate Athletic Association imposed on Florida State last winter, which the university is fighting.) In 2007, Florida State announced a plan to succeed him with a top assistant, but the "coach in waiting" agreement did not specify when the transition would take place.

With Florida State off to a 2-3 start this season, Smith clearly thinks the time has now come.

“My hope is frankly that we’ll go ahead and ... let the world know that this year will be the end of the Bowden Era,” Smith told The Tallahassee Democrat. "I do appreciate what he’s done for us, what he’s done for the program, what’s he done really for the state of Florida. But I think the record will show that the Seminole Nation has been more than patient. We have been in a decline not for a year or two or three but I think we’re coming up on seven or eight. I think enough is enough.”

Smith's comments appeared not to be the idle chatter of a frustrated football fan. He went on to say that Florida State's president, T.K. Wetherell, and other officials have been working on a head coaching contract for Jimbo Fisher, the man chosen to succeed Bowden, and that “the president intends to announce we’ve negotiated a contract with Coach Fisher,” Smith told the Democrat.

The newspaper went out of its way, presumably at Smith's urging, to report that "the board of trustees is not involved in the matters of evaluating or approving contracts of FSU athletic staff." But it also reported that Smith "said it would be accurate to say the group is encouraging Wetherell to move ahead with the Bowden succession plan, or at least a new contract for Fisher."

Smith might be inclined to argue that, technically, his statements and actions do not run afoul of the governing boards' association's mandate that boards not be "directly" involved in hiring or firing coaches. But there can be little doubt that the Florida State trustee is at odds with the spirit of the guidelines, at least, said Richard T. Legon, president of AGB.

"Even if we allow for the fact that the board chair in this instance wasn't calling for the actual dismissal of the coach, it certainly borders on intruding on the president's appropriate administrative authority over intercollegiate athletics," said Legon, whose group published its statement, "AGB Statement on Board Responsibilities for Intercollegiate Athletics," in April. The chairman's statements also would seem to conflict with the institutional and state policies that aim to keep trustees out of day to day decision making at their institutions -- a line that trustees seem most inclined to cross when it comes to sports.

It's nearly impossible to imagine a board chair intruding into his or her university's decision about the appropriate time to get rid of the dean or chairman of an academic department, Legon said, and "if intercollegiate athletics is going to be seen as part of the mainstream element of an institution, then boards, and individual trustees, need to recognize that they have no more role in calling the shots in intercollegiate athletics than they might if they have a problem with a dean. It is not healthy for intercollegiate athletics, let alone for universities generally, for boards to presume a level of oversight that is different or distinct from that they apply to other departments."

Worst of all, said Legon, is Smith's clear-throated emphasis on the Seminoles' won-lost record. "In my view, this is exactly the wrong signal for a board or board member to convey," he said, especially given the work that the NCAA's late president, Myles Brand, did to try to emphasize the academic side of sports programs. "The signal that records matter more than the academic achievement of student-athletes is precisely the wrong message at the wrong time."


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