Florida State President John Thrasher: 'The President of Clemson and I talked and he concurred with the decision'
A look at the internal communication in the lead-up to, and the aftermath from, the Clemson-Florida State game being postponed
Before I get into today’s newsletter, I just want to say a quick and sincere thank you to all of you who have subscribed. I recently shared on Twitter how I got laid off from a previous job in sports media on Nov. 21, 2019, and almost a year to the day later, on Nov. 20, 2020, I got an email from Substack about a subscriber milestone that I hit.
That brief Twitter thread then brought an unexpected wave of new subscribers and I can’t thank you all enough.
For my new readers, it’s probably worth giving a quick introduction to the newsletter. This newsletter basically answers the age-old question of “What if you built the entire airplane out of black boxes?” but replace “airplane” with newsletter and “black boxes” with public records requests. As someone who was just above a replacement-level cornerback for the Mariemont Warriors’s sixth-grade team and whose basketball career-high came in a pickup game in college while wearing a youth XL Phoenix Suns Amar’e Stoudemire jersey on a court that wasn’t regulation size, this is not the place for deep dives into Xs and Os. There are a lot of other really good places to find those online!
Instead, what I try to give my readers is unique, exclusive insights into college athletics, especially in regards to finances, coaches’ contracts and behind-the-scenes decision-marking, such as the three COVID-19 testing suppliers who offered fixed prices to the NCAA, the two people who one Big 12 AD credited as the reason why the conference was even able to play football and other sports this fall, and the other football scheduling models considered by the Big Ten before the conference announced its return to play.
Plus, it’s better to get the story straight from the original source rather than aggregators, right?
Having spent 13 months working at Stadium, alongside insiders such as Shams Charania and Jeff Goodman – two of the leading news breakers in the basketball world – I’ve seen what it looks like when someone has every relevant player, coach and agent in their list of contacts. It’s really impressive, but when you don’t have a Charania or Goodman-level rolodex, public records requests are the easiest way to turn administrators, coaches, fans and contracts into your sources.
But there are also newsletter ideas I’ve come up with just from scrolling through Sports Reference or newspapers.com. In fifth grade, when other kids were reading Holes or Harry Potter, I brought a book of 2004-05 NBA stats and records to school for the times when Mrs. Safford would give us quiet time to read, and 15 years later, that eye for statistical minutiae and obscure sports history is hopefully paying off.
One of my favorite newsletters was about an Iowa football player-turned-Illinois Superior Court Chief Justice who helped popularize pregame music in college football, largely out of self-interest because of one of the records he gave his alma mater was a song that was dedicated to him.
I have some more newsletters in that vein that are in the works, too, because mascots and fight songs and on-campus stadiums and arenas are part of what makes college sports special.
Feedback, story ideas, questions and document leaks are always welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading.
Now to the good stuff.
On Saturday, the 2020 college football season experienced its first day-of-game postponement or cancellation, as No. 4 Clemson’s road game at Florida State was officially postponed at 8:45 a.m. ET, just hours before a scheduled noon kickoff.
The official reason provided by the ACC for the postponement was because both teams’ medical personnel were unable to agree on playing the game. However, the first draft of the press release said the postponement was because of a positive test and subsequent quarantining within Clemson’s football program, according to emails obtained by Out of Bounds.
Florida State President John Thrasher wrote in an email Saturday that a Clemson player had tested positive Friday night after having participated in practice all week and after having traveled with the Tigers to Tallahassee.
When a booster asked Thrasher how Florida State was able to play after Florida State coach Mike Norvell tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the season, Thrasher explained that Norvell had tested positive early in the week (his positive test was actually announced on a Saturday) and the rest of the members of the program all tested negative multiple times after Norvell’s positive test, prior to the Seminoles’s game against Miami (FL) the following weekend.
“This situation was obviously different,” Thrasher wrote.
The ACC scheduled at least two different video calls for Saturday morning for Clemson and Florida State athletic department administrators, according to emails obtained by Out of Bounds. One call was scheduled to start at 7:20 a.m. ET on Saturday and a second call was scheduled to start about 20 minutes later, according to a source. The ACC’s game day check-in calls require the attendance of the athletic directors and Chief Medical Officers (or their designees) from both schools, as well as representatives from the ACC.
One of the conference’s “game discontinuation considerations” is the inability to isolate new positive cases, or to quarantine high contact risk cases.
The emails obtained by Out of Bounds, following a public records request for communications involving Florida State Athletic Director David Coburn, included a pair of blank drafts from between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. ET on Saturday, which suggests some of the discussions that led to the postponement may have developed late Friday night and then resumed early Saturday morning.
The decision to postpone the game was made by 8:05 a.m. ET.
When ACC Deputy Commissioner Amy Yakola shared the first draft of the ACC’s press release with both schools, she wrote, “The draft is consistent to what has been used with previous game rescheduling.” The ACC planned to send the release at 8:30 a.m. ET, pending feedback from both schools on the wording of the release.
A copy of the original draft of the press release is below.
Twelve minutes later, Yakola sent another email with a modified press release.
The first line of the second paragraph originally read:
The rescheduling follows a positive test, subsequent quarantining, and contact tracing within the Clemson football team.
In the next version, the ACC made the switch from “rescheduling” to a postponement, and the language focused on the differences between the two schools’ medical opinions, rather than identifying Clemson’s positive test and the subsequent contact tracing:
The postponed (sic) follows this morning’s game conference call at which time both teams were unable to mutually agree on moving forward with the game.
Clemson Assistant AD for Football Communications Ross Taylor then proposed the following modifications. The bold font shows words that Taylor highlighted in red to show modifications from the ACC’s second version of the draft.
The postponement follows this morning’s game conference call at which time both teams’ medical personnel were unable to mutually agree on moving forward with the game.
The ACC delayed the press release until both schools’ athletic directors signed off on it, before releasing it at 8:45 a.m.
Throughout the morning, Florida State’s athletic department was tracking what the subject line of one internal email called a “Tweet War.”
Florida State Assistant Athletic Director Elliott Finebloom sent screenshots of tweets from players and reporters to Athletic Director David Coburn, Associate Athletic Director for Communications Robert Wilson, Senior Associate Athletics Director Jim Curry and Senior Associate Communications Director Derek Satterfield. Some of the emails containing the screenshots were sent to the administrators within one minute of tweets being sent, as Florida State followed the reaction to the postponement in real time.
At 9:15 a.m. ET, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence tweeted, “Man, we were ready to play.”
Florida State defensive end Janarius Robinson quote tweeted Lawrence’s tweet, along with the comment “We were too!! We good over here.”
Lawrence doubled down.
When someone quote tweeted Lawrence’s original tweet, along with the comment “There are things bigger than football, Trevor. We are in a pandemic,” Lawrence responded, “You are right. Wish it was about the pandemic though,” according to one of the emails sent by Finebloom.
Lawrence has since deleted the tweet.
Finebloom, the assistant athletic director, also passed along a screenshot in an email that had the subject line “Ira,” which was presumably a reference to Ira Schoffel, who’s the managing editor of Warchant.com – the Florida State affiliate for Rivals.com. The screenshot appears to have come from a message board or behind a paywall.
“FSU had obvious concerns because linemen are the most likely to spread the virus because they are constantly close to other OL and DL,” the screenshot read. “And this is a player who had been symptomatic all week, which means he was likely contagious … so even if other players didn’t test positive Friday, they could on the next test and have been contagious today.
“FSU’s concern was if they had players test positive next week, how could they tell the players they’ve been doing everything that [they] could to keep them safe?”
The screenshot stated, “FSU’s players and coaches were 100 percent focused on playing. They were at their game-day breakfast when they found out, and from what I heard, they players were NOT happy at all. They wanted to play.”
It was also noted in the screenshot that by canceling the game, Florida State would take a seven-figure loss. Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich estimated that Clemson’s trip to Tallahassee cost between $250,0000 and $275,0000, and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney made a point to bring up the Tigers’s travel costs on Sunday, stating that if Florida State wants to play Clemson this season, the Seminoles would need to play at Clemson or pay for all of the Tigers’s expenses.
Swinney told reporters on Sunday, “COVID was just an excuse to cancel the game. To me, the Florida State administration forfeited the game and if they want to play Clemson, in my opinion, they need to come to Clemson or they need to pay for all expenses. Other than that, there’s no reason for us to play them.”
On Monday, Florida State Coach Mike Norvell told the media, “Football coaches are not doctors, some of us might think that we are,” and he said that he would sign up to make a financial contribution if that’s what it takes for Florida State to play Clemson.
However, despite the war of words between the schools’ football coaches, the two university presidents were apparently in agreement.
In an email Florida State President Thrasher sent Saturday evening to Florida State alum, retired faculty member and longtime booster Jim Riscigno, Thrasher wrote, “The President of Clemson and I talked and he concurred with the decision,” in regards to a conversation with Clemson President James Clements.
Thrasher wrote in multiple emails that Clements had “concurred” with the decision to postpone the game.
Earlier in the day, Tracy Marple, a regional manager for the University Center Club (UCC) – which “provides a unique private club experience, combining the excitement of athletics and the promotion of education in a quality social and business setting,” according to the club’s website – emailed the UCC’s Board of Governors to inform them of the game being postponed, 45 minutes after the official announcement.
Riscigno, the retired Florida State faculty member and booster, responded, “Sorry the club, employees and fans must suffer due to leadership at the top of FSU … I am sure there is another story but the fact that the university failed to attempt to inform fans and students before it was announced on national TV is unforgivable in my mind.”
An FSU Alert was sent at 9:13 a.m. ET, announcing the postponement.
Hugh Tomlinson, the director of development and planned giving for Seminole Boosters, Inc., responded to Riscigno:
I learned the same way you did. What I now understand is that COVID test results came in late into the hours last night indicating that a Clemson player tested positive. Meetings between parties, team officials, medical staff and league officials, could not be put together until first thing this morning. It was learned that the player had symptoms this week but tested negative and was allowed to be around his team this week including traveling to Tallahassee. As soon as it was decided to not play, FSU staff, Clemson staff, ACC officials, and more knew before us. It would practically be impossible to put a communication plan in place before the news leaked and broke. Its been frustrating for sure.
Vanessa Fuchs, Florida State’s senior woman administrator, wrote to Coburn and Senior Associate Athletic Director Jim Curry that she wasn’t sure if Tomlinson “should’ve shared this level of detail with the full UCC Board of Governors group.”
Riscigno responded to Tomlinson, “Medical staff can’t make this level of decision, so it rests with President Thrasher and AD Coburn.”
Riscigno, who said his issue was more with the communication of the decision rather than the decision itself, wrote in a separate email to Thrasher that he had asked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Senator Rick Scott “to step in and review this issue and decision.”
“I look forward to discussing this with the Governor and Senator Scott,” Thrasher responded, “and telling them we acted in my opinion in the best interests of our student athletes.”
Recap of the last newsletter
(Click the image below to read)
“So, I ask you,” Carroll wrote in the final paragraph of his email to NC State, “is this something that you want to show complicit support for [or] will you take a stand?”
Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at email@example.com or on Twitter.