Winslow rattles Florida A&M in hopes of building bright future for athletics
JUL 23, 2014 2:00p ET
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — With respect to mettle, there are few who showed more over the course of his NFL career than Kellen Winslow Sr., and perhaps the most memorable example of Winslow’s undeniable moxie came on the second night of 1982, during the late stages of a San Diego Chargers playoff game against the Miami Dolphins.
An estival heat had turned the Orange Bowl into a broiler that evening, the thick, humid air oppressive by Miami-in-January standards, as temperatures approached the mid-80s and humidity sat at nearly 100 percent.
Early on, it seemed it was Winslow’s Chargers who were better groomed for the conditions — or at least better prepared for their opponent — as San Diego jumped to a 24-0, first-quarter lead. But by the early part of the third, the Dolphins had knotted the game at 24-all, as the Chargers appeared to be teetering on the edge of collapse.
Winslow, however, would not be bottled up for long, as he hauled in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Dan Fouts, one of 13 catches for a team-high 166 yards, to give San Diego back the lead. By the time Miami had raced ahead to a 38-31 lead of its own, Winslow was physically spent, and needed to be helped to the bench by his teammates as cramps had taken over his legs and back. “I felt paralyzed,” he would later say of his condition.
Winslow mustered up what little strength he had and continued to return to the field, play after play. And though Winslow’s weary legs left him unable to reach a game-tying touchdown pass thrown his way — by a stroke of luck, it landed in the arms of rookie running back James Brooks — he was able to compel his body to get a finger on the Uwe von Schamann field goal try that would have won the game on Miami’s final drive.
San Diego would go on to win the game 41-38 in overtime, and Winslow — who was said to have had a 105-degree temperature and claims to have lost 13 pounds during the game — would, once more, need to be helped off the field. But the lasting memory of the game, considered by many to be among the best in NFL history, is of Winslow carrying his team from the brink of disaster, not the other way around.
Thirty-two years later, Winslow is leading a different kind of comeback, hoping to revive a floundering Florida A&M athletic department seeking a sports renaissance. Winslow, 56, was appointed to the position of FAMU athletic director in early April and officially took over in mid-May, and in two months on the job, the Pro Football Hall of Famer has already begun to enact a blitzkrieg of sorts on a Rattlers program in desperate need of transformation.
In June, Winslow put FAMU boosters on their heels, controversially proclaiming at a 220 Quarterback Club luncheon that the school’s athletic department was “broken,” telling the audience: “It can't be fixed. Tear it down, start over, build it the right way.”
“I don't think the program is broken to the point that it can't be fixed,” 220 Quarterback Club president Eddie Jackson told the Tallahassee Democrat after Winslow’s proclamation. “There is a foundation to build off of rather than tearing things down. I just think this is going way, way too fast. … I don't think we're moving down the right path. In terms of what he is doing, it's too much, too soon. Too many changes.”
Winslow has never been one to put too much stock in criticism, though, and has already made a few major moves, suspending the men’s tennis and golf programs, firing track coach Wayne Angel and football defensive line coach George Small and hiring Byron Samuels as the new men’s basketball coach, with more moves expected in the coming weeks and months at the recommendation of an advisory committee assembled to assess the current state of the program.
It’s all part of an overall razing of the FAMU athletics department that has seen little in the way of success or profitability in quite some time, as the department fell into a $7 million deficit in recent years, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. There’s little that isn’t on the chopping block at FAMU, but that’s the only way Winslow sees to affect truly meaningful change.
“Any time you have your name, Florida A&M University, associated with something negative, it hurts everybody, and of course, I’m a big believer in the thought that it’s not necessarily what happens to you but how you respond to what happens to you,” Winslow told FOX Sports during an interview at the school earlier this month. “And our response to what we’re doing right now in athletics is a very strong response.”
The most immediate and important focus will be on academics, Winslow said. In May, FAMU learned that its football and basketball programs would be barred from postseason play next season due to Academic Progress Rate scores that fell short of the benchmark the NCAA has set for participation. The decision has since been upheld as the university's appeals were denied.
Once the issue of sagging performances in the classroom are addressed — a task easier said than done — Winslow says he also has to work to convince both fans and colleagues at the university that the success of the athletic program is directly tied to the success of the university as a whole, rather than perceiving it as an “afterthought” or “something that just happens.”
Winslow uses the hypothetical installation of artificial turf on the football field as an example of how an investment in athletics is also an investment in academics.
“(I have to) convince them that this is not just about 100 or 120 yards — if we put down FieldTurf, it’s not just about 100 yards of FieldTurf for five home football games.”
“(I have to) convince them that this is not just about 100 or 120 yards — if we put down FieldTurf, it’s not just about 100 yards of FieldTurf for five home football games,” Winslow said. “You put down FieldTurf, and I get a chance to start soccer. I reduce my costs of taking care of the field. When I start soccer, it gives me access to a different kind of athlete, because it’s played in different areas from a socioeconomic standpoint, from the quality-of-high-schools-they’re-attending standpoint.
“So in many ways I’ve improved my academic profile in the athletic department by starting soccer. (It’s) well documented, well proven. Now I’m also reaching a diverse audience compared to the audience we have now. That’s 35 men, 35 women, that’s 70 more students here at our school who are pretty sound academically, who are from diverse backgrounds — now I’ve taken the tentacles of FAMU, because I’ve put down FieldTurf and I’m playing soccer, and I’m in different markets.”
The idea, then, is that this influx of athletes goes back into their communities and brings others with them to the university — a “growth spurt,” as Winslow calls it. These students, Winslow surmises, would then create their own culture at the school, starting organizations and bringing more diversity to campus.
“So everybody benefits because we put down 120 yards of FieldTurf,” Winslow said. “It’s a million-dollar investment that pays for itself over and over and over again, plus it’s a tremendous cost-savings and allows me to recruit better student-athletes for football.”
Of course, the bigger goal for Winslow is to not just slap on a few coats of paint and renovate the current football facilities, but to build a newer, more visible football stadium that will help Florida A&M with what Winslow calls a serious recognition problem in a town where Florida State dominates the landscape, both figuratively and literally.
“I’m a big, big person when it comes to sense of arrival — ’I’ve arrived.’ But when you drove to campus how did you know you got here?” Winslow asked me during our interview.
I crossed over a street called FAMU Way, and that’s how I knew I must be close, was my response.
“Right, but what was that landmark, what was that beauty point that said, ‘Florida A&M,’ and you said, ‘Ah, I’m here?’” he said. “There wasn’t one. We don’t have that sense of arrival, and that constant reminder to members of the community that we’re here — especially where our stadium is located. It’s in the middle of campus, in a residential neighborhood. We sit up on a hill but the stadium sits down on the low part. So maybe at night when we turn the lights on, people will say, ‘Oh, those lights must be from FAMU,’ but most of the day you can drive right by and not even think about us.”
Winslow said his vision is to see a new football stadium built within five years — a lofty goal, it would seem, for a department that has had to resort to suspending minor sports for the sake of its budget. But it’s a necessary expense, Winslow said, if the university wants a chance at attracting the type of athletes that will give the football team (and therefore the university) the recognition it needs.
“If I’m the dean of the school of computer science, and I don’t have the latest computers, who am I going to recruit? (It won’t be) the best performers in that area or the ones who are the most talented or won the computer science fair, that type of thing,” Winslow said. “It’s no different, whether it’s math, computer science, pharmacy — if I don’t have the bells and whistles that I need to be the best pharmacist, then I’m going to go find a school that does.
“So facilities are where it starts. You have to be able to show young people that we have better facilities than you had in high school, and we can’t do that right now. I’m just being honest. And so it’s difficult to recruit the best of the best or get your share of that talent pool that you’re supposed to be getting. That’s where it all starts. If they walk into the locker room and they don’t go, ‘Wow,’ then you have a problem.
“... You have to be creative, and you can’t just sit back and go, ‘We don’t have the money,’ or, ‘The state didn’t give us the money,’ and then be satisfied. A lot of people didn’t have the money, but they found creative ways to get it done, because they knew it was important to the long term growth and stability of the university.”
As for basketball, which is where FAMU has had the most visible success in the last decade, reaching the NCAA tournament in 2004 and 2007, Winslow says the objective is to get more fans attending games at the school’s gorgeous, 9,500-seat arena, which opened four years ago.
“You have to start off with basketball as that low-hanging fruit to really improve,” Winslow said. “So you make the changes with the staff, you bring in a staff that you think is going to be more aligned with what you’re trying to accomplish, and you set them forward on a mission. And the mission is to recruit student athletes who are going to be successful academically and are pretty darn good basketball players.
“You get a coach who brings them together, and then you can start to win. Now, we’ll start to pack this arena. Everyone loves a winner. You start to win, the arena fills up.”
“I don’t think of FAMU as a black school, I think of it as a very good university that doesn’t get its due respect because we don’t do a very good job of telling our story.”
Winslow also stresses that FAMU’s athletic department needs to do a better job of actively recruiting fans from both Tallahassee and beyond, and from a more diverse set of backgrounds.
“We’re going to do a better job of reaching out to the community — and when I say community, I don’t mean the black community,” Winslow said. “I don’t think in black and white. History is history, what happened has happened, but I think in economic terms. I think in socioeconomic terms. I don’t think our mission is black, I think our mission is socioeconomic. … I don’t think of FAMU as a black school, I think of it as a very good university that doesn’t get its due respect because we don’t do a very good job of telling our story.”
The “HBCU” tag is often immediately associated with Florida A&M and schools like it, a legal designation given to any school started prior to the Civil Rights Act with the intent of serving black students. But these days, Winslow says, the label — while a source of pride for many associated with FAMU — can be misleading to other potential supporters in the community
“Can you imagine Coca-Cola to allow their brand to be misused? Or Disney or Wal-Mart or Michigan or Florida?” Winslow said. “We have to protect the brand, and you have to be able to communicate to people who you really are. That’s why I believe that since the years of integration, our mission is socioeconomic, and that’s white, black, latino, Asian, immigrant.
“By definition, nobody does first-generation better than FAMU,” he added. “It’s that nurturing, transformative environment that you’re in. It’s the ability to come to a school that has high academic standards and a classroom that’s small enough where you get the attention — where people can lay hands on you on a daily basis and say, ‘How are you? What’s going on? How are things at home?’ That’s the culture. We let it get away from us to become known as a ‘black university,’ but that’s so inaccurate, because by that definition, there should also be ‘white universities.’ … Our forefathers did not get this one right. They screwed it up for us, and we’re still trying to fix it.”
One might think that trying to find some elbow room in the Tallahassee spotlight with FSU might make Winslow’s job of expanding the fan base even more difficult, but Winslow says he sees it as an advantage.
“We let it get away from us to become known as a ‘black university,’ but that’s so inaccurate, because by that definition, there should also be ‘white universities.’ … Our forefathers did not get this one right. They screwed it up for us, and we’re still trying to fix it.”
“It helps, because (fans are) thinking about it — they’re thinking about sports,” Winslow said. “Sports has a value to this community. It’s an economic driver. The models are already in place. It would be harder if we were not associated with a school like a Florida State as far as locale is concerned, if people did not have interest in sports. We know that if you put a successful product out there, then people will come and support it, because that’s what they do.”
When it comes to being more visible locally, schools like FAMU often have to think nationally, scheduling so-called “paycheck games,” particularly in football, against top competition around the country. These games often end up nationally televised and just one upset — like, say, Appalachian State over Michigan in 2007 — can do amazing things for a program’s reputation. But those matchups don’t always work in the underdog’s favor, Winslow says, citing last season’s 76-0 loss at Ohio State as an example.
“It has to be strategic,” Winslow said. “When we go into Columbus, we accept a game to play Ohio State, you say, ‘Yeah, they paid us $900,000,’ which we probably netted $650,000 or $625,000 after expenses for that. So you do that calculation and then you sit down and go, ‘OK, so what’s the other value?’
“Yes, we were on television, but did your brand get an uptick, or — if you watch the Colbert Report — did we get the ‘Colbert Bump’? No, we didn’t, because we’re playing a superior football team, simply because of the number of scholarships, size of athletes, training, nutrition, coaching, weightlifting, etcetera. If we played a game where we were competitive, or even won, we get the Colbert Bump, but if we don’t show well, we take all the negative branding that comes with that, and we have to find a way to fix it, and that costs you money.”
With basketball, the objective is much clearer — and more realistically attainable than a football win over a school like Miami, who FAMU visits this September. Winslow points to schools like Gonzaga, Butler and Florida Gulf Coast as teams that have vastly improved the status of the universities they represent in a matter of one or two conference championships and a decent run in the NCAA tournament.
“Whenever there’s a conversation between two people — say there’s two people walking down the street, and one is a beautiful woman and you want to talk to that woman, you have to somehow get her to stop and pay attention,” Winslow said. “People have different techniques for that — none ever worked for me — but it’s, ‘Hello, how are you,’ something funny, something witty or something crazy to get their attention before you can start telling that person about you. That’s all athletics is for a university. So when you talk about Florida Gulf Coast and you talk about Butler, Gonzaga, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, you go on and on and on and on.
“And Florida State, that’s all Florida State did,” Winslow added. “Years ago they decided that — and this is what UCF has done, also — ’We’re going to grow as a university and we’re going to improve our national brand. We can do it through sports a lot more economically, a lot more efficiently, than by ads in a newspaper or some other way where money is just going out.’
“If you were to measure the brand and marketing value that’s generated by the media related to Florida State’s football program or what happened to Florida Gulf Coast a few years ago, or Butler or the transformation of that school called Gonzaga — when you measure that, it’s off the charts. You can’t buy that. I know Butler and Gonzaga had to shut down their websites the years they had their runs in the NCAA. Everybody was saying, ‘Who is this? What is it about? Who’s leading this place? Why don’t I know about this?’ … When you have that ability to get in front of an audience and tell them about who you are, you use athletics to get their attention. And once you get their attention you’re able to deliver the message.”
If all of this talk of transforming FAMU into a basketball power and returning football to the glory days of Bob Hayes seems ambitious, it’s because it most certainly is. Winslow is insistent that he doesn’t know any other way.
“I really don’t read the papers that much,” Winslow said. “People call me and tell me what’s in the papers sometimes, and I’ll go, ‘OK,’ but if my name is never in the paper again in my life, I’m OK. If they miss my obituary, I’m good. It’s been in the paper for so many reasons for so long, and if everybody agreed with me, I’d be concerned I wasn’t doing the right thing.
“There are always going to be naysayers and people who don’t agree, and I have to do this job in what I think is the best way possible given the circumstances that we’re in right now. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
And if that means Winslow putting his own reputation on the line, then so be it.
“If you want to improve your football program, you hire a name coach, you hire a brand, and with that brand comes a reputation, comes a way of doing business that opens doors for you to be able to get things done,” Winslow said. “This is why you do these things.
"From a personal standpoint, I’ve been so blessed in my life — I played one year of high school football, and if not for my high school coach coming into my geometry class and seeking permission to speak with me, and my teacher telling me it’s OK to go out in the hallway to talk to Coach Perry, you’d have never heard about this Kellen Winslow. It changed my life, and during this entire time, it’s a question of, ‘How do you pay this back?’
“We’re not building the atom bomb. We’re not doing brain surgery. It’s best practices, and the model is well established.”
“Athletics changed my life. It provided me a vehicle for me to educate myself in undergrad and law school, it provided a nice living for my family, it provided opportunities for my children, and in that whole sector of things, there’s that thing about service. Where do you go in and provide value in an organization? And that’s my goal, to come here and provide value, to leverage that brand, to leverage that name recognition and to draw more people to the exciting possibilities and opportunities here at Florida A&M.”
As for the job he’s done in his first 60 days, Winslow is considerably more critical than one might think — something he’s done for decades, dating back to that sweltering playoff game in the Orange Bowl all those years ago.
“(I’d give myself) an F, without a doubt, an F, And it’s going to be an F until we start to see success and more smiles on the faces of student-athletes, more student-athletes graduating,” Winslow said. “I’m a hard grader, especially when it comes to myself. I don’t think I’ve ever hit a golf shot that I’ve liked. And until we begin to move forward as an organization — that means the entire university — it’s going to be an F.
“That’s just me. I’m hard on myself. In the Miami game, I caught 13 passes, but I’ll tell you about the one I dropped. I still have it, it’s still right there. I remember that one clearer than the other 13.”
Eventually, though, Winslow suspects that grade will change, and with it, the fortunes of a university that he says has been needlessly down on its luck for far too long.
“We’re not building the atom bomb,” Winslow said. “We’re not doing brain surgery. It’s best practices, and the model is well established. You follow those best practices and put them in place, and things start to click. Everybody has a ‘but,’ or a ‘what if’ or an opinion. I listen to it, but I know what this looks like, I know what it feels like, I know what it’s supposed to be, and I know what this can be. And given time, with the presidential support, we’re going to get there.”