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New ASU athletic director, 46, steps into spotlight

by Mitchell Gladstone | May 10, 2022 at 3:41 a.m.
New ASU Athletic Director Jeff Purinton had worked in a variety of roles with the Crimson Tide since arriving at Tuscaloosa in 2007, rising up to executive deputy director of athletics in 2021. (Arkansas State Athletics)

JONESBORO -- The setting for Monday afternoon's news conference could not have been lost on Jeff Purinton.

Arkansas State's 13th athletic director stepped onto the stage inside the Red Wolves' football team meeting room, gazing out on a nearly packed house.

Football had brought him to this moment.

Purinton, 46, had spent nearly three decades immersed in the sport, working under two Hall of Fame coaches -- Bobby Bowden and Nick Saban -- and for a pair of programs -- Florida State and Alabama -- elevated because of those men.

ASU didn't solely hire Purinton because of football.

But as much as anyone, the Red Wolves' new vice chancellor of intercollegiate athletics recognizes the overarching significance of that very sport as he takes charge of an athletic department for the first time.

"Maybe five years ago, I wouldn't say I was quite ready," Purinton said. "But overseeing the [Alabama] football program recently ... it's similar to coaching. You have to go through things to learn and know how to deal with difficult situations."

With both the Seminoles and Crimson Tide, struggle was rare. Rather, Purinton lived success.

He arrived as a student in Tallahassee in 1993, just before Florida State won its first national title in football. The Seminoles did the same in 1999 -- Purinton's first season as a full-time sports information director -- with 12 conference titles before he left in 2006.

That all preceded six national titles in Purinton's 15 years at Alabama.

ASU doesn't pretend to be a national powerhouse. It's been far from competitive in the Sun Belt Conference the last two seasons, going a combined 6-17.

But Purinton knows the success of the Red Wolves' recent past -- five conference titles from 2011-16, something unmatched among Group of 5 programs in the 2010s.

And he sees the product of that achievement in ASU's $29 million football facility.

Now it's his task to parlay the progress of Coach Butch Jones' program into department-wide gain.

"No task is beneath me," Purinton said. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to help us win, have success, recruit. I'm not going to sit up in the suite and drink wine and not connect with people.

"You really have to immerse yourself with the student-athletes and the coaches."

Purinton and Jones already had a relationship from their overlapping stints with the Crimson Tide.

"There was a friendship, there was a respect, bouncing ideas off of each other," Jones said. "He's seen what great looks like. He's always had a plan. ... I just wanted the best person for Arkansas State, and I knew that best person was Jeff Purinton. But he proved it."

Purinton didn't need much time for ASU's administrators to understand that as well.

Six days separated the former Alabama executive deputy AD's first interview with ASU System President Chuck Welch and the school's announcement last Wednesday.

In between, Welch said he got unsolicited calls recommending Purinton from Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne, ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit and Saban himself -- a conversation Welch joked he's still nervous about.

"After [General Counsel Brad Phelps and I] had dinner with Jeff and went back to our hotel room, we were like little teenage kids texting about, 'Wow, this guy is really fantastic,'" Welch recalled. "We knew this was the direction we wanted to go."

When Purinton left the Orange Bowl in 2007 to start at Alabama, he and wife Julie made the move to Tuscaloosa site unseen. It was arguably an easier ask then, with no kids and a job working for a coach on his way to becoming a hall of famer.

Jeff and Julie stepped onto the tarmac Sunday with daughters Jillian, 12, and Josie, 10. None had ever spent a minute in Jonesboro.

All Jeff Purinton hopes to accomplish at the helm of the Red Wolves he doesn't plan on doing alone.

"You didn't just hire me," he said. "You hired the Purinton family."


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