Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Thursday, June 18, 2009.
He was a swift football player who hustled his way to success.
He was a direct-talking politician who charged his way to the leadership of the Florida Legislature.
He was an energetic educator who revitalized a community college and rebuilt his alma mater.
T.K. Wetherell never met a challenge he didn’t like. But after six years as the president, Wetherell announced Wednesday he was stepping down from the challenge of leading Florida State University.
“There is one common thread in T.K.’s life: Whatever he did, he did 90 miles an hour with his hair on fire,” said former Leon County Commissioner Gary Yordon. “The best thing everyone else could do was run behind him with a hose and not get in his way.”
Wetherell was a whirlwind force at FSU
Under Wetherell, FSU started a medical school, lured the Applied Superconductivity Center to its existing National High Magnetic Field laboratory and witnessed $800 million in construction of new facilities and buildings.
Wetherell oversaw increases in enrollment, freshmen retention rates and black and Hispanic graduates. During his tenure, FSU produced more than 40 winners of prestigious national graduate scholarships, including three Rhodes Scholars.
More than any previous president, Wetherell led the charge to spotlight FSU history. He erected statues in tribute to the school’s black pioneers and women’s college history, as well as statues of past presidents. He created Legacy Walks for visitors to learn about FSU history. He conceived the idea of adorning Campbell Stadium with a statue and multi-story stained glass painting of football coaching legend Bobby Bowden.
Wetherell strengthened the school’s ties with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, from whom the school takes its athletics nickname. He instituted a program to give Seminole Tribe students full scholarships to FSU, created a course in Seminole history and erected displays about Seminole history.
He also won the affection of FSU employees by inviting faculty, staff and students to his football skybox, and by instituting a Christmas break that did not count against annual leave time.
“I can’t remember anyone who had a greater love for the university,” said Mark Bertolami, FSU’s director of facilities administrative services. “Certainly, (predecessors Bernie Sliger and Sandy D’Alemberte) loved FSU. But T.K. wore his passion on his sleeve. It’s going to be hard to find a bigger cheerleader for the university.”
Not his first time on campus
Wetherell began his association with the school as a football player from 1963 to 1967.
A highly recruited wide receiver at Daytona Beach Mainland High, Wetherell had the misfortune of coming to FSU at the same time as future Hall of Fame receivers Fred Biletnikoff and Ron Sellars. Blessed with 9.7-second speed in the 100-yard dash, Wetherell started every game as a sophomore, was injured as a junior and switched to defensive back as a senior (snagging three interceptions).
Wetherell and his former high-school teammate Bill Moreman combined for one of only three 100-yard kickoff returns in FSU history — against Kentucky in 1965 — when Moreman took a kickoff in the end zone, ran out and then lateraled across the field to Wetherell, who went the distance for a touchdown. The pair repeated the play the next year against Miami, with Wetherell scoring a 94-yard touchdown. Wetherell was inducted into the FSU Sports Hall of Fame in 1991.
Wetherell segued from football to higher education almost immediately. He earned a master’s degree in education and served as FSU athletics academic adviser for a while. He later earned a doctorate in education, became an associate professor at Bethune-Cookman College and then provost, dean and vice president at Daytona Beach Community College.
From higher education to politics, Wetherell focused on athletics
Inspired by the example of fellow Daytona Beach Mainland grad and Florida legislator, Hyatt Brown, Wetherell turned his eye to politics and won a seat in the Florida House. A Democrat, he served from 1980 to 1992, becoming House floor leader and finally Speaker of the House.
As Speaker, Wetherell oversaw reforms of state ethics and campaign laws. He blocked efforts by Republican legislators to re-district precincts to reduce black voter impact. He led efforts to reduce state spending — while at the same time becoming famous for funneling $38 million toward the building of FSU’s $100 million University Center. The facility wrapped offices, classrooms, banquet facilities and skyboxes around FSU’s Campbell Stadium — transforming an unremarkable facility of metal grandstands into a sumptuous brick coliseum — and a portion of it was named in honor of Wetherell.
“Some people felt like he paid too much attention to athletics, but it never bothered me to know that our boss was interested in what we were doing,” FSU head football coach Bobby Bowden said. “One thing is for sure, Florida State would not have the status it has today without the work of T.K., both as president and in state government.”
Wetherell was not above stepping on toes. His sometimes salty language as a legislator earned him a Tampa Tribune description in 1991 as “dim-witted” and “vulgarian.” He battled Tallahassee officials repeatedly over a variety of development issues. He occasionally upset FSU faculty and staff with his preference for making decisions by himself rather than by committee.
He also took on the NCAA, successfully overturning its ban on the Seminole nickname in 2005 and appealing NCAA penalties for FSU’s 2007 academic cheating scandal.
“I don’t think T.K. worries about how diplomatic he should be in presenting his point of view,” said Tallahassee Mayor John Marks. “His direct style has been beneficial in getting what needs to be done for FSU. He’s going to be remembered as an icon in this state, no matter what your opinion is of him.”
Wetherell was TCC president before returning to FSU
Wetherell always seemed to have his sights set on being a university president. In 1987, he failed in a bid for the presidency of the University of West Florida. In 1991 and 1993, he was a runner-up for the presidency of FSU. In 1995, he was tapped as president of Tallahassee Community College and energetically remade the school. Wetherell doubled TCC’s enrollment and the number of campus buildings, added 50 new programs and led TCC to a national top-25 rank in producing community college graduates.
He resigned in 2001, saying — much as he said Wednesday about leaving FSU — “It’s time to get someone new.” Wetherell said then he had no interest in becoming president of FSU, then 18 months later was chosen as FSU president.
He leaves FSU in apparently good health: Prostate cancer diagnosed in 2003 has reportedly been eradicated. He leaves with no apparent next goal — though he has said of retirement, “I’m not going to rot and do nothing.”
He leaves at a time when FSU is cutting $56 million from its budget and 200 faculty and staff positions over the next three years. He leaves during the ongoing appeal of NCAA sanctions. He leaves with his hand-picked successor for football coach, Jimbo Fisher, still awaiting the retirement of Bowden.
“I can certainly understand the timing from his point of view,” said longtime FSU history professor James Jones, who taught Wetherell when he was an FSU student. “But as far as I’m concerned, it’s going to be one heck of a job to find somebody who will do this as well as he has.”
History of T.K. Wetherell’s time as FSU President
Information compiled by Research Editor Debra Galloway
- December 18, 2002: T.K. Wetherell is named Florida State University’s 13th president.
- January 2003: Wetherell begins his job as FSU’s president.
- February 2003: Wetherell is diagnosed with prostate cancer and undergoes treatment. In December, no traces of cancer are found.
- 2003: Athletic department weathered internal scrutiny by Wetherell and two public trials of FSU athletes.
- 2003: FSU board approved Wetherell’s recommendation to give FSU employees 11 consecutive days off for a winter break. Other schools followed with similar plans.
- October 2003: Wetherell announces that he and his wife, Virginia, will donate their 1,000-acre Jefferson County farm – valued at $7.5 million – to the university after they die.
- June 2004: Florida State University and the parents of Devaughn Darling reach a $2 million settlement that satisfies the primary objective of both parties. The death of the former FSU football player who died at the end of an off-season workout will not be relived in court.
- February 2005: Florida State University’s College of Medicine receives full accreditation.
- May 2005: Twenty-seven Florida State University students received their diplomas and walked into history as members of the College of Medicine’s first graduating class.
- August 2005: NCAA allows FSU to continue using the Seminoles nickname and imagery.
- October 2005: FSU lands the Applied Superconductivity Center, luring it away from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where it had been for 20 years. “It’s part of our plan to enhance our image as a graduate-research institution,” said Wetherell, whose goal was to get FSU invited into the prestigious, research-oriented American Association of Universities.
- October 2005: FSU announces plans to build a retirement community, Westcott Lakes at SouthWood, described as a community where seniors would have a vast array of exercise facilities, education opportunities, performing arts, medical services and interaction with Florida State University
- 2006: FSU sets fundraising record, collecting $113 million from private donors from July 2005 through June 2006. That exceeded FSU’s previous record: $95 million in fiscal year 2002. And it comes on the heels of the FSU CONNECT five-year campaign that raised $630 million by the end of 2005.
- September 2006: The FSU board of trustees unanimously decides to extend Wetherell’s contract through 2011 to lead the university to recognition as a top-tier research institution.
- September 2006: FSU hires academic superstars. Anne Coldiron, an English professor from Louisiana State University specializing in 15th- to 17th-century English and French literature, and Richard Emmerson, a medieval scholar formerly with The Medieval Academy of America in Boston and now the new chairman of FSU’s Department of Art History, are the first to be hired among 200 scholars who will be part of FSU’s new interdisciplinary clusters.
- November 2006: Wetherell becomes executive producer and a star performer in a series of “USO Tribute Shows” intended to tout the talents of FSU’s performing-arts students. Wetherell appears as World War II icon Gen. George Patton.
- November 2006: An agreement is signed that offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden will leave the Florida State football program with a severance agreement worth more than a half-million dollars.
- 2007: Athletic Director Dave Hart is told that Wetherell does not plan to renew his contract when it expires in January 2009.
- January 2007: Jimbo Fisher is named Bobby Bowden’s new offensive coordinator.
- September 2007: The Florida State University president’s house is completed after two years of work largely managed and orchestrated by first lady Ginger Wetherell.
- December 2007: Wetherell unveils his succession plan for replacing Bobby Bowden: When the veteran coach retires, Jimbo Fisher will be the successor.
- December 2007: FSU suspends 23 student athletes for academic misconduct involving an online class. The NCAA commends Wetherell for ordering an internal investigation that resulted in declaring some student-athletes ineligible. FSU also tightens control of online classes. However, the NCAA investigation results in further sanctions against FSU – including vacating wins. FSU is appealing that decision.
- February 2008: Randy Spetman is named FSU’s athletic director.
- March 2008: Florida State University College of Medicine joins with Collier Health Services Inc. to open the university’s first medical campus in Immokalee. The facility, created through three financial gifts worth $13 million, will offer pediatric and obstetric care while also giving FSU medical students the opportunity to get rural health care experience.
- April 2008: FSU announces partnership with Mayo Clinic. Officials with Florida State University and Jacksonville’s Mayo Clinic say they hope it will lead to trailblazing medical research.
- May 2008: Wetherell joins leaders from the world of college football and the news media in a first-of-its-kind national forum to discuss the major challenges shaping today’s college football landscape.
- August 2008: FSU’s Walter Dix wins the bronze medal in the 100 meters at the 2008 Olympics.
- September 2008: FSU opens the new James E. ‘Jim’ King Jr. Life Sciences Building. The building is part of a new gateway to Florida State University at 319 Stadium Drive.
- October 2008: NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions hears Florida State’s case. FSU administrators ask the committee to agree to the penalties the school put in place following the academic-misconduct case that involved 61 student-athletes and three former FSU employees.
- November 2008: Financial services company BB&T Corp. presents two gifts totaling $3 million to Florida State University in support of new programs in business and economics education.
- January 2009: Grand jury probes Biomass Gasification & Electric Co. energy project involving Tallahassee and Florida State University officials after the NAACP files a complaint. In February, jurors find no wrongdoing.
- April 2009: Florida State University and Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare forge a new research alliance. They have joined forces to work as research partners on numerous projects, including two that are already under way. The shared research projects will be funded primarily through grants, contracts and gifts.
- June 2009: FSU announces $56 million in budget cuts, which includes the elimination of more than a dozen programs. “Not since the Depression hit North Florida have we seen anything like this,” says FSU Provost Larry Abele.
- June 2009: Attorney General Bill McCollum tells the NCAA it must turn over records in its ongoing disciplinary case against FSU athletics.
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