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Column: In-person interviews, reconnecting with familiar faces

The 2021 football season has officially begun as Florida State head football coach Mike Norvell and his band of assistant coaches met with the media Friday for lunch and one on one interviews.

It was great! 

Football. Interviews. Pulled pork. Sweet tea. 

What’s not to like?

It was absolutely great to once again have the opportunity to ask coaches questions, one-on-one again, rather than on those Zoom calls necessitated by Covid protocols last year. I love the personal contact, the opportunity to be able to follow up a coaches’ answer to your first question with a follow up question. It is how you build a relationship, a more-thorough understanding of what the heck you are writing about. The coach-media interaction is a win-win, good for reporters, good for readers and helpful to the coach when the message is written correctly. 

FSU’s personable head coach assured us he wants to keep his program open to the media, which he did until the Covid outbreak shut down his first spring practice in 2020 after just three days. I believe him when he says he wants the media at practice so we can observe, ask questions, and write our stories about his program, a program he is proud to share. 

Why do I believe him? 

A long, long time ago, I learned an important lesson about the role we reporters play as I watched Bobby Bowden work a pressroom. Every press conference or after-practice interview during the Bowden era was a Ted Talk on public relations. Bowden was friendly to everyone, even those of us he may not have liked. I came to understand Bobby wasn’t really talking to me during interviews. He was talking to you … through me. 

I was the conduit between him and you, his fan base. 

It took me a minute to figure it out. The bright smile, the dancing blue eyes, the funny jokes and playful banter weren’t for me. They were for you.

And I’m thrilled to tell you, Norvell gets it.

I always have wondered why so many other coaches (or politicians) don’t get that or don’t care to get that. When they shut their program down to the media, they are shutting it down to their ultimate audience, which are their fans, boosters and prospective football players. 

Bowden was bigger than that. He opened his program to you by opening it to the media. And he looked beyond the media members in the room and saw you where you would read or watch his words and the nuances of his body language. 

Like Bobby, Norvell makes his coaches available too. And why not? If you hire good people, you are proud to put them in the spotlight. Each of the assistants we interviewed Friday are outstanding representatives of the program. 

Best I can tell, Norvell understands how to use the media to build his program and that is very encouraging.

Observations

Let’s start with senior statesman Odell Haggins, who looks like a different man and no longer like the man who ate Odell Haggins. Yes, he has lost a ton of weight. Well maybe not a ton … but a lot. 

Haggins credits his new look to knee replacement surgery. 

“I had to lose the weight,” he said. “Thank God I got the knee replaced and I’m able to walk a lot more. I’m able to be more active.”

Haggins also credits his daughter, a track athlete. 

“She pushed me. ‘Come on, Dad. Let’s go,’ ” Haggins said. “I’d follow her when she’s jogging. She’ll circle back around and keep me going.

“The knee replacement helped my hip, helped my posture, everything,” Haggins said. 

My first interview with Odell was in 1985 when he was a high school senior at Bartow High. I mentioned either he’s grown or I’ve shrunk. 

He laughed hard.

“Yeah, no, when they straightened my leg out – I was bowlegged – my leg is now a half-inch longer,” he laughed. 

It is no wonder he’s had debilitating pain in his hip and back the past few years.

“I feel good. I feel different. I feel great,” he said with a convincing smile.

And he’s enthusiastic to get active with his defensive line segment.

“(The enthusiasm) goes back to the program Coach Norvell is developing,” Haggins said. “The kids are buying into it. The weight room, with Josh Storms – that’s the big thing – the weight room, the training room and the message Coach Norvell is putting out.”

Norvell had good things to say about the defensive line segment, notably Fabien Lovett, a Mississippi State transfer who showed steady improvement last year and into this spring. 

“I see Lovett being a very consistent player and a leader,” Haggins said. “Lovett is a great kid. He wants to do well so when you want to do well and you want to be the best you are going to work hard. He is a hard-working young man. 

Haggins said all of his guys are working hard but what he is looking for this year is simple: “Being consistent. Do your job. And run to the frickin’ football!”

Dell is looking forward to getting out on the grass.

“I’m just going to coach hard and have a lot of fun with my guys,” he concluded.

While Haggins looks good to go, offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham is on crutches, sporting a knee brace to stabilize fresh surgery on his patella tendon, which he tore while jumping. 

Always positive, Dillingham is thankful it tore now and not in the middle of the season. The hyperactive OC/QB coach will get around in a golf cart or on a scooter until he’s cleared to run. 

Friday’s press luncheon in the Varsity Club, on the north side of Doak Campbell Stadium, was filled with laughter as happy campers eager to embark on a brand new adventure were thrilled to return to a form of normalcy and a positive coach-press relationship.