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Column: Youth, Mega camps help FSU make up for lost time

When Florida State announced Mike Norvell as its new head coach on December 8, 2019, the enthusiastic young coach checked all the boxes, save maybe one. 

The former Memphis head coach, who had been an assistant at Arizona State, Pittsburgh and Tulsa, didn’t appear to have established relationships with high school coaches in Florida. 

“I have always had great respect for the state, the quality of the players and the coaches that are here, so I was excited about the opportunity,” Norvell said. “But, no, there wasn’t a long history of recruiting the state as a primary area. We had spot recruited the state of Florida, had relationships with a handful of coaches, more specifically to the individuals we recruited, with more kids from Jacksonville, some from Fort Lauderdale who had come up (to Memphis), so I had some connections. But (Florida) wasn’t a top priority at the schools I had been.”

Eighteen, long, Covid-restricted months later, Norvell and his staff have finally had the opportunity to check that one box some worried over with a creative and ambitious series of football camps that have reached more than 7,500 kids and hundreds of high school coaches, mostly in Florida.  

The prevailing belief among decision makers was that it wouldn’t take long for the personable coach to establish relationships of trust, which are so vital to recruiting the talent-rich states of Florida and Georgia. 

And at first, it didn’t. 

Norvell hosted an array of socials for high school coaches and made a huge impression at the Florida Athletic Coaches Association annual meeting when he and his assistants piled into a couple of vans and made the five-hour road trip to Daytona Beach to talk football, something few college coaches other than Bobby Bowden had. 

Covid-19 and the NCAA’s ban on recruiting and travel put the breaks on that early momentum. Relationship building came to a screeching halt when the NCAA created a dead period for contact with high school players (9th to 12thgrade) in March 2020. That dead period was extended eight times during the year, finally being lifted on June 1, 2021.

It was a tough break for Norvell and for all first-year coaches tasked with jumpstarting their program.

“That would be a fair assessment,” Norvell said, laughing at the understatement. “We still tried to maximize the opportunity with calling coaches every day. We were trying to have that outreach. I was just trying to pick up the phone and call and introduce myself.”

Norvell estimates he was able to connect with 300 Florida coaches by phone, which is a start but a far cry from face-to-face contact. 

“If you are willing to invest the time, that’s how relationships are built,” he said.

For more than a year, Norvell and his staff were limited to phone calls and creative Zoom meetings and used that time to make plans for what they would do when they were free to have face-to-face contact once again.

Youth camps started the interaction

Florida State coaches needed something to jump-start the relationship-building process and make up for lost time.

Just as necessity was the mother of invention for folks across America during the pandemic, the need to build relationships quickly inspired Norvell and his staff to plan a unique, two-month series of camps to create face-to-face contact with kids, parents, coaches, alumni, boosters and former players. While the NCAA dead period for contact with high school coaches and prospects wouldn’t end until June 1, the rule did not preclude Norvell from hosting camps for kids in the second through eighth grade in May.

“We were sitting around and thinking about what we could do,” Norvell said. “There were so many things about what you can’t do. We had a dead period that we couldn’t have anybody on campus, our coaches couldn’t go off campus to high schools for recruiting, but we had time. That’s one of the things you rarely ever have in this profession and I wanted to utilize that time to make an impact. You saw that across the country there were camps going on, kids were able to go out and compete, so we wanted to focus on the group that we could make an impact, which was the second- to eighth-graders.”

The plan was to put the FSU brand in front of youth in May with the month of June reserved for contact with, and camps for, high school age prospects. The one exception was a youth camp in Tallahassee on Monday. 

Norvell and his staff held those youth camps in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Jacksonville, the Space Coast, Orlando, Kissimmee, Fort Myers-Naples, Tampa, Lakeland and Pensacola in May and Tallahassee on Monday.

“The (purpose) of the statewide youth camp tour was going out and getting into the community so the families and the communities know that they are important,” Norvell said. “We’ve been able to carry that over with the Mega Camps (9th to 12th grade), which provided a great opportunity for players and coaches within our state. It’s been wonderful seeing all those schools and the prospects from the state come to Tallahassee.”

Mega Camps, Team and Individual Camps and 7 on 7 

In addition to the youth camps, Norvell and his staff executed a number of other very-well attended camps for high school age players in June that included: 

  • A Mega Camp by position with 500 or more in each of four sessions
  • A Big Man team camp and a Big Man individual camp
  • Two Individual Camps
  • A Quarterback Camp
  • A Kicking Camp
  • A Seven-on-Seven team camp

Norvell estimates the combined camps attracted over 7,500 youth and high school age prospects. 

“Probably around 3,500 high schoolers who have been on campus through camps,” Norvell said. “That’s not even counting the unofficial (visitors) who have been through. It’s been special and it’s been a great month and we are not done yet. We have the rest of the week to finish up but it’s been a great, great turnout.”

While Norvell and his coaches could not have interaction with the high school coaches during the youth camps around the state, they were still able to make an impression. 

“We made sure that we called them and let them know we were going to be there but couldn’t have any interaction with them,” Norvell said. “We wanted them to know we were investing in their youth. I actually didn’t get to meet any of them when I was there but because of (us being there) a lot of them brought their teams here. They see that we care. It’s been great to get those coaches on campus, who are willing to make the sacrifice to bring their kids and have their teams see what’s going on at Florida State. I think a lot of that is because of what we were willing to do when we had our time.”

Benefits of the youth camps

Mike and Maria Norvell have an elementary-school-age daughter, Mila, so they know very well what the youth of Florida have experienced this year, which is one of the “whys” behind the youth football camps for elementary and middle school kids. 

“When you look at the adversity our state’s youth has had to go through, where a few seasons were taken away and so many activities (sacrificed). Some kids weren’t able to be in person in school, all the interactions they would normally have, they had to sacrifice,” Norvell said during registration for the final youth camp. “I am glad that we were able to provide a night, an experience, something that’s unique to where they get a sense of who we are and they get a chance to just come out and have fun playing the game they love.”  

Behind him were Tallahassee folks, registering their kids, including defensive coordinator Adam Fuller and other assistants, FSU VP of Advancement Tom Block, FSU Hall of Fame running back Dexter Carter, former center Dr. David Castillo, Jim Diamico, Pete Mabry and many more. Over the course of the high school camps, we saw a number of former FSU greats either coaching and/or watching their kids compete: Dave Roberts, Bill Ragans, Kyler Hall, Matt Frier, Todd Fordham and Lamont Green to name a few. And many others – Kez McCorvey, Kamari Charlton and Deiondre Clark just enjoying watching some football.

“Just to be able to have this youth experience for the kids of Tallahassee, for the region,” Norvell said. “To go throughout the state and have the opportunity to have over 3,000 kids have the opportunity to be coached by our staff, just all the wonderful interactions, but then to be able to finish out at home is going to be special. Our staff is excited about it. The community is excited about it. That’s what it is all about, giving back. We are going to make a positive impact and continue to spread the Seminole way.

“All coaches talk about wanting to make an impact, about the importance of the state. We’re excited we’ve been able to go out there and actually do something to have that positive interaction, even though its second-graders to eighth-graders, just to see the smiles on their faces, to see the work they’ve put in, the impact it’s been making. We’ve created a lot of Seminole fans out there. It’s been a real joy and a great service for our staff to be able to get into these communities and to be able to provide the opportunity.”

Norvell enjoyed the hectic schedule

“Seeing the faces, watching these kids, when they get instructed, and then trying to go out there and improve in each drill, to see the joy they have. The relationships that are made,” Norvell noted. “I’ve had the chance to have a picture made with every one of them. It’s a special experience. It’s something I’ll always remember. It’s unique, especially with this year and the dead period we had, that we had an opportunity. We tried to capitalize on it during the month of May. It’s very important not only for now but for the future.” 

The staff found rewards for the work it invested in producing the free camps around the state.

“One of the unforeseen benefits of the tour we went on with the youth camps was we got time to spend time together as a staff,” Norvell said. “(Time together) was limited in the last year of what we could do. It has been a real joy to see the staff come together, to continue to bond, to continue to grow. We have had some additions to the staff who have done an exceptional job and we continue to grow together.”

High school coaches, players appreciate the effort

Former FSU nose guard James Chaney, who is the head coach at Lehigh Senior High School, tipped his cap to Norvell for hosting the youth camps, which he said went a long way to turning kids into Seminole fans and building relationships with coaches.

“He did 15 youth camps all around the state of Florida — nobody else is doing that,” Chaney said. “Miami did youth camps in Dade County but he and his whole staff are travelling the state and running drills. That’s impeccable. He wins an Academy Award for that. I couldn’t be there because I am a coach with eight kids getting recruited but everyone who went had a good time, got pictures made with the head coach and interacted with the coaches.”

“I think he’s done a wonderful job of building relationships and giving a ton of kids opportunities they didn’t get last year because of the pandemic,” said Jarrod Hickman, head coach at Florida State University School. “One, to show what they have in front of college coaches from all over the country with the Mega Camp. And, two, a chance to get better, to get some coaching on a high level that they didn’t have the opportunity to get last year.”

Hickman’s players responded well, too. 

“Our kids came back and said they had a really good experience,” Hickman said. “They were very appreciative of the opportunity and all of my kids said it was a positive experience.”

Norvell on recruiting process

Many football camps, especially the segments devoted to the elementary and middle school kids, are coached by high school coaches or graduate assistants, with nary an assistant to be found, let alone the head coach. But not Norvell’s camps, where all 10 assistants plus the head coach were bouncing around, sweating, correcting mistakes and providing encouragement. They looked like they were having fun coaching the sport they love.

“I love it,” Norvell said. “I love meeting people. I love relationships. That’s what it is all about.”

Norvell knows football is the X’s and O’s as well as the Johnnies and Joes. 

“When it comes to football and being able to put together a team, to go out there and identify the right fit, to be able to see something in a young man that you know is going to bring value not only on the field but off the field is something I’ve got a passion for,” Norvell said. “I love the X’s and O’s of football. That’s something that has been great but being able to put the right people in place, whether it’s a coaching staff or individual prospects, that’s where I get a lot of joy, seeing that development throughout the process, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Focus on the home front

While the coaches were investing all this time in building relationships with high school coaches and prospects, they could not neglect their own players, many of whom participated in the camps. 

“We’ve been really active with them as well,” Norvell said. “Whether it’s with our position meetings that we’ve been able to do. We are meeting an hour a week. Our coaches are present in a lot of our workouts. Yes, recruiting is important with every minute we get but also continuing to build the relationships with our current players and helping develop them and prepare them for what is coming this fall. It all works together.”

Norvell knows that developing the players that have been entrusted to him by these high school coaches is the best way to win those coaches’ trust. Winning games doesn’t hurt either.

“I’m excited about where we are but we have a ton of work to do getting ready for fall camp ahead but you can see the growth,” Norvell said. “That’s something that is critical for us. They are investing at a high level and looking forward to seeing what the future holds.”

Ongoing Investment

While the format of the camps may change in coming years, the effort will not.

“Yeah, absolutely. It’s going to be a continuous process,” Norvell said of relationship building. “I’ve been married for 16 years and every day I’m trying to continue to build that relationship so it’s not a one-time event. It’s a continued investment showing these coaches, their communities and their programs matter to us. And then when (their kid) gets here, we’re going to develop them in every area, on the field, off the field, helping them continue on their journey to become the men they’re going to become.”

Former defensive ends coach Jim Gladden, who worked 30 years under Bobby Bowden, had this to say about the Mike Norvell camps: “Goodwill was one of Coach Bowden’s points of emphasis. Goodwill with high school coaches was always a point of emphasis. He always wanted us to treat high school coaches with the utmost respect.”

In the 40 years I’ve covered Florida State football, there’s never been a more comprehensive effort to get in front of kids and coaches than what we’ve seen in the last 60 days. And I haven’t seen anyone else do it better either. It is particularly gratifying to see the emphasis being placed on building relationships. 

“I told you at the beginning, we are not going to waste a moment and I don’t think there have been many moments that have gone by without us having kids here or the camp circuit we’ve been on,” Norvell said. “It has been wonderful. We’ve had a great reception. As we go through this recruiting process and the developmental process with our current players, we are trying to maximize every day. It’s been a fun month, an exhausting month would probably be about right, but one that we were looking forward to and placed emphasis on.”

The Seminoles received several commitments following the camp, with their 2022 class rising into the prestigious top 10 in the nation, and three more committing to the 2023 class.  

Only time will tell what the long-term return on this investment will be but the post-Covid camps were certainly well received and appreciated by young football players and high school coaches itching to get back into cleats and competition. 

And these camps went a long way to checking one more box on Mike Norvell’s growing resume.