Return visits to campus always include several must-sees for former Notre Dame men’s basketball player Stan Wilcox.
Going to the Grotto is a given. So is a lap or two around the perimeter of Notre Dame Stadium, though the Campus Crossroads construction might make that a bit impossible these days.
Dropping a few dollars at the bookstore is a certainty.
But no trip is complete for Wilcox without seeing one specific place. The name of the arena changed a few years back when renovations were complete, but the rest of it has remained pretty much the same since Wilcox first set foot inside the Joyce Center almost four decades ago.
“That’s where I spent a lot of my time as an undergrad, where I spent a lot of my time as an employee,” said Wilcox, who was a freshman on the 1978 Notre Dame team that advanced to its lone Final Four, then later worked on the building’s second floor for three years as deputy director of athletics. “You walk into that building and feel like it’s home.”
Wilcox will be back amongst familiar faces and friends Saturday, but this time, as an outsider of sorts. Now in his second year as director of athletics at Florida State, Wilcox will be ready with the famed “Tomahawk Chop” if needed for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener Saturday against No. 25 Notre Dame.
The matchup might force Wilcox to wonder about his loyalties — are they with the alma mater or with the school playing his alma mater? He worked through a similar scenario earlier this fall when Notre Dame arrived in Tallahassee an undefeated and confident football bunch to face defending national champion Florida State.
He was asked often about his rooting interests in the days and weeks and months leading into the Oct. 18 encounter. He never wavered in his response, even when the game came down to the frantic few final seconds.
“It’s pretty easy,” Wilcox said. “You know where your loyalties lie when you realize who you work for.”
Wilcox works for a school that hasn’t lost a football game since he arrived. He learned long ago that there are two types of fans when it comes to Notre Dame — those that love the Irish, and those that love to hate the Irish. Same seemingly holds true for Florida State, especially with all of the off-field issues of quarterback Jameis Winston.
“They’re going to root for you or against you,” Wilcox said. “That’s just part of the territory.”
These are busy times for the 55-year-old Wilcox, who followed former Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White to Duke and spent five years as senior deputy director of athletics before taking over in Tallahassee in August 2013. Florida State won the women’s soccer national championship last weekend. The football team won the ACC championship game in Charlotte, where former Irish guard Tracy Jackson took in the game from Wilcox’s luxury box. The undefeated Seminoles are one of four teams invited to the first college football playoff.
Wilcox spent much of this week in New York on business. There was a dinner and national honor for White. There was the National Football Foundation gathering. He spent part of Thursday meeting with ESPN executives about the upcoming football playoff and planned to fly Friday to South Bend. In addition to hitting his usual campus spots, Wilcox also hoped to catch up with one of his college classmate’s sons, who is now an undergraduate.
— Stan Wilcox
When Wilcox took a look at Florida State’s basketball schedule, and saw that the league opener fell Saturday against Notre Dame, well, a trip back home for some fresh clothes and some rest could wait.
“It’s a good time for me to catch up with them,” Wilcox said of the Seminole basketball team.
And with members of the Irish basketball family. After the teams met for the first time as conference colleagues last January in Tallahassee, Wilcox and his wife, Ramona, spent time catching up with members of the Notre Dame traveling party outside the Irish locker room. Handed a last-second loss that night, coach Mike Brey still made it a point to get a few minutes with Wilcox. Their relationship dates back to 2000 when Brey arrived in South Bend and Wilcox was an associate commissioner in the Big East.
They still stay in touch. Wilcox recently reached out to Brey following Notre Dame’s overtime victory against Michigan State.
“He loves this place,” Brey said. “I’m really proud of him. It was only a matter of time until he became an AD.
“He’s the kind of guy, if you’re a coach, you’d love to work for.”
Wilcox may walk into the Joyce Center as the boss of the Florida State athletic department, but part of him will feel like he’s a teenager again, running through the building’s halls and sharing laughs with Jackson and fellow teammates Marc Kelly and Mike Mitchell.
He’ll remember a few of the 92 games the Irish won and the four trips to the NCAA tournament during his career. He’ll remember those days when they seemingly had not a care in the world.
Old days sure, but great days for Wilcox. Still.
“Those are the memories that come flooding back,” he said. “I love it.”