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Even after an extremely challenging year marred by COVID-19 and unprecedented economic strain, Florida State University President John Thrasher still insists this is the best job he’s ever held.

Which, of course, is saying a great deal when you consider he has been an officer in the U.S. Army, a successful attorney and lobbyist, a Florida state senator and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

But as rewarding as these past seven years have been — with highlights that include helping FSU earn recognition as one of the nation’s top 20 public universities and presiding over a successful $1 billion fundraising campaign — Thrasher appears to have little reservation about his decision to retire before the start of the 2021-22 academic year.

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Sitting in his corner office inside FSU’s Westcott Building on Wednesday afternoon, the 77-year-old Thrasher was visibly excited about the idea of spending more time with his wife, Jean, and family, taking on a few new projects, and enjoying the opportunity to attend FSU sporting events as a fan instead of the university’s top official.

With the transition from Thrasher to newly selected successor Richard McCullough expected to be approved by Florida’s Board of Governors later this month, Warchant managing editor Ira Schoffel sat down with Thrasher to discuss his seven-year tenure and the future, with a focus on Seminole Athletics.

Among the topics discussed were the financial pressures on the athletics department during the pandemic, why he never considered cutting sports programs, his confidence in head football coach Mike Norvell, the future of the department’s leadership and more.

Q: This obviously has been a difficult year in a lot of ways — maybe your most difficult as president — but you’re definitely going out on top with the way these spring sports are playing. Soccer competing for the national championship a few weeks ago, softball at the World Series, baseball in the postseason, both golf teams having great years, tennis, track … how impressed are you that all of these teams have done so well during a year with COVID and other challenges?

A: I think it starts with great athletes to begin with, and great coaches. You’ve got to have both of those. We’ve been blessed. I think our coaches across the board are as good as any in the country. And I think they’ve all risen to the occasion. And they all realize that COVID has changed a lot of things.

When it comes to the testing the kids have had to go through, still maintaining their academics … I don’t know if people realize Leonard (FSU men’s basketball coach Leonard Hamilton) had 10 players either get their bachelor’s or master’s degrees this spring. Ten! And the year before it was like six or seven. So, these kids are graduating, they’re getting on with their lives, some of them are going to play pro basketball, some of them aren’t, but it’s an example. And the football team had the highest GPA we’ve ever had. Norvell has really focused on that. So, we’re focusing on the right things. And again, the atmosphere here I think is just conducive for success, and it’s largely due to the coaches and the kind of quality athletes they’re bringing in.

Q: We’re going to speak mostly about athletics, but before we get further into that, could you reflect on your time as university president and what this part of your journey has been like?

A: The whole thing has been wonderful. I remember years ago, one time, maybe around the time T.K. [Wetherell] became president, somebody asked, “Wouldn’t you like to be president at FSU?” And I said, ‘Yeah. But I’ve got a business to run, I’ve got other things to do. I’ll never be able to do that.” And I never really thought much about it.

And then when Dr. [Eric] Barron left, I got this call from my good friend Allan Bense and he said, “You know, you ought to apply for this and think about doing it.” And I had never really thought about it until then, because I was in the Senate and was really about ready to retire then. … When you get to the end of something, you think about the positive of things. It’s probably like playing golf. If you’re not a great golfer, when you finish a round, you think about the good shots, not the bad shots. It keeps you coming back. And that’s kind of the way it’s been.

We’ve had our ups and downs, different issues. Three hurricanes, two shootings — one on-campus, one off-campus. A fraternity death. All of these other things that are out there that you realize you’ve got to manage, and hopefully you have a good team that can do it. And I have. But it’s been a rewarding time for Jean and I both, and I appreciate all the friendships we’ve made over the years, appreciate all the support we’ve gotten from so many people. And my goal has always been to leave it a little bit better than we found it. And I’m not criticizing anybody in the past, but we have.

We started out 43rd in the country in the U.S. News and World Report, and we’re 19th now. So, Jean and I both are 77, and we both felt like it was time to maybe spend a little more time with our family and each other, and do some things we wanted to do. But I look back on it as very, very happy memories of academics, athletics and friendships.

Q: On the other side of the spring sports success was the football team’s struggles last fall, and all of the financial challenges facing the department. With the country starting to come out of the pandemic and the potential for full crowds in all sports next year, how do you feel the athletics department is positioned going forward?

A: Oh, I think they’re good. I have great optimism about what [Norvell] has done and what he will continue to do. I believe football, as we all know, funds a lot of these other sports. So, we’ve got to get back on a positive note as far as revenue. I know David (FSU athletics director David Coburn) and Mike (Seminole Boosters CEO Michael Alford) are doing a great job of fundraising. And many of our other folks are out there helping out, so I’m very optimistic about the future. I really am.

You look at this year, with the exception of football, which was certainly in a rebuilding year, I think we’re in great position for next year. I think Leonard’s got a great team coming back, I think Mike Martin Jr. has had some great recruiting with the baseball team. And all the other sports, golf, tennis, are just doing extraordinary. And of course, Coach Krikorian (soccer coach Mark Krikorian) is just amazing. Year in and year out, he gets some of the best in the world. Sue (women’s basketball coach Sue Semrau) is coming back. I’m happy about that. She’ll get them fired up. She’ll get a lot of people fired up. And I love her to death. She’s amazing. But you look at our coaches and the consistency they have brought to their programs — and revenue has been tough for a lot of universities — but I think we’re on the right track, and I see a lot of success ahead.

Q: Faced with the difficult economics, some schools have gone to the extreme of cutting sports programs — even some schools in the ACC. Was that ever something you guys seriously considered?

A: I told David I never wanted to do that. And I said, “Whatever we need to do to avoid it, let’s do that.” And the coaches bought into it. Some of our coaches took some salary cuts. David did. That was the last thing I wanted to do. And I think we survived that, and now I think it’s going to be a positive thing going into the future. I actually hope they’ll look at adding some sports down the road. There are a couple out there — people have always talked about lacrosse being the next sport. And I agree with that. I think it’s a very popular sport and one which we can recruit certain parts of the country that might want to come to Florida to be a part of. So, no, we never thought about cutting anybody.

Q: Your replacement comes from schools that are not exactly known for their athletics. He is vice president for research at Harvard, and before that he spent many years at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Have you prepared him for what he’s about to step into?

A: He and I had a long dinner together. I ate with all three candidates, but we had dinner at the house. And I think he has a love of sports generally, and I think he’s absolutely excited about being here. He met with Coach Norvell when he was here, and other coaches, so he’s excited about it. I already told him about it. He’s going to get here and a month later probably, he’s going to have the big Notre Dame football game and probably a bunch of people at the house, a bunch of people in the box. I said, “Get ready, because football is coming. On a big level.” So, he’s excited about it. And we did talk a lot about it. And of course he’s talked to David quite a bit about where we are in our different programs, where we are financially. He will be a fast read on a lot of that, and I’m sure he’ll be very helpful in supporting all those things.

Q: There has been a perception because of the way David took over as A.D. that he might be leaving when you leave, or shortly thereafter. But that’s not the immediate plan, is it?

A: I think David’s plan is to stay. I think Rick really has had a good conversation with David recently, and I think they’re both on the same page.

Q: I know you served on the committee that selected former Northwestern A.D. Jim Phillips as the new ACC Commissioner, and he was down here visiting with you and the staff and athletes. What do you see from his leadership at the conference level?

A: I love that guy. I really do. I supported him when he was interviewing. When he came here, I had lunch with him. Had a great visit. We talked on the phone quite a bit before that about a number of other different things. … I like this guy. I think Jim is going to do a great job. Not to say that John (former Commissioner John Swofford) didn’t, I just think it’s a different time and a different era we’re living in now. And I just think this guy is really suited for it.

He’s going after the TV revenue, which we need to catch up with. No question about it. The ACC has fallen behind in that, and it’s going to hurt us if we don’t catch up down the road in terms of being competitive. But I think he’s got the right stuff, and I’m excited about him being there.

Q: Is there much he can do about the TV revenue, though, when you’re talking about these long-term contracts?

A: He’s very active in it. He’s got a committee put together with leadership of the ACC and outside people. He’s not letting that just happen. He’s trying to make a change right now. Whether he can do it or not, given the contractual obligations, is hard to say. But he’s certainly going after it. No doubt about it.

Q: Your first football hire didn’t go well, obviously, and Coach Norvell had a tough first year. Do you feel as good about what Florida State has in him as you did when you made that hire?

A: Oh, absolutely. I love his attitude. I love his perspective on the game. I love his perspective on the student-athletes and his expectations of them. And I love his enthusiasm for this university, as well as the sport itself. I’ve been around him a lot. I think I may have told you when we looked at him [before FSU hired Willie Taggart], he was the one I really wanted to go back and talk to. And we had talked to some pretty high-level people — they were some of the marquee names. But this guy to me just, his youth, his energy, his passion for the game and his understanding of it. I’m not saying I’m an expert on football coaches, obviously some people would say I’m not, but he really lit me up. And I think he’s going to light this place up in the near future. And I couldn’t be more optimistic about him.

Q: With athletics departments across the country facing such tough times financially, one idea fans and media often mention is selling the naming rights to some of the stadiums and arenas. Has there been consideration of FSU doing that?

A: Yeah, it’s possible. But it’s going to have to meet the guidelines of the Board of Governors now, and I think we have to be conscious of the Legislature. You’re probably not going to go out and make it Thrasher Roofing Company or something like that sponsoring the football stadium. But it’s possible. It certainly is. I hope we don’t have to do that though. I’d rather see us raise the money from internal sources based on success. And I think that’s really the way we’re heading.

You look at some of the gifts we’ve gotten recently from people, and they’re really buying into what the future of these programs are, and they’re really coming through. I think the next big thing will be the standalone football facility. And I think that will free up some other things in the Moore Center. I think that’s the right way to go. And I think that will give us a great opportunity to move ahead on some of these other things. Naming rights are there, but I’d rather see the support come internally.

Q: Speaking of the standalone football facility, that’s something we’ve been discussing for four or five years, going back to when Jimbo [Fisher] was here. But it’s been on and off a few times, with different designs, and now it appears to be back on again …

A: We wanted to have Coach Norvell come in and really give an evaluation. And he has. I think Mike (Alford) is now following up on that. We know the stadium needs some renovation. The money we are hopefully going to get from the Blueprint group we met with the other day, that will be very helpful. And I think people are starting realize football is going to be back, and they want to support it.

Q: Florida State has been aggressive as an early adopter of the new Name, Image and Likeness rules that are going to let college athletes brand themselves and potentially earn money through marketing and other avenues. You all even involved the academic side of the university in putting together a plan to maximize those opportunities. Are you excited about where that is heading?

A: I am. Name, Image and Likeness is complicated. There’s still a long way to go. The federal government has still got to do something … there’s obviously a court case. And our law takes effect in Florida on July 1. There were some people who thought about wanting to postpone it, but I think the NCAA has really now got the ball in their court. They’re going to have to really decide what they want to do in Washington. They seem to be making progress on a kind of unified approach to it. We need a unified approach. I think everybody believes it’s going to happen. Let’s make it happen in a successful way, not only for the student athlete but also for the university. Because I think we have a lot of risk if it doesn’t happen right.

Q: Some people might not realize this, but you personally were involved in saving that Florida legislation. It looked like it was going to get pushed back a year, and I know many of your athletes and coaches were very concerned about that. When did you realize you had to step in and get involved?

A: I got involved the last few days of the legislative session. I got [NCAA President] Mark Emmert on the phone the morning the Senate took the bill up with a sponsor, Sen. Travis Hutson. And basically, he was of the mind that we ought to try to extend it. I said, “That train has left the station. And we need your assurance that we’re going to be treated fairly.” And he (Emmert) gave me that assurance. He gave it to Sen. Hutson, and now we’ve just got to make it work. We’ve got to make it work for the student athlete. We also have to make it work for the university, too. And I think we’re prepared to do that.

Q: You told me a few years ago that this was the best job you ever had. Do you still feel that way?

A: Still feel that way — 100 percent. It’s been just a joy in so many ways. This is such a unique place and such a really incredible opportunity for anybody to have. To have had it, being an alum of Florida State, has just been a true honor to be the 15th president.

Q: Any big plans for retirement?

A: I’ve got a couple of things stirring around. Will probably be here on campus for something. Maybe the law school, maybe a couple of other things here a couple of other times of the year. But mainly, you know, I want to spend more time with Jean and our family. I just had a granddaughter graduate with her master’s degree here. She got married in January, and her husband just finished his first year of medical school. They’ll be going to Orlando in a year or so. Jean and I are just blessed, and we’re looking forward to the next chapter. But Florida State will always be a big part of my heart. No question about it.

The staff at would like to thank President Thrasher for his time and wish him well in retirement.


Talk about this story with other Florida State sports fans in the Tribal Council