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Column: What a Seminole Sports Saturday

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Saturday was a great day in Florida State sports history and one that reminds us of why we love college athletics. 

It started early. Cup of coffee on the way to the FSU football practice fields for a jolt of Mike Norvell’s first spring football practice (more later in this column). And the fun continued throughout a day in which several pages of FSU sports history were re-written:  

  • Florida State’s Men’s Basketball claimed its first regular season Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
  • Florida State’s Women’s Basketball defeated No. 1 seed Louisville to advance to the championship game of the ACC Tournament Championship game for the first time in school history.
  • The Seminole Legacy Golf Club was dedicated with golf course designers Jack and Jackie Nicklaus in attendance.

FSU Men’s and Women’s Basketball 

This Saturday’s events are now in the history books and one – the 2020 Men’s ACC Regular Season Championship – is documented with a banner hanging from the rafters of the Tucker Center. 

Muhammad Ali would not have liked Saturday, as the Seminoles knocked his Louisville women’s team out of the ACC Tournament but I bet he would have appreciated their resilience in those final moments as they stood toe-to-toe, returning punch for punch, in spite of injury.

Give head coach Sue Semrau credit. Her team struggled some this month but would not be denied in those final minutes. While they didn’t have time to celebrate, with an ACC Championship game to play on Sunday, their appearance is in the book.

Florida State basketball history would be re-written once again a couple of hours later when Leonard Hamilton’s team would clinch the 2020 regular season championship with a win over Boston College. 

After 28 seasons of ACC basketball, the Florida State administration didn’t wait a second longer than necessary to unfurl the 2020 ACC Championship banner to celebrate the men’s regular season championship. Anticipating the opportunity, Athletic Director David Coburn authorized the installation of a banner that would be unveiled if the moment presented itself.

A Seminole victory over a bad Boston College team was a good bet for Coburn. A win would assure the Seminoles of at least a share of the title with Louisville who had to play a red-hot Virginia. But in reality, athletics had to order that banner long before.

“It was a gamble,” Coburn said. “But it paid off.”

Boy, did it.

With about five minutes remaining in the Seminoles rout of Boston College, the student section began chanting “UVA, UVA,” which was a clear message Louisville had fallen, assuring the Seminoles could drop the banner – an undisputed championship — as soon as the seconds ticked off the clock. 

And what a celebration it was. And what a blessing it was at home, in the Tuck, where adoring fans could celebrate with Leonard Hamilton and his endearing team, who cut down the net. 

“It’s wonderful for Leonard,” Coburn said. “He’s really, really, excited and you don’t usually see him that excited.”

Jason and Tammy Franza drove 10 hours from North Carolina with their young sons to be there to celebrate with their team. 

As the celebration was raging on, he sent this group text: “What a day… So thankful we were here for it. Unbelievable. The boys are still jacked. NOLES for life.”

Recognizing the historic nature of the game, Dan Densmore, a former FSU swimmer (1989) and past editor of the Osceola (1990-93), made the five-hour drive from Palm Coast, Fla., with his father and daughter. It was not their first trip to see this team play this year.

“My dad, Sam, who is 81, was so glad to be able to see FSU cut down a net in person,” Densmore said. “My dad really loves Hamilton’s philosophy and how he holds all players accountable and 18 strong. My daughter, Ellie, who is 11, said the experience was the best she has ever seen at Florida State and my wife, Kristan – who watched it on television – said the best part for her was seeing Hamilton smile. I was with a former teammate who said, ‘Man, I’ve been missing the boat on FSU basketball.’ So the coolest thing for me was sharing the moment with my family and my teammate.”

As I was leaving the arena, I overheard one season ticket holder say to the group around him, “See you next year.”

To which they replied, “Absolutely.”

A program that rarely had more than one sold out game a year had five this year. Feel-good moments like these is what sells out games, attracts prospects and builds a program. 

Most of us have been around long enough to appreciate the Rocky Balboa moments for our men’s and women’s programs. The perennial ACC underdog, it is no secret the ACC added FSU to strengthen its football prowess.

A basketball conference contender? FSU?

Ha! 

When cows fly.

Never. 

Until Saturday.

Until FSU’s men and women upset the natural order of Tobacco Road. 

With the men’s game well in hand, I talked with former Seminole Basketball players Bobby and Blake Miles and Byron Wells, who were simply over the moon with what was about  to happen in the Tuck. You may remember Wells, the 6-11 forward, who hit the 3-point buzzer beater to upset Duke way back in 1993, in what was then called the Leon County Civic Center.

Wells tried to describe his excitement, not as the shooter but as a supporter. “I’ve been so excited today I can’t describe it,” he said. “I’m giddy.”  

The three, who played for either Joe Williams or Pat Kennedy, have been ardent vocal and financial supporters of what Hamilton has been building. Coach Hugh Durham, who took FSU to the National Championship game in 1972, was also seated in a courtside seat to celebrate the FSU basketball program, the culture Hamilton has created and the unique combination of players who define the word “team.”

While this team’s legacy will ultimately be defined by how deep they go in the NCAA tournament, the banner FSU had the foresight to unveil will forever validate this Leonard Hamilton team as the first team ever to win the ACC regular season championship.

And that’s history. 

Seminole Legacy Golf Club Dedication

A crowd of 300 or more were seated in gold folding chairs facing the 18th green for the dedication of the Seminole Legacy Golf Course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and his son Jackie. 

The moment was significant, historic for Florida State University and for the Nicklaus family who were seated in the audience.

 Jack, who played golf at Ohio State, addressed the crowd wearing a golf cap with the Seminole logo on the front, the number 35 on the side and the words “Go Nicky” on the back, a reference to grandson Nick O’Leary, who played tight end on the Seminoles 2013 Championship team.  

Afterwards, he addressed the media and spoke to the name Seminole Legacy Golf Club.

“Here at Florida we have a great legacy coming here,” Jack said. “One of my sons (Steve) was here. Jackie has had three of his kids here. My son, who came earlier to play football here, he has a son here. And then of course I have my grandson (Nick O’Leay) who played football here. We have had a lot of people come here and have a pretty good legacy to start with so we might as well put it on the golf course.”

The word legacy has another meaning as well.

“We have started a new thing we are calling Legacy and this is the first one we have done,” said Jack, who has designed more than 300 courses, 50 to 60 of which have been co-designs with his son Jackie. “Legacy is basically passing the baton from me to my son to put what knowledge we have learned over time on this property.”

I had the chance to play the course on Friday thanks to an invitation from Steve Brown, a Seminole Booster donor and member. Diana Azor played in our foursome. She and husband Jorge made a leadership gift to the course, commemorated on the 17th tee box. 

While the course is a redesign, Nicklaus did not scrape it flat and start over. He preserved almost every tree, re-routing fairways through openings. I found there to be enough similarity to elicit memories for returning alumni.

“We treated it as a raw piece of property and re-did a golf course on it,” Nicklaus said, noting they did not cut down many trees. 

“I think you are going to find it’s a good test of golf,” he said. “One of the two things I like to do with a golf course is to make it aesthetically pleasing. I think a lot of people really like to have some place that’s pretty but they also like to have something that has some good golf shots in it. If you have something that has good shots in it and is aesthetically pleasing, that’s a good combination.”

Since the course will be home to the Seminole golf team, Nicklaus stretched it to challenge the players with a low handicap but put in a number of more-manageable tee boxes, some from just 6,400 yards. 

“(Men’s golf coach) Trey Jones said every golf course they make, the players make it a miniature golf course, so we put 7,800 yards in it,” Nicklaus said, “but you still make it so the average golfer can play it with different sets of tees and things.”

Carrying a 17 handicap, I qualify as an average golfer, so I was very happy to play all the way forward. 

I found the course to be scenic and very playable from tee to green. The greens, which are a Nicklaus trademark, are undulating and just as challenging as advertised. While the greens are mostly guarded, Nicklaus did cut the non-collegiate golfers a break with some open faces. 

“It is a strong golf course,” Jackie explained. “We don’t have a lot of forced carries. You can bounce it around and don’t have to be able to hit flop shots onto the greens.”

“The greens have a lot of jazz in them,” Jackie said, which should make every round interesting.

Better golfers than I say the course plays eight strokes more difficult than the old course from the tee boxes farther back, and I believe it as you need binoculars to see the forward tees from the tips. 

But degree of difficulty is not what Jackie wants golfers to be talking about after their round. His goal is for them to say, “Gosh, I can’t wait to play this course again.”

Mission accomplished, Jackie. I’m ready.

Spring football observations

Just like the golf course, I knew my opinion of spring football practice would be influenced by my expectations and it was. I expected to see a highly organized and energetic practice, which we’ve told you Norvell brings to the Seminole football program. 

As the media was receiving credentials outside the practice field, you could hear the spirited warm ups inside. We expected it to be spirited. It always is, especially on a crisp morning. But Saturday sounded more-lively even than I’d expected, which is a tribute to the players as well as the coaches. 

The practice was very organized. The players were all engaged in drills on one practice field or the other. After a period of time working on one drill, everyone sprinted to the next field for the next drill. Like the Bowden era practices, there were very few people standing around doing nothing, except maybe Odell Haggins, who was seated in a golf cart while his knee replacement heals. 

As Pat Burnham and I had discussed in our pre-spring podcast, we expected the pace of practice to be slower the first week, as coaches teach players their drills, which may be different than what they know. For example, the coaches opened the practice with a number of ball protection drills I haven’t seen before. The coaches taught the drill and patiently corrected those who didn’t do it right. We expected the pace would improve throughout the spring. 

The pace will improve but honestly, the pace was good on day one. 

I found it interesting the first drills we saw were ball possession drills. I wonder if that’s routine for Norvell’s practices or a commentary on the recent past.

When we first walked into the practice and the players were stretching, we noticed the receivers, running backs and quarterbacks were holding footballs, working on ball protection, as staff members attempted to knock the balls free.

Who says men can’t multi-process?

When that period was over, the team sprinted to drills in different directions, breaking into a number of smaller work groups. The drills they were heading toward were ball possession drills as well. I counted at least three different types of drills, all ball possession. Even the linemen were in a segment, working on how to fall on a fumble (fetal position). 

I don’t know if Norvell will open every practice with ball possession, or if he typically allocates this much practice time to it, but there was more emphasis on it than what I remember seeing in the past. 

No, there was not as much music. There was some, including traditional FSU tunes and some crowd noise but not nearly as obtrusive. 

What I appreciated most was the activity. 

Too many times, since Bowden, I’ve seen practices where 22 players are busy doing something, while all the other players stand around and watch. On Saturday at least, the players were in smaller groups doing something all the time. There was little wasted time for anyone. 

Organization, energy, teaching, spirit was primarily what I went into the first practice looking forward to seeing and they did not disappoint. 

Norvell is just as active in spring practice as he was in Tour of Duty. Bob Ferrante and I thought it would be interesting to put a pedometer on he and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham to see how many miles per practice they log. They are both vocal. I saw Norvell addressing wide receiver stances and routes as well as quarterback decisions. He was actively involved and vocal in this first practice. 

Practice No. 2 is Tuesday and we’ll begin to bring you more observations on individual players, especially when they get into more competitive practice situations. 

It was a good weekend. And I have an idea, there will be more.

Comments

  1. Craig GilmanReply

    Great column, Jerry. Couldn’t be more proud of what Coach Ham and the men’s basketball program has accomplished this year. I know there’s still a lot more work to do this month but regardless of the tournament results the regular season body of work has been a great achievement from a team that most didn’t expect it from. So thankful my wife and I made the drive up from Clearwater to attend the game on Saturday. The post game celebration is something I’ll never forget.

    Thanks for the insight on the Seminole Legacy course – can’t wait for a chance to play there.

    Very happy to hear good things about the first spring football practice. The more I hear and see what’s happening with the program the more I believe a sleeping giant is showing signs of awakening from a 3 year slumber. Looking forward to hearing more from you and the rest of the Osceola team on the progress they are making.

    Craig

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