Don't panic, FSU fans. Mike Norvell can make this work
There’s more gray in his hair, and a lot less of it. And he’s all of 40 years old.
He’s trying to rebuild a monster program brought to its knees by poor decisions and bad ideas, with unavoidable obstacles blocking the path year after year.
But don’t panic, Florida State. Mike Norvell can make it work.
“Never been more certain of it,” Norvell says.
Of all that has transpired at Florida State in the past 5 years, all the trauma and turmoil, nothing underscores the enormity of the rebuild Norvell and the program face than this unthinkable reality:
For the first time since Norvell arrived at FSU, the program just completed a full process season without disruption. Recruiting evaluation, a complete signing class, spring practice, summer workouts, a fall season, recruiting evaluation and spring practice again.
“We’re getting into a groove. We’re confident,” FSU quarterback Jordan Travis said during my daily “XL Primetime” radio show at 1010XL in Jacksonville. “That’s what’s exciting.”
Imagine that, after all the championships and NFL Draft picks and unimaginable success in the past 3 decades of FSU football, the idea of completing a full season has everyone associated with the program feeling good again.
That’s the impact of the 2020 COVID season, the long game that no one ever addresses when assessing Norvell and FSU’s slow climb back. The long dark shadow that has followed the program for 2 seasons.
Eight weeks after he took over reeling FSU — the third coach in four seasons for a program that sat among the elite of college football for decades — COVID hit and everything changed for everyone. An entire offseason was wasted.
No instruction. No face-to-face recruiting evaluation. No team workouts.
No team bonding. No chemistry building. No physical interaction of any kind. No face-to-face, no shaking hands or taking about family or belly laughing.
The intangibles that, more than anything, are the core of winning football. Or winning in business, or any job, or any friendship.
All of it gone for a new coach who inherited a team that had one coach (Jimbo Fisher) leave for what he believed was a better job, and another coach (Willie Taggart) fired while trying to clean up the mess the first coach left behind.
The product on the field had deteriorated so dramatically, Fisher’s last team at FSU in 2017 needed to play a rescheduled game against Louisiana Monroe — on the day of the ACC Championship Game — just to get bowl eligible. A game Fisher didn’t even coach.
A year later, Taggart was hired to clean up a locker room full of entitlement and poor academics. Players were not only not going to class, they weren’t even taking online classes.
“They’re not going to class? Are you sh—ing me? They’re going to class. Who is he to tell you he’s not going to class?” Taggart told me in 2017. “That’s accountability, that’s discipline.”
Taggart didn’t get a chance to complete his rebuild and was fired midway through his second season because the product on the field was so poor. At one point during a home loss to rival Florida, the Noles had 10 players on the field on offense — and a Gators defender had to turn to the FSU sideline and tell them they were a player short.
Taggart ripped through the roster and eliminated entitlement and those who didn’t want to go to class or follow rules, but early recruiting struggles — typical for most first-year coaches — didn’t replace what left and put more stress on the rebuild.
By the time he was fired, the FSU quarterback was James Blackman, a project that Fisher signed who admitted he learned in high school how to play the position by watching YouTube videos. He never should’ve been put in that position early in his career, but was because of Fisher’s misses at recruiting the position.
This is what Norvell walked into in 2020, and eight weeks later, the world shut down.
“Everybody dealt with it, so I’m not saying it’s unique to us,” Norvell said.
But it absolutely compounded the problems he already faced before signing a contract that left FSU financially on the hook with two coaches for a downward spiraling program.
Welcome to your new job, Mike. The expectations are recruit better than anyone in the ACC and win the conference, beat your state rivals Florida and Miami and get to the College Football Playoff.
All while carrying that albatross of the previous 3 years.
Now you know why Norvell was just happy to finish a complete process season.
“We’ve been able to push further, it wasn’t all new to them,” Norvell said. This will be our second summer together coming off an offseason. Every day is going to matter. We have a great sense of urgency within our team.”
There better be, because an 8-13 record isn’t going to cut it in Tallahassee. Another season of no postseason — but more important, of no clear change in momentum — will force FSU into another difficult decision.
Does it start all over again and try to make it work with a new coach, or does it ride with Norvell who is still finding his footing as a recruiter at FSU and still hasn’t made the turn on the field?
Norvell is excited about Travis, who he says can be an elite player. That’s the first big step.
FSU hasn’t had an elite player at the most important position on the field — or even the potential of it — since Jameis Winston in 2014. The rebuild at FSU has come to this: the Noles will make significant progress as a program if Travis makes significant strides as a thrower.
For two years he has been the QB run option for the offense, sprinkled with a pockets of success in the passing game. Now Norvell believes he’ll be an elite thrower.
He better be, or FSU might have make another difficult decision about where the program is headed.
“Jordan is an incredible, incredible young man,” Norvell said. ‘The improvement he has made, his sense of urgency that others are feeding off, it’s great for our team. I can’t wait for him to show all he can do.”
He might just do enough to make it all work.