As Don Staley wrapped up some errands before his recent move to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a massive crane in Foley, Alabama, put a busy time into perspective. The crane was placing a large sign reading “Foley Sports Tourism Complex
” off of Highway 59. Three years after Staley became the facility’s first executive director, the project is done. As promised, 16 fields, an indoor event center and an entertainment district, OWA, stand as a beacon to draw events to Foley. But Staley won’t be around to see the fruits of his labor. Having accomplished one mission, he is on to another, back in his old stomping grounds as the new CEO and president of Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports.
The chance to return to Tuscaloosa was too good to pass up, says Staley. The former University of Alabama soccer coach launched the Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation in 2008 and led the CVB’s sports department after the organizations merged in 2010. He was interim CEO for a short time, too. Now, he is in charge of the entire CVB, but won’t leave sports too far behind. Tuscaloosa is home to the Crimson Tide, after all. Staley discusses the move, which is likely to be the last in his extraordinary career.
Haven’t you heard you can’t go home again?
Ha, I’ve heard that before. This is one of the two jobs I said years ago that I’d consider leaving Foley for. (The other was associate athletic director at University Alabama.) And by gosh, it surprisingly opened up. It really is the opportunity of a lifetime to return home.
How will your role at Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports be different this time around?
Basically, I’ll be the guy in charge and not just the sports guy. I'll end up hiring a sports person and marketing person and leading a team filled with superstars. I’ll have to be more well-rounded on tourism matters. I’m really excited to be digging into the arts and all the stuff we have. We have a vibrant city—we’re not just a football town.
How will your experience at Foley translate over?
Tuscaloosa has a dynamic mayor [Walter Maddox] and he has a vision for an experience-based economy. What that means is we want guests to come a day early and stay a day late to enjoy the opportunities here. Say there’s a UA event, maybe we host a concert in conjunction with that. I was doing the experience economy in Foley with the beach, deep-sea fishing and golf. We’ll do the same thing here.
What’s it like leaving Foley just as the sports complex is completed?
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t bittersweet. I’m proud of what we built and know the project is going to be ultra successful no matter who takes over. The cupboard is definitely full and there are so many wonderful things about to happen. I know that I gave an honest day’s work and look forward to coming back to see future successes.
Did you ever imagine you'd go from a soccer coach to events leader?
I thought I’d be coaching until I was an old man. I was in coaching for 25 years and then I had to reinvent myself as a sports tourism guy. Now I get to reinvent myself again. Coaching is really a young person’s game. Maybe someday I’ll coach a little Under-16.
Which mentors helped you along the way?
I remember [former Alabama basketball coach] C.M. Newtown told me, “Admit what you don’t know and reach out to people.” He introduced me to [current Treasure Coast (Florida) Sports Commission Executive Director] Rick Hatcher, who was in Lexington, Kentucky, at the time. Rick led me to Jack Hughes, who was NASC president and Gainesville (Florida) Sports Commission executive director. They took me under their wing and really coached me up. Without those two pillars in the industry, I would never have survived.