Pillars of the FWAA: Tom Mickle (1950-2006), Florida Citrus Sports

ffaw_redesignThe Football Writers Association of America is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2015. Founded in 1941, the FWAA has served the writing profession and college football during a time when the world has changed greatly and the sport of football has along with it. In an effort to tell the stories of the members of the organization, we will publish each week a sketch on one of the FWAA’s  most important  leaders — all Bert McGrane Award winners.

The Bert McGrane Award, symbolic of the association’s Hall of Fame, is presented to an FWAA member who has performed great service to the organization and/or the writing profession. It is named after McGrane, a Des Moines, Iowa, writer who was the executive secretary of the FWAA from the early 1940s until 1973. The McGrane Award was first bestowed on an FWAA member in 1974.

For a list of all the winners go to:  http://www.sportswriters.net/fwaa/awards/mcgrane/index.html.

The following is the 17th installment of the Pillars of the FWAA series. Tom Mickle was the 2010 winner of the Bert McGrane Award. Thanks to FWAA Past President Alan Schmadtke (2005)   for writing and researching this sketch.

By Alan Schmadtke

College football historians link Tom Mickle’s legacy to a cocktail napkin, his vehicle of choice for game-planning a playoff.

For those who knew him best, memories take them to his unending optimism. They remember his small, perpetual grin that made them wonder if they were about to laugh or be amazed. They remember his owl-like glasses, a raspy voice and a wry delivery. They remember him hoisting a glass of wine in the fall and winter, a gin-and-tonic when it turned warm.

Tom Mickle, posthumous winner of the Bert McGrane Award in 2010.

Tom Mickle, posthumous winner of the Bert McGrane Award in 2010.

Mickle had a passion for work and play.

“Once you’d been around him, you didn’t leave and not smile about things or have a better perception about things. He had that effect,” one of Mickle’s best friends, Rick Chryst, told the Orlando Sentinel upon Tom’s death at age 55 in 2006.

Former Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Gene Corrigan called Mickle the best hire he ever made, and no one argues the point. One morning in the early 1990s, Mickle walked into his boss’s office and handed him brackets on small paper. The last remnant from a brainstorm dinner was the framework of a No. 1 vs. No. 2 New Year’s Day football game – the end result of Corrigan’s dream-shot request.

The commissioner wanted to secure the ACC’s football champion an annual New Year’s slot somewhere alongside SEC, Big Eight, Big Ten and Pac-10 champs. A de facto national championship game for college football as part of the solution worked fine, too.

Few remember now how land-locked college football used to be, when a 1 vs. 2 matchup was an anomaly.

But Mickle’s sketches grew into the Bowl Coalition, the first significant move away from the handshake rules of yesteryear’s bowl games – and the first major step in a journey that brought college football its annual national championship game.

The Bowl Coalition became the Bowl Alliance, which begat the Bowl Championship Series, which morphed into today’s College Football Playoff.

“He was a very creative thinker.  He always had ideas for how to work things out,” Corrigan told The Washington Post in 2006.

The Football Writers Association of America honored Mickle posthumously as its Bert McGrane winner in 2010. While still at the ACC, he encouraged the FWAA to hold its annual meeting at the site of the Bowl Alliance’s 1-2 game after the 1996 season at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, starting a tradition that has endured for two decades. He also used his position at Florida Citrus Sports to sponsor the FWAA’s All-America team banquet first on the floor of the Citrus Bowl and later at Walt Disney World and on ESPN.

He contributed more than a playoff spark. He helped Corrigan shape the modern ACC with the additions of Florida State and later Miami and Virginia Tech. He bet on ESPN and Thursday night football. In 13 years at the league, he worked on bowl agreements and television deals and looked for ways to make the ACC bigger and better.

He ran Florida Citrus Sports from 2002 until his death, helping to add a second bowl game alongside the traditional Citrus Bowl.  He also dared Orlando to think bigger, pushing for a more fan-friendly stadium that he hoped would put Central Florida in the rotation for a national championship game.

“He was the perfect aide de camp to Gene Corrigan,” said Wayne Hogan, an assistant athletic director at Florida State when the ACC courted the Seminoles for membership. “Corrigan was such a star with his personality and his resume – he’d been at Virginia and Notre Dame. And he had Tom, who was really visionary, by his side. Tom did a lot of legwork, but when he had an idea, people listened.”

A marketing man by trade, Mickle never met an idea he didn’t want to test drive. He celebrated college athletics and all who participated in and contributed to them.

Mickle grew up in Media, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, and graduated from Duke, where he was a student manager for the Blue Devils’ football program. A job offer from sports information director Richard Giannini kept Mickle from graduate school. Mickle spent 17 years in Durham promoting Duke sports.

He left in 1989 to become ACC assistant commissioner – and later associate commissioner – under Corrigan. From the league office, he earned a reputation for boundless enthusiasm and relationship building.

“Tom always found a reason to get people together,” Clemson Assistant Athletic Director Tim Bourret said. “I remember one football weekend when every team in the league was in North Carolina for a game. Tom arranged for all the SIDs to have dinner together the night before. We weren’t a staff – everybody was from a different school – but it was like a family dinner.

“There was a period of time [in the 1990s] when the league had a team in one of the kickoff classic games, and we’d always end our [sports writers and broadcasters’] football tour there at the game. He liked having that camaraderie within the league.”

Mickle’s constant was a love of people, especially those who competed and all others involved in college competition. He made an impact on others. Coaches and administrators on every campus respected him. Sports writers appreciated him. Co-workers adored him.

Former interns at the ACC office – now grown men and women – built on his mentorship at various stations in college athletics. Today, the College Football Playoff has a one-year, full-time position in communications and brand management – the Tom Mickle Internship.

For all of them, Mickle made the office seem less like work and more like a calling. He had high hopes, and nobody wanted to disappoint him.

He had a saying: “If you aren’t having fun, it’s your own damn fault.”

At FCSports, sound delivered Mickle’s personality. When someone made a sale – a luxury box, a sponsorship or even a membership – he walked around the office and rang a bell in recognition. When a staffer marked a birthday, he celebrated right along.

“He’d get on the intercom and sing happy birthday so everyone knew. And he couldn’t sing,” said Carol Monroe, senior director of hospitality and conference relations for the bowl organization. “And then at the end of the song, he’d tell that person to go home and enjoy the rest of the day off.”

“He just cared about people. He cared about every athlete, not just the stars who played football and basketball,” North Carolina Senior Associate Athletic Director Steve Kirschner said.

Kirschner recalled a 3,000-meter race at the 2001 ACC Track and Field Championships that UNC’s Shalane Flanagan won. The race went off in a driving rainstorm and before only a handful of friends and family members. From the press box, Mickle cajoled the league’s various SIDs into cheering for the runners each time Flanagan, a world-class athlete, pushed down the front stretch.

“He just refused to accept that no one was around to cheer for people who had worked so hard to compete,” Kirschner said. “It was so wet – nobody wanted to be there. But there we all were, yelling and cheering because Tom thought it was the right thing to do.”

When Corrigan brought Mickle to the ACC office, the league’s basketball reputation was deep-rooted and unshakeable. Football, however, needed help. In the 1980s, Clemson was a bell cow but was hit by probation and struggled to regain its national status. Maryland and North Carolina owned sturdy programs but needed national status. Georgia Tech started to blossom, as did North Carolina State and Virginia, but few around the country took note.

The league needed more fall cache. And after Penn State surprised everyone by joining the Big Ten, Corrigan set his sights on Syracuse to the north and Florida State to the south. By the fall of 1990, ACC expansion was set when FSU – then an independent in football and a member of the Metro Conference for all other sports – agreed to put all its sports under one conference roof. (Syracuse joined the ACC in 2012.)

Corrigan and Mickle also founded the league’s first New Year’s Day home for its champion – the Florida Citrus Bowl. And on Jan. 1, 1991, Georgia Tech claimed a share of the national championship by beating Nebraska in Orlando.

But Corrigan, disappointed the Yellow Jackets had no way to match up against co-No. 1 Colorado, asked Mickle to think about some ways to build flexibility into the bowl system. Mickle went to dinner. With his tab the next morning came his cocktail napkin.

“All this we have now, Tom saw all this coming,” Hogan said. “He was very involved in the television end of things. He developed relationships with people at ESPN. He could see that football was going to drive

the bus.”

Mickle, understanding how a young sports network needed programming and willing partners, hopped on the ESPN train. He convinced Corrigan – and ACC football coaches and athletic directors – to commit to year-over-year scheduling, making Thursday night games possible. The league embraced the concept of made-for-TV games. Overnight, the ACC was a Thursday night staple.

Corrigan retired in 1997. Mickle worked for John Swofford for five years before leaving the ACC in 2002 to be executive director at Florida Citrus Sports, replacing bowl legend Chuck Rohe. Soon after Mickle arrived, FCSports rescued a Fort Lauderdale bowl. Orlando was a two-bowl city. Soon, Mickle’s staff created Bowl Week, bolstering its new bowl with parking lot games, music and other festivities.

Mickle lived and worked in Central Florida for only four years but left his mark. When he died, he was in the midst of politicking for a refurbished stadium and for ways to keep Orlando in the conversation to host a national championship game.

“Despite the odds against it and the evidence to the contrary, Mickle was convinced Orlando someday would become a sports hotbed,” Orlando columnist Mike Bianchi wrote. “Mickle wanted so much more in a town that too often settles for less.”

Mickle’s legacy lives on through his wife, the former Jill Mixon, who worked in sports information and fundraising at Clemson and Duke. Jill runs the Florida Citrus Sports Foundation. The non-profit’s office adjoins the Citrus Bowl Stadium, which was renovated after an arduous financial push by Steve Hogan, who replaced Tom.

The newly configured venue has at least one thing in common with its earlier self: the Tom Mickle Press Box.