Amid the decorations in Bill Peterson’s office at Shorter – the posters and images of his nine years at the university that signify achievements from the football team’s first winning record to NAIA national championships – there is one thing that doesn’t quite seem to match the rest.
On one table sits a small item in a display case. It stands out, because it has nothing to do with sports, or even Shorter – it’s a medical device.
This one small part of Peterson’s office represents a much bigger part of his life. Before he got back to being involved in the sports world, he had a first career as the co-founder of a medical device company. Peterson spent 25 years in the business, and retired having left behind a legacy.
“Business is a good background for me personally to be able to go through this NCAA transition,” Peterson said. “It’s been a great way for someone who really hasn’t been in the NCAA to learn the ins and outs of being the athletic director in an NCAA environment.”
Leaving a job in a better place than it was before, something that Peterson did in business and seems to be doing at Shorter, is something that runs in the family. His father, also named Bill Peterson, was the head football coach at Florida State from 1960-71, and was instrumental in helping launch the program into the perennial success it is known for today.
When the elder Peterson arrived at Florida State in 1960, the school was just 13 years removed from being an all-women’s college. The football program had moderate success in those 13 years, with a record of 69-51-2. But it was Peterson that brought the program national success. The Seminoles beat Florida for the first time in 1964. Fred Biletnikoff became the first football player from Florida State to be named an All American. The team reached its first top-10 ranking and won its first major bowl game. Peterson is credited to have brought a pro-style passing game to the college ranks, and had an assistant named Bobby Bowden, who went on to become the only coach to spend more time at Florida State than Peterson.
While Shorter’s Bill Peterson is proud of all that his father accomplished, he says he is most proud of the fact that his father recruited the first black football players to Florida State, ahead of rival schools.
The younger Peterson himself played college football – he won an NAIA championship at Texas Lutheran before finishing his studies at Florida State. He graduated with an accounting degree and spent the next 25 years devoted to the medical device business.
After he retired, Peterson decided to keep himself occupied by volunteering with the football team at Shorter, a school that appealed to him because of its faith-based mission.
Before Peterson took over, Shorter had not won a national championship. Since then, Shorter has won 15, in addition to 25 conference championships. Peterson instilled from the beginning of his tenure that he wanted Shorter to look like a Division II school, even though it was still in the NAIA. That mindset helped bring student-athletes to the school and set the teams up for success on the field.
And when it came time for Shorter to make the transition into the NCAA, Peterson turned out to be the perfect man for the job. Having a dedicated athletic director is vital to the process, and Peterson has kept a steady hand through the past three years, overseeing all aspects of the department and keeping other parts of campus informed about the move.
“Coach Peterson has been the lynchpin for this process,” school president Donald Dowless said. “He’s worked very diligently, he and his staff, but as the athletic director he has driven this, he has good experience given his background.”
One quality that stands out about Peterson, though, is his humility. There are accolades and trophies seemingly in every room in the athletic offices, and Peterson says it’s all about the coaches and athletes, not about what he has brought to the school.
“He won’t take any credit for that,” track and field coach Scott Byrd said. “Zero.”
As expected, Peterson deflected the credit of Shorter’s successes, both on the field and throughout the transition, to the rest of the athletic staff.
“I don’t know about [my legacy].” Peterson said. “I’m proud of what we’re doing, and mostly because of our coaches. I’ve got one of the greatest jobs in the world, because I work with a group of people that I love. I think collectively, maybe we are doing something special. And I tell our kids that.”
That staff, however, was not shy about speaking to Peterson’s vital role as a leader in the process.
“Coach Peterson is what I consider one of the best athletic directors in the country, at any level,” softball coach Al Thomas said. “He joined us really to give back. He is so qualified for what he’s doing. His communication skills are unbelievable, his support is unbelievable, and without good leadership in the transition period it could have been a disaster. He’s on top of everything and we couldn’t ask for anybody any better.”