For the thousands of people whose paths have crossed with the always-affable J. Webb Horton, we begin this profile of the man by revealing something about him few might know:
What the “J.” stands for.
To understand why Jack Webb Horton decided to abbreviate his first name with an initial, you have to know who Jack Webb was: an actor, director and producer who was famous in the television police-drama business, most notably portraying Los Angeles detective Joe Friday in the 1960s cult classic, “Dragnet.” Having a name identified with that of a gruff white cop known for the iconic line, “Just the facts, ma’am,” could set a young man up for relentless teasing, especially an African American growing up a generation ago.
“The facts” are that Horton, now 73, has become iconic in his own right as the assistant director of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Office of Community Outreach, a position to which he was named in 2011 after a decade as assistant athletics director and head tennis coach of both the men’s and women’s teams. Age has taken a slight natural toll on his still-towering, athletically lean presence at 6 feet, 4 inches, but packing energy that belies his age thanks to a lifelong workout routine, Horton continues to impress and impact others — as he has most of his professional life — as a community leader, administrator, coach and broadcaster.
How influential is Horton? He has reached the level of FGCU celebrity that brings instant recognition to people both inside and outside the university when you simply say, “J. Webb.”
The oldest of six children in a devout Catholic family — he still attends Mass each Sunday at Our Lady of Light in Fort Myers — J. Webb Horton’s roots are in the northwestern Pennsylvania town of Cambridge Springs, a tiny borough overwhelmingly white with residents of Polish and Italian descent. Horton learned how to play tennis on the public courts in his town at a time when Althea Gibson on the women’s side of the net and Arthur Ashe on the men’s side were about the only black players the public knew about. He would go on to earn a scholarship as a walk-on in basketball at Edinboro State College in Pennsylvania, but he also competed in tennis and track before graduating with a political science degree and prelaw concentration in 1970.
“I was also a really good golfer,” Horton said. “I was a caddy for three summers. The head pro at the club where I worked taught me the game, and I played every day. I got down to a 5 handicap.”
After toying with the idea of being a political reporter at his local newspaper, the Erie County Times, Horton instead took his first jobs out of school with government civil-rights agencies investigating discrimination and compliance cases at the grassroots level, first in Erie, Pa., then in Fort Wayne, Ind. The latter city is where he would become women’s tennis coach at the University of St. Francis in 1982. After a stint as Midwest sales representative for one of the world’s top racket manufacturers, Head Sports, based in Chicago from 1988 to 1996, Horton got back into collegiate tennis coaching while adding counseling and diversity-outreach duties at Indiana University-Purdue (1996-2000) and Northern Kentucky (2000-01).
A call one day from the father of one of the youth tennis players Horton had coached would send him in a new direction. He’d gotten to know Stanley “Butch” Perchan — now FGCU’s senior associate athletics director for external affairs emeritus — while Perchan was working as an athletics director, coach and administrator at two Indiana colleges. Perchan would approach Horton about joining the growing staff of a new program he was helping to build as an athletics fundraiser at a 4-year-old state university in Florida. The timing was perfect.
“One Sunday I’m getting ready for Mass in the morning like I always do, and I’m trying to get ice off windows that are frozen shut, and I’m thinking, ‘This is crazy,” Horton remembered. “Butch calls me the next day, and pretty soon I’m flying into the old Southwest Florida Regional Airport, renting a convertible and driving down Interstate 75 with the sun shining. I pull into this new campus, and the only things I see are trailers and tennis courts.”
In talking about his decades-long friendship with Perchan, Horton reflected on how “you never know who you’re dealing with. Did I think when I met Butch that I’d be working with him 30 years later? There aren’t many like him — men of their word, old-school guys with real integrity.”
For 10 years, Horton was FGCU’s first assistant athletics director and the face of Eagle tennis, winning Intercollegiate Tennis Association Coach of the Year for 2003-04 — perhaps the crowning accolade in a multi-awarded coaching career dedicated to introducing the sport to minority students while honing the skills of experienced players. Horton also has made a significant impact on tennis as chair and vice chair of the Collegiate Varsity Committee of the U.S. Tennis Association.
Since he joined FGCU, Horton’s deep, resonant voice also has been a regular fixture commentating not only for Eagle basketball on radio, ESPN3 and now ESPN+, but also for regional events in tennis and track and field. He’s a devout contributor to the university’s annual giving campaign. But perhaps his greatest impact has been his community presence and involvement, beginning in the Athletics department, where he was instrumental in outreach into local schools by helping to introduce programs for elementary students such as Eagle Math; and expanding through his current role. The man has contributed his time and talent to so many local, state and national organizations as a leader and mentor that they are far too numerous to list.
While Horton admits to “missing the battle” of competition as a coach, he realizes that perhaps he achieves a greater good in the community-relations role for which he was specifically recruited by former FGCU President Wilson G. Bradshaw.
“It’s easy to be a champion for FGCU for a lot of reasons, but I’m really proud of what we do for first-generation students,” Horton said, referring to those who are first in their family to achieve higher education. “It’s critical to minimize the cost of college for these kids, and we present that with the help of several Southwest Florida agencies that help them attend school. These are kids whose parents might not fully understand how important education is. And I get frustrated when people don’t understand the pitfalls of first-generation kids who are working 35 to 40 hours a week, carrying 15 credit hours in school, and their parents are still depending on them financially. We have to help these kids.”
If you want to realize the impact a true FGCU Champion has on the community, consider his involvement with the Quality Life Center in Fort Myers, where Horton sits on the board of directors. “The Q,” as it’s known, has partnered with FGCU through the years thanks mostly to Horton, first through the USTA’s First Serve Program, which introduces the game to at-risk minority youth; and since through his creation and organization of programs, workshops, conferences and field trips.
Abdul’Haq Muhammed, founder and executive director of the center based in the Dunbar community of Fort Myers that is dedicated to putting at-risk youngsters on a path to success, says “we have truly embraced J. Webb as a liaison between us and the university.”
“He has always played a key role in making available to us whatever resources and opportunities the university can afford our children and teenagers,” Muhammed said. “He’s had a great impact in creating chances for them, and our relationship with the university is getting increasingly stronger all the time thanks to him. He has been a great bridge.”
The goal is to introduce young people to a world — FGCU’s beautiful campus and state-of-the-art facilities — that’s new to many of them, and to what can be possible in their future. “I love the smaller schools like ours because you get to know your professors,” Horton said. “Service-learning gives students the chance to be a part of the community. You can have a discussion with a political science professor about politics, or work with other professors and become an entrepreneur. You are not a number at FGCU.”
Nor do you feel isolated. Interactions with Horton and other administrators, faculty and staff of color introduce impressionable kids to role models who proudly represent the region’s premier institution of higher education.
“When you look at our campus and see men and women of color – black or Latino – as leaders, as teachers, we are the product of other people who have helped us,” Horton said. “The message is that you can achieve things if you work hard and do the right thing. We are visual proof that there really is an American Dream that can happen. It’s why you want diversity on campus. Young men and women see (former) President Bradshaw and Dr. (Tony) Barringer (associate provost/associate vice president for academic affairs) and see they can be a president or a provost at a college.”
And that, as Jack Webb would be glad to hear, is a fact.
ABOUT FGCU CHAMPIONS
They are the FGCU Champions — proud advocates for the university, mentors to students and alumni alike, and dedicated educators. They are tried-and-true Eagles. And they back up their loyalty to FGCU by committing their financial support as well as their passion. Follow their lead by becoming an FGCU Champion and be the difference that makes a difference. Over the next few weeks, read about other FGCU Champions at FGCU360 like Maria Roca.