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Column: FSU on right path to competing with Clemson, SEC

Have you noticed the world has more “problem identifiers” than “problem solvers”?

Let me start this column by being a problem identifier: The center of our college football universe has packed up and moved outside the Sunshine State, into Alabama, Georgia and Clemson, S.C.

You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to notice that, do you?

Later in this column, I’ll start the conversation on what Florda State, Florida and Miami have to do to solve the problem.

First a nostalgic walk down memory lane. From 1983 to 2008, the Sunshine State’s Big Three won 11 national championships. During those years, Alabama won one title (1992) and neither Clemson nor Georgia won any titles.  

They say the sun don’t shine on the same dog’s butt for long. After years of basking in the sun, we Floridians now look over our boarder to the north to see the sun is shining on those folks.

If it can get worse, it has in recent years. Since UF made its last national championship appearance in 2008, Alabama, Georgia and Clemson have made 13 appearances in the championship game, winning eight and the only Sunshine State team to appear in a National Championship game since 2008 was FSU in 2013, a win over Auburn.

The dominance really accelerated in the seven years since 2015, with Alabama, Georgia and Clemson appearing 10 times in the championship game, often playing each other, and winning five National Championships. 

Ohio State (2014) and LSU (2019) are the only teams not named Alabama or Clemson to win the title since FSU won it in 2013.

Bama has made the playoffs in seven of the last eight years and played in six of the past seven national title games, winning three.

Here’s the championship results since 2008: Alabama (2009), Auburn (2010), Alabama (2011), Alabama (2012), Florida State (2013), Ohio State (2014), Alabama (2015), Clemson (2016), Alabama (2017), Clemson (2018), LSU (2019) and Alabama (2020).

You knew things had changed for the worse but it looks even worse when you see it in print, doesn’t it?

Recruiting fortunes swung too

Here’s another obvious problem you may have noticed. In the glory days, when the national championship came through the state of Florida, FSU, UF and Miami were recruiting the best players from the state of Florida and from across the nation and they no longer are.

Duh.

But did you know this: Since 2016, Florida State, Florida and Miami have signed nine (9) five-star recruits compared to seventy-two (72) five-star prospects signed by Alabama, Clemson and Georgia?

I knew it was bad but not that a factor of 8 to 1. 

While the Big 3 signed nine five-star players combined, Alabama signed 25 for themselves. Georgia coach Kirby Smart signed 30 since he took over in 2016 and Clemson inked 17. 

Yikes!

So is it any wonder Alabama will play Georgia for the national title again on Monday night.

Smart is a former Nick Saban defensive coordinator, and Mickey Andrews’ graduate assistant from 2002-03. He took over Georgia in 2016 and immediately established the Bulldogs as a national power in recruiting.

This is Smart’s second playoff in the past five years and the second time he’ll face Saban for the National Championship after losing 26-23 in OT four years ago and of course in the SEC Championship a couple of weeks ago. Georgia hasn’t won a championship since 1980.

Both Saban and Smart are top-notch coaches but they are playing with exceptional talent too. As they say, “You can’t expect a mule to win the Kentucky Derby.”

While Dabo Swinney didn’t have a yaba-daba-do kind of season this year, Clemson went to the playoffs six consecutive years (2015-2020 regular seasons), facing Alabama in the championship game three times and winning twice. 

What caused such a dramatic flip?

Great question. The first factor that comes to mind is stability (or lack thereof). Alabama, Georgia and Clemson have enjoyed a period of stability in recent years with Saban (15 years), Swinney (14 years) and Smart (six years), while the Sunshine State schools have been a revolving door with 14 head coaching changes since Saban arrived at Bama in 2007 (including Mario Cristobol to Miami and Billy Napier to Florida this year). 

The opposite was true when the Sunshine State was dominant. 

Alabama went through seven head coaches in the 28 years between Bear Bryant (1979) and Saban, with only one championship (Gene Stallings 1992). 

Georgia last won a National Championship in 1980 under Vince Dooley. The Bulldogs hired and fired three head coaches between 1989 and 2015, a 26-year span without a national championship, before hiring Smart in 2016.

Clemson has had a similar experience, winning the National Championship under Danny Ford in 1981. The Tigers hired and fired three head coaches from 1989 to 2008 prior to Swinney. 

During those tumultuous years for Alabama, Georgia and Clemson, the Florida schools had relative stability. 

Florida State had two coaches, Bobby Bowden (1976 to 2009) and Jimbo Fisher (2010 to 2017) during which the Seminoles won three national championships. The Seminoles fired Willie Taggart after 21 games and hired Mike Norvell in December 2019. 

Miami had three coaches from 1978 to 1994 and won four National Championships in those years when the National Championship came through Florida. The Canes are now on their seventh head coach in the 16 years since, with one championship. 

Florida had three head coaches in the 21 years between 1990 and 2010 and won three national championships. UF is now on its fourth head coach in the last 10 years winning no championships since 2008.

Solving the Problem

Solving the problem may begin with re-establishing stability at the Florida schools. Each state university is uniquely different and needs to find a coach who fits the culture, a coach they can support while building the program and one they can hope to keep when other programs try to steal them away. Otherwise, the programs will remain in a state of flux.

While Bobby Bowden didn’t intend to stay long when he took the job, he was a good fit for a lot of reasons. He fit the culture. He didn’t demand a budget FSU couldn’t accommodate and he could win with less. Alabama and Auburn were the only schools who were ever a threat to steal him away.

Bowden was also blessed to work under one president, Bernie Sliger, for the first 16 years of his tenure (1976-91) which certainly provided stability. By contrast, Jimbo Fisher served under three presidents (TK Wetherell, Eric Barron and John Thrasher) in his seven years.  

While Norvell may one day be tempted to coach in Texas or Arizona, I see him as a good fit for FSU for many of the same reasons as Bowden. 

Is winning the result of stability or is stability the result of winning?

If you are in sales, you know you must make your quota to keep your job. If you are in academics, you publish or perish. In coaching you win big quick, or you get gone.

In recent years, the Florida schools each decided to cut their losses with coaches quickly, searching for the coach who could “win the big one.”

I’ve come to believe many coaches are fired not because of what the athletic director sees on the scoreboard but by what he sees happening in the day-to-day operation of the program. Is the coach making good hires with his administrative and coaching staff? Is he a good evaluator of personnel, including character? Is he organized and holding his staff and team accountable? Are his players progressing academically and athletically? Is morale what it should be? If you can answer those questions, yes, hang in there as the wins will come. If the answer is no, time to cut them loose.

Each of the three Florida schools have had coaches resign as well. Sometimes a coach takes a hike for personal reasons — Gene Stallings at Alabama or Urban Meyer at Florida or Mark Richt at Miami — or for what he deems to be a better opportunity, Jimbo Fisher returning to the SEC at Texas A&M for $85 million dollars. My personal belief was, as good a coach as Fisher is, he was not a good fit because FSU did not have the financial resources to satisfy his needs.

While a school can’t always predict who will be a perfect “fit” in the search process, stability begins with evaluation during the search, and I think FSU got this one right.

Money and support helps stability

I know what you’re thinking. Money is the root of all evil. The three schools to our North have larger football budgets. Yes, money is always a factor and certainly helps provide the resources coaches need and want to attract recruits, which helps maintain stability.

Alabama, Georgia and Clemson have huge football budgets — larger than the Seminoles’ — which allows them to hire additional personnel to help coaches with film breakdown, monitoring student-athletes and in the recruiting process. 

Former athletic director David Coburn noted in a recent interview that Mike Norvell has been given the resources necessary to compete. I interpret his statement to mean necessary to compete against FSU’s competitors — including Clemson — not necessarily equal to those upper tier SEC schools.

Coburn also emphasized the need to raise enough money to build the football operations building, which will become an even bigger issue with recruits once Florida opens its football ops building this year.

Seminole Boosters has indicated fundraising is going well and construction on the facility could begin as early as 2023.

Michael Alford, who replaced Coburn as athletic director, has issued similar statements in support of Norvell and the football program, including his commitment to maintaining a significant amount of his attention on fundraising for the football program, operations facility and stadium.

Support, stability comes in many forms 

Administrative support is essential. Coaches want to know the administration has their best interest at heart. Again, in the interview with Coburn he stated how important stability is to coaches. He also clearly stated football is always top of mind in the athletics department and now at the ACC office with commissioner Jim Phillips. Football has always been the cash cow, generating 90 percent of the athletic budget, and will continue to be. You have to feed the cash cow.

A new measure of support has been created by the Federal Courts who ruled against the NCAA to say that a player may now earn money from entities who want to pay him or her for use of their name, image or likeness (NIL legislation). The NCAA has ruled that NIL cannot be “pay for play” — there must be services rendered with the entity — and NIL money cannot be used as a recruiting inducement, there is evidence NIL is being weaponized in recruiting. 

A group of FSU alums have put together Rising Spear to assist FSU players in connecting with businesses on NIL agreements. Rising Spear is also raising money from individuals to use to compensate players who wish to do not-for-profit work in their community. 

While the NCAA has said a school cannot use NIL as a recruiting inducement, it will become one more factor athletes will consider when making their college decision and therefore important to recruiting and to the stability of the program.

Support also means season ticket sales and fannies in seats. A full stadium tells a coach and a prospect that the school cares about the sport they are going to dedicate their blood and sweat in preparation. They want to perform in front of fans who care as much as they do.

Alabama and Georgia and Clemson regularly put 80,000 or more in their stadiums. Chicken or egg question: Which comes first, success or support?

When FSU is winning big, the stadium is full. When Clemson struggled offensively this past year, attendance fell.

Pieces of the puzzle coming together

Solving the problem is well underway.

In my view, Norvell is the first and biggest piece to the puzzle. The staff he has assembled has proven they can recruit the state of Florida — which is another piece — as well as nationally. His recent hire of Randy Shannon as linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator is to be applauded.

The Seminoles’ recruiting class right now features one five-star prospect in Sam McCall — the first since 2016 — but more four-star prospects than FSU has signed in several years. 

That’s another piece that’s been missing.

This next sentence may not be very satisfying to read but FSU was in the hunt with more five-star prospects than have seriously considered the Seminoles in years. While it sucks to finish second with a half-dozen prospects, it’s a tribute to Norvell’s staff and FSU’s brand that the ‘Noles were in the final three coming off a losing season.  

Thus far the coaching staff has met needs at critical positions to take a big step in 2022 on the offensive line — including the best tackle in the state — signing a highly-recruited quarterback who started school this week, and addressed needs at receiver, linebacker and rush end. Those transfer portal players — including the best defensive end in the nation — are in class this week and will compete for starting jobs in 2022. Not only does their presence enhance the roster, their experience and talent will create competition throughout the roster.

That’s another giant piece to completing the picture.

A coach once told me a lot of coaches are good recruiters — they can sell — but not many are good evaluators. Based on the character and productivity of the transfer players signed since 2020, this FSU staff is doing a good job of evaluating needs and prospects, which is essential for the puzzle to come together. 

In my view, it will take these pieces to get FSU back to where we all want it to be. 

Share your thoughts with me on what you think it will take on The Osceola’s message board.