As Mike Norvell prepares to enter his third year as a Florida State coach, he can no longer cite coaching turnover, roster turnover, low rosters and uneven financial support to explain the challenges he inherited.
Now Florida State just has to win.
The Seminoles, which start their season Saturday against Duquesne (5 p.m. ET, ACC Network), haven’t had a winning record since 2017 and to call it a critical year for Florida State is to understate its importance. The ACC needs Florida State to look more like the Florida State everyone knows — with 15 conference championships and three national championships since joining the league in 1992 — to help its brand of football and its marketing. Florida State needs to win just to prove it can still be Florida State.
“It’s always important, always a big year for us to continue to take these steps to bring Florida State back to the top of college football,” said athletic director Michael Alford. “Mike knows we have 100% confidence in his management. Mike and I have talked about it: we’re setting him up for long-term success, not short-term success.”
If the last year has highlighted anything, it’s that Florida State picked a bad time to have four straight losing seasons. With the realignment of the SEC and the Big Ten reshaping the college landscape, the ACC is a distant third in terms of revenue generation.
University President Richard McCullough reportedly told the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce in comments earlier this week that the school plans to be “very aggressive” when it comes to securing its future.
“It’s something I spend a lot of time on and we get a lot of help,” McCullough told the group. “We’re trying to do everything we can to think about how we stay competitive. Florida State is expected to win. We’re going to be very aggressive.”
The financial situation within the Florida State Athletic Department hasn’t been rosy for years – made worse by paying former coach Willie Taggart an $18 million buyout by firing him before the end of the 2019 season – but that could take a turn. Alford was hired, in part, because of his fundraising efforts. Already, it has secured $45 million in capital construction donations for improvements to Doak Campbell Stadium, and has the long-awaited freestanding football facility on track for groundbreaking in December. Last offseason, Norvell hired more support staff, and the team unveiled a new locker room in March.
Alford and those familiar with the program understand that Norvell inherited a team in disarray when he arrived in December 2019, following the departures of Jimbo Fisher in 2017 and then Taggart. Not only did he have a divided locker room and a roster full of players who couldn’t cut him at the Power 5 level, but the athletic department hadn’t invested in the football program as needed – leaving the Seminoles behind at the both on and off the field.
The Seminoles went 3-6 in a pandemic crippled Year 1 under Norvell. Then last season began with an 0-4 start — its worst since 1976 — and a loss to FCS Jacksonville State. So it’s easy to see why there was widespread panic among fans about what was happening to the program less than a decade after winning a national championship.
Several player-only meetings were held to clear the air.
“You know you have certain groups and certain guys trying to make things happen, oh it’s the coaches fault, it’s that fault, but the coaches are not on the field,” said safety Jammie Robinson. “It’s us.”
“That’s the problem, a lot of people weren’t doing their job,” said tackle Fabien Lovett, one of several players who spoke at the meetings. “So when you don’t do your job, it creates a problem here or a bomb on this game, or a touchdown on this game. It’s all details. Every detail matters.”
Despite a solid finish in the second half of the season, Florida State lost its regular season finale to rival Florida 24-21 with a trip to the bowl on the line – a loss that haunts Norvell because his team has returned to manners. unruly from 0-4 start.
Then a few weeks later, on national signing day, Florida State lost its top rookie – overall No. 2 Travis Hunter – to former Florida great Deion Sanders and Jackson State – a turnaround. virtually unheard of from a Power 5 school to an HBCU.
Florida State fans took to Twitter in outrage. One started a Twitter space titled “Fire Mike Norvell,” and it became hard to ignore the negativity that had surrounded the program.
“I actually don’t get carried away with all the stuff that’s on the outside, when it comes to someone piling up,” Norvell said. “Everyone who’s been in the game has been through this hundreds of times. I remember a game where I was offensive coordinator at Arizona State. I think we scored 17 points in the first half. But we got I had a really bad last practice. I was running through the tunnel and a nice old lady was like, ‘Get your head out of your ass, Norvell!'”
Whatever outward negativity may have existed at the end of last year has been optimistically concealed for a new season. Norvell begins to elaborate on why he’s so excited about his team’s potential.
First, there is continuity. With multiple coaching changes in quick succession, Florida State never had a chance to build its teams through recruiting. This led to fractured locker rooms, players recruited for a pattern playing in one that didn’t fit, inconsistent performances and a crisis of confidence appearing every time adversity hit, most notably in tight fourth quarters.
Between the 2018 and 2020 signing day classes, Florida State had 33 players departed as transfers. Taggart’s first class, signed just after Fisher left, had 15 four-star players signed as freshmen. Only four of those players remain. Because of this, developing the kind of work and competition habits needed to win programs took longer.
Norvell used the transfer portal to fill in the gaps in the roster. The Seminoles added 14 transfers for the 2022 season after adding 18 in Norvell’s first two years. Their best player a year ago — defensive end Jermaine Johnson — was traded from Georgia. Robinson, Florida State’s only preseason All-ACC selection, transferred from South Carolina.
Norvell credited Johnson with helping establish many of the positive habits he sees in his current players. The depth is better across the board, and the competition for spots is also better.
What players like Robinson and Lovett appreciate is the mindset and demeanor they see at Norvell.
“He’s the same every day,” Lovett said. “He walks the talk. He’s going to speak to you the same way every day, the same thing every day, so he instills in you to come with the same attitude every day.”
The first half of the 2022 season is difficult. After the Sept. 4 game against LSU in New Orleans, the Seminoles get a bye week before five straight Atlantic Division games against bowl-eligible teams last season.
How Florida State plays in its first streak may well determine the direction this program takes.
“I know what we pour into our program, from our players, from our coaches, from everything that goes into the development of where we’re going,” Norvell said. “Apart from the outside perception of what it takes to be successful, and the application in real life and what it takes to be successful, sometimes they are two different things. I have a lot of belief that we’re going because I can see it and I’m living it every day. I see the growth, I see the milestones, I see the relationships. I’m very excited to see where we’re going.