Dania Beach, Fla. — For a moment, a split second, in fact, the weight of a College Playoff committee's judgment will catch the rest of Florida State's team in what seems like an impenetrable wall of hope and excitement. That means Seminoles head coach Mike Norvell may finally collapse.
In Video from the team's watch party Following the team's most controversial decision in its 10-year history Dec. 3, televised on national television, Norwell sits a few feet away at center frame surrounded by his players, including injured QB Jordan Travis. The announcement has been made. Screams echo across the room. Travis covers his face with a towel. The players turn on each other in disbelief. Norwell is still there.
He taps his fingertips together. He lowers his head. It is immediately apparent that he is completely unprepared for this eventuality, and it is not difficult to imagine a battle of wills in his mind between his natural response and measured determination. Four years of business leading this project.
It was the moment to come — the outburst, the fury, the fury, the flurry of epithets directed at a far-flung group. Led Florida State to 19 straight wins and an undefeated season.
But Norwell holds his own.
He didn't say anything. He turns and looks at his soldiers. He is still and quiet for almost 10 seconds.
Then he stands up and addresses his soldiers.
“It was the most challenging two weeks of training I've ever had,” Norwell would say 17 days later, the emotion still raw in his voice.
After that moment the challenge got bigger. Nearly two dozen key contributors have left this season, entered the transfer portal or been sidelined by injury. Florida State won't be playing for the national championship, but will play the two-time defending champs with a third-string QB and several new faces in the Capital One Orange Bowl at Georgia (4 p.m. ET on ESPN). Attack skill levels. And Florida State will take the next step — the final step of the 2023 season — knowing the ethics that underpinned this year's 12-0 season were shattered in an instant.
Yet for those at Florida State, the motivation to move forward came in those 10 seconds of silence, when Norvell decided to face the most difficult moment of his coaching career not with anger, but with determination.
After the lowest point of his coaching career, Norvell doubles down on what he's always taught.
“I've never seen Mike blink,” defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said.
He is still angry. He was always angry, he said.
But before FSU's title hopes were dashed, Norvell said each day a raucous “Good morning!” And, more often than not, ended it that way — a tongue-in-cheek “Good morning!” At 11 p.m., a joke to explain how consistent he is.
So even though he still worries about the committee's decision, every new day at FSU begins the same way.
“You can say 'Good morning!' Because he's the same Coach Norvell every day,” linebacker Galen DeLoach said. “He is, 365 days a year.”
Other nuances of Norwell's experience over the past few years at Florida State have been repeated.
There's the mantra “CLIMB” — short for commitment, the little things, seriousness, determination, brotherhood — which is emblazoned on a photo of a mountain peak that hangs in his office. It's about growth and progress, and progress today is more important than where you ended up yesterday.
There's the tagline he's used all season — “For years, really,” offensive lineman Maurice Smith said — “We need everything we've got.” In Florida State's early days, despite evidence to the contrary on the field, it was asserted that Florida State was good enough to win, but that has evolved as the Seminoles have always risen in their journey. It serves as a badge to convince the guys inside the locker room that they are good enough and to emphasize to the outside world that something essential is being overlooked.
There's an old trope about controlling what you can control. There isn't a coach in the country who doesn't say that, but Norvell lives it. He didn't rage against the Covid restrictions that prevented him from meeting with his team for most of his first seven months on the job, and he didn't throw up his hands in disgust when FSU threw a coverage on a Hail Mary. Lost to FCS Jacksonville State and even laughed off the viral “Fire Mike Norvell” social media campaign after he lost Deion Sanders and top recruit Travis Hunter to Jackson State.
That was his silence after the committee's announcement. It's as close as he gets to letting his emotions get the better of him, but if he did, it would be evidence that something beyond his reach might still be dictating his actions, and he refuses to let that happen.
“The opportunity is there, and it provides the choice,” Norvell said. “We keep hammering with our guys through this trip, this could be a defining moment for you. Focus on your progress and being better than you were. It's difficult. A lot of them are injured. But I'm sure we're going to continue to build from our experiences.”
Except that Norvell has been preaching the same thing every day all season, and it seems like a convenient gimmick to bolster a wounded team after its season's nadir.
“Leadership is not about delivering a speech,” Norwell said. “It's about what you do on the field and in the meeting rooms and how you approach every day. You can talk the talk, but if your actions don't back it up, no one's going to listen.”
While Braden Fiske He first arrived at Florida State last spring, a highly regarded but unproven transfer from Western Michigan, who nursed an injury and was unable to fully practice. But every day before practice, his head coach would sprint the length of the field at FSU's indoor facility. Occasionally joined by other players, Norvell — 20 years their senior — would race into the end zone. Fiske thought he'd give it a try.
“Fiske can run, man,” receiver Keon Coleman said. “He's got these little legs, and it's funny.”
If Fiske's sprints were good for laughs, they were also head-scratching. It was during those runs that those around FSU realized they might have a star in Fiske. But that's when Fiske realized just how different his coach really was at Florida State.
“He never misses a race,” Fiske said. “I lose a couple every now and then depending on how the hamstrings feel, but he never misses a race, that's him and the coach.”
Fiske's racing days are over, he said. Now he's got a boot on his leg as he prepares for Saturday's Orange Bowl. But he's still playing and still driven to win, and that's thanks to his coach.
“You can't be without motivation [Norvell] walking through the building,” Fiske said. “People on the outside only see snippets, but if you're in and around the program every day, it's different. Being with a man like Coach Norvell is different. When I first got here, I thought he was going to explode for sure. That will never happen. He is the same man every day no matter what happens in his life or his plans. That's why we go where we go.”
It's hard to know exactly what this game means for Florida State right now. Is this the final chapter of the magical season of 2023? Is this the first opportunity to turn the group's decision and move on to something new? Is it some strange purgatory with no end or beginning?
Oddsmakers certainly don't think Florida State has much of a chance to win. Norvell and AD Michael Alford downplayed any interest in celebrating an actual championship despite the Seminoles' victory in the Orange Bowl. Either way, when the calendar turns to 2024, Norwell will survey what's left of his roster and see little resemblance to the team that marched off the field in Charlotte with the ACC title, and promises they've done enough to earn something. .
“That's the worst part of it [watch party] “This team — the players, the coaches, the staff — we're all going to be together in one organization,” Fiske said.
That was the real significance of Norwell's sobriety at the time. The world will remember the sheer disappointment and sadness on the faces of every player in the room. Tweet by Travis In that he wanted to get hurt sooner, the outrage from FSU officials was passed over.
But what Norwell hopes the men in that room remember is that in one of their last moments together as a team, their head coach was the same guy he was in every other moment they were together.
“We're still at the beginning of where we're going,” Norvell said. “There are still great days ahead for this program. It still hasn't given back to the guys who last played at Florida State, but we're excited for our opportunity at the end.
“There are times in life when things don't go your way. You don't always get rewarded for what you've earned. But you control your response — what you do with it, the attitude you bring — that's going to define your identity.”